So the story goes that in the two decades before Reagan’s election, the conservative movement spent its time in the electoral wilderness laying the intellectual and institutional groundwork for vengeance—that is, for a resurgent attack on the New Deal. When Reagan came to power, he was able to draw on the conservative movement’s plans and institutions, and he began to turn their ideas into actual policies.
What did the American left do during its equivalent decades in the wilderness? What did it do beginning in the 1980s, as it became increasingly clear that the American public was not on its side?
Rather than preparing the groundwork for a return to power, many of the members of the intellectual left, especially those within academia, viewed “power” itself with hostility and suspicion. Professors and students who possessed the leisure and training to participate in an ideological reformation of the American left did not do so.
Instead, they actively rejected engagement with electoral politics and committed themselves to intellectual projects that eventually came to be grouped under the banner of “theory.” This was not “political theory” as traditionally understood, not a new episode in the conversation stretching from Aristotle to Machiavelli to Rawls and Nozick. Rather, “theory” as practiced by the academic left during the Reagan era largely consisted of a variety of speculative philosophical projects with their roots in the French left’s response to German thinkers like Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Heidegger. (Much of Derrida’s mid-career work, for example, can be seen as a French leftist synthesis of the linguistic structuralism of Saussure with Heidegger’s idea that human finitude makes meaning possible. Much of Foucault’s work derives from Nietzsche’s concept of “geneology.” And so on. )
The primary focus of the academic left since the 1980s has been relentless, jargon-intensive critique of existing social power relations, such as the relationship between man and woman, straight and gay, white and black, or colonizer and colonized. These critiques have been valuable in reshaping widely held cultural assumptions about marginalized groups. There is no doubt that they played an important role in advancing the goals of the women’s rights and gay rights movements.
For several reasons, however, the critiques made by the academic left during the Reagan era failed to offer an effective challenge to the economic presuppositions of that era, much less to the electoral outcomes that effectively allowed the conservative movement to define American foreign and domestic policies for three decades.