We Don’t Need No Stinking Thought Leaders

Despite Daniel Drezner’s arguments to the contrary, now is not the “worst of times” for public intellectuals, Jonathan Marks argues.

July 11, 2017

Professors are only human, so many of us want to be Daniel Drezner.

Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, is a successful academic. A midcareer scholar, he has published more peer-reviewed work than most political scientists will in a lifetime. But he also boasts more than 80,000 Twitter followers, contributes to The Washington Post and, according to the dust jacket of his latest effort, The Ideas Industry, has “one of the most heavily trafficked blogs” in academics.

He may not be in the very top tier of intellectuals who write for a wider audience, but he has “partaken in snack-filled green rooms, business class lounges and swanky conferences in exotic locales.” He has “spoken at conferences run by financial firms” and “even offered some pro-bono advice to Google.”

The Ideas Industry is a wide-ranging book about how the marketplace of ideas has changed, especially but not only in Drezner’s area, foreign affairs. But Drezner devotes special attention to how colleges and universities are now situated in that marketplace. The short answer: we’re in bad shape.

We are in bad shape partly, he argues, because when academics intervene in the marketplace of ideas, they usually do so as “traditional public intellectuals, ready to explain why some new policy idea is unlikely to work,” rather than as “thought leaders,” who tend to have “a positive idea for change and the conviction that they can make a difference.” But Drezner thinks, for reasons I will name later, that it is now “the best of times for thought leaders” and “the worst of times for public intellectuals.”

I suspect Drezner is tweaking us with “thought leaders,” a fad term we highbrows might be inclined to dismiss. But in defining thought leaders as “creators” and public intellectuals as “critics,” Drezner prepares the ground for a “symbiosis,” in which evangelical thought leaders, perhaps too boldly, propose new ideas, while public intellectuals and the academics who think like them “analyze and criticize thought leaders.” Academics willing to be public intellectuals are, according to Drezner, “needed more than ever” in the marketplace of ideas.

But we should pause a little longer at the distinction between thought leaders and public intellectuals. In Drezner’s idiosyncratic understanding, a thought leader and a public intellectual together make up one healthy intellectual, the former representing the bold, creative side without which ideas are never devised and proposed, the latter representing the careful, critical side, without which ideas are never tested and refined. In a handy chart, Drezner explains that thought leaders are optimists, inductive reasoners and prioritizers of experience, whereas public intellectuals are pessimists, deductive reasoners and prioritizers of expertise. Drezner ask that we not push this “binary distinction too hard,” since it is merely a way of clarifying “our understanding of the modern marketplace of ideas.” We will not, then, push it too hard. But it seems all but made up.

Russell Jacoby, who put the term “public intellectual” into wide circulation, used it simply to describe “writers and thinkers who address a general and educated audience.” I doubt that it is illuminating, even as a starting point, to describe the diverse writers and thinkers Jacoby has in mind -- like Jane Jacobs, Gore Vidal and Norman Podhoretz -- as more deductive than inductive, or more prioritizers of expertise than experience. Yet those writers are surely “traditional public intellectuals” in Drezner’s terms.

More importantly, thought leaders are only sometimes, and then incidentally, intellectuals. Look up “thought leader” on Amazon. When I did that, my first hit was Ready to Be a Thought Leader? How to Increase Your Influence, Impact and Success. The third was Personal Branding and Reputation Management: How to Become an Influencer, Thought Leader or a Celebrity in Your Niche. Whereas a public intellectual must be devoted to the life of the mind, a thought leader need only have a thought to market.

And whereas there is tension between the public intellectual as a devotee of ideas and the public intellectual as an “influencer,” since the work of influencing is wont to distract from and distort ideas, that tension dissolves in the case of a thought leader for whom influencing is the point. Drezner is free to define thought leader however he likes, but if, as he admits, “thought leaders are mocked more widely than public intellectuals,” it is presumably because people suspect they are putting us on, not because they are optimistic and inductive.

