The author argues that the Left wing in America sees the sins of America's past poisoning hope for the future, and challenges the "lost" generation of the Left to understand the role it might play in the tradition of democratic intellectual labour that started with writers like Walt Whitman and John Dewey. The book traces the source of the debilitating mentality of shame in the Left of how national pride and American patriotism come to seem an endorsement of atrocites - from slavery to the slaughter of Native Americans, from the felling of ancient forests to the Vietnam War. At the centre of this history is the conflict between the Old Left and the New that arose during the Vietnam War era. The author describes how the paradoxical victory of the antiwar movement, ushering in the Nixon years, encouraged a disillusioned generation of intellectuals to pursue "High Theory" at the expense of considering the place of ideas in our common life. He sees a retreat from secularism and pragmatism, and decries the tendency of the heirs of the New Left to theorize about the United States from a distance instead of participating in the civic work of shaping our national future.
Richard Rorty looks to redress the imbalance in American cultural life by rallying those on the Left to the civic engagement and inspiration needed for "achieving our country".