Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Reforming Reformism

by Jeff Polet

Back in October we at the Ford Leadership Forum partnered with Baylor University to host an event on fragility and resilience. These terms are very much in vogue these days, as is the profligate use of the word “trauma.” One can’t help but find it strange that the word trauma, which had largely been reserved for the post-war experiences of combat veterans, has now been extended to describe experiences of largely coddled college students. Granted, there is such a thing as genuine trauma, but I doubt very much that getting a “C” on a paper or being exposed to ideas you disagree with qualifies as such. At the event, our panelists Jean Twenge and Curt Thompson also expressed skepticism at the fact that so many people felt competent to make the diagnosis and were confident in its application. The use of terms such as “trauma” and “victim” are largely conversation-stoppers, because if someone is genuinely traumatized or suffering, about the worst thing you can do is make fun of that person. Knowing this, people wanting to create an advantage for themselves will quickly adopt these usages.

The respondent is always at a disadvantage, typically not knowing enough about the claimant to cast aspersions. Because it’s to someone’s moral and political advantage to claim victimhood, the temptation to do so is irresistible.

Words typically don’t lose their meaning through underuse, but through over-application. Definitions have to be broad enough to cover every iteration of the thing being defined, but narrow enough to exclude instances that don’t fit. Characterizing the difficulties and disappointments and frustrations of life as “trauma” serves neither the word nor the person to whom it is being applied. As I wrote in another context:

…when we tell students they are unsafe, they internalize the claim and come to believe that the world is a hazardous place where people are constantly out to get them. As a result, students become increasingly fragile and unable to deal with the friction and disappointment of social life. We would do well to remind them that a useful life is marked by struggle, hardship, failure, difficulty, and pain. We can try to insulate ourselves from all that, but we would become genuine good-for-nothings in the process.


Students take their cues from those in authority, those whom they look up to and trust. If we go about our business and do our jobs, the students will follow. But if we keep sending them messages that they ought to be upset and crying, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are upset and crying. We might even like these tears if they create an opportunity for us to demonstrate publicly our [own] sensitivity and virtue. Matters are made worse when we exaggerate the nature of both the problem and the student’s reactions to it. Heterodox ideas don’t make people “unsafe.” Someone’s disagreement with a policy isn’t “harmful.” Normal, psychologically healthy people don’t get frightened when someone disagrees with them. The people in authority don’t really believe that, either. They use these words not because they accurately describe anything but because they are psychological weapons to silence their opponents. It’s cynical. 

I’m not telling anyone anything they don’t already know when I point out that universities have become hotbeds of cultural leftism. We typically take the divide between left and right to be the primary divide in America, and this obscures for us the divisions within the left and the right. As an undergraduate I became interested in the writings of Richard Rorty, at the time America’s most well-known philosopher (a term he probably wouldn’t have applied to himself) and incisive social critic. His Marxism and progressivism were less objectionable to me than his general take on the philosophical enterprise, but I found his writing engaging. In my own classes I would assign his essays, but also his book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th Century America, published in 1998. There, Rorty carefully distinguished between the “reformist left” with its focus on economics, fairness, action, organization, and equal opportunity, which he contrasted to the “cultural left” with its focus on victimization, suspicion, theory, and protest. The reformist left takes its cue from its underlying enthusiasm for the project of American democracy, arguing that while we have not yet “achieved” the promise of American life, it remains the goal for legislative and political action.

Meanwhile, the cultural left is primarily an academic phenomenon.

Leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led [some] to remark that in the United States the term ‘cultural studies’ means ‘victim studies.’ [This] choice of phrase has been resented, but [it makes] a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather, to do something for people who have been humiliated – to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable… Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies or trailer-park studies because these people are not ‘other’ in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely economic selfishness…

Because it is an academic phenomenon, the cultural left pays scant attention to what will actually work in the world — that is, it has no practical political platform — nor to what will be acceptable to the general public. Thus they tend to regard the public as a bunch of rubes and bigots who refuse to be governed by superiors who have no plan of governing.

The cultural Left has contributed to the formation of this politically useless unconscious not only by adopting “power” as the name of an invisible, ubiquitous, and malevolent presence, but by adopting ideals which nobody is yet able to imagine being actualized. … The cultural Left has a vision of an America in which the white patriarchs have stopped voting and have left all the voting to be done by members of previously victimized groups, people who have somehow come into possession of more foresight and imagination than the selfish suburbanites. These formerly oppressed and newly powerful people are expected to be as angelic as the straight white males were diabolical. If I shared this expectation, I too would want to live under this new dispensation. Since I see no reason to share it, I think that the left should get back into the business of piecemeal reform within the framework of a market economy. This was the business the American Left was in during the first two-thirds of the century.

If it is in fact the case (and I believe it is) that the “cultural left” has largely replaced the “reformist left,” then the prospects for political negotiation and compromise with the right are slim, precisely because the cultural left has no meaningful agenda of political action and reform. What it substitutes are series of pieties and bromides (or attacks on “systems”) that others are supposed to accept on their face, just as we were supposed to believe that defunding the police or dismantling capitalism were the best ways to ensure that black lives matter, even though no evidence or argument was advanced to defend the claim. The next decade of American politics may well hinge on whether the reformist left can regain control of parties and other institutions.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What other words can you think of that have lost their meaning through overuse?
  2. How have the differences between the reformist and cultural left changed the politics of the Democratic Party? How have those changes resonated in our politics?
  3. What do you think Rorty means when he says our country is not yet achieved? What would an achieved country look like?

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