In fairness, Drezner acknowledges that thought leaders hunt for something other than new truths. Those who most successfully “hawk their wares” and build “their own brands” can share space “previously reserved for moguls, and celebrities, and athletes.” And he discusses the pitfalls of intellectual celebrity. But he seems less, if at all, concerned that the very idea of thought leadership is at odds with the very idea of being an intellectual. A thought leader is not so much the bold, positive sibling of the cautious, negative public intellectual as not an intellectual at all. If academics are reluctant to enter into the symbiotic relationship with thought leaders that Drezner proposes, it is probably less because they cannot adjust to changing times than because thought leaders are nothing like them.

This reluctance is not solely about thought leadership. As Drezner points out, academics are also reluctant to become public intellectuals. They “look to the social world as something to be studied, to be researched, to be analyzed, even to be opined -- but not to be acted upon.” The professoriate traditionally tries to keep itself “removed from politics.” Drezner thinks that this stance bothers critics, who find it “elitist,” and “potential benefactors,” who think it a “surrender to inaction.”

But there are sound reasons for academics to avoid politics. Perhaps academic discourse is less reasonable than advertised, but political discourse barely has room for reason. Alexander Hamilton wrote that in “cases of great national discussion,” we can expect that “a torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose,” a point he demonstrates by accusing his opponents of conspiring, out of self-interest or “perverted ambition,” to dismember the country. Not only, contrary to Drezner’s argument, might professors hope to preserve their credibility by keeping away from politics, but they also might worry that the habits of politics, in which one does one’s best to distract attention from rather than confront the opposition’s best arguments, will leak onto their campuses.

Meanwhile, if academicians choose to engage in public debate, it seems to me that they are in better shape than Drezner supposes. Drezner thinks that trust in universities, and indeed, in all establishments other than the military, has declined. He thinks that in our politically polarized times, colleges and universities are despised by many because they are perceived, not wrongly, as tilted to the left. And he thinks because of growing inequality, universities had better be mindful of what the new class of plutocrats wants, which is “direct impact” and confidence, not detachment and question marks. These three long-term trends -- decline in trust in prestigious institutions, polarization and growing economic inequality -- are the same trends that, Drezner argues, have benefited thought leaders and harmed public intellectuals.

These arguments seem exaggerated to me. Trust in universities has probably declined, but perhaps not much. Drezner draws on the General Social Survey to show that “confidence in institutions associated with learning and knowledge” dropped from a peak of around 50 percent in 1974 to an average of 31 percent in 2012. But if we start in 1975 instead of 1974, we find that confidence dropped less impressively, from about 36 percent to 31 percent. Meanwhile the Harris Poll, which measures confidence in the leaders of “major educational institutions, such as colleges and universities,” finds a similarly modest shift from 37 percent having a “great deal of confidence” in 1971 to 30 percent in 2012. Confidence is likely at least as high now as it was 20 years ago, when it stood at 27 percent. Finally, that inequality has increased does not mean that benefactors have grown more uniform in their preferences.

The overwhelming new fact of our time, which Drezner notes but does not weigh as heavily as declining trust, and increasing polarization and inequality, is the explosion in demand for and supply of intellectual content, and the ability of seekers of nearly any kind of content to find it. Not long ago, I was listening to Unorthodox, a superb Jewish news and culture podcast in a well-populated field. The hosts were interviewing Molly Yeh, who has hit it big with her blog about food, and being an Asian-Jewish Juilliard graduate percussionist transplanted from Brooklyn to a farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border. Lesson: it is less necessary now than it ever was to fit a particular mold to find an audience for one’s ideas.

In that sense, we can cheer with Drezner that at least part of the world outside the university, far from being an intellectual desert, is intellectually vibrant. But if we academics choose to try to make our way in that part of the world we need not shoot for the role of the optimistic thought leader’s crabby counterpart. We can have our own show.


Jonathan Marks is professor and chair of politics at Ursinus College.


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