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The decline of public intellectuals

Although their roles are similar, thought leaders and public intellectuals remain two distinct entities. Public intellectuals’ training gives them the authority to discuss a wide range of issues; thought leaders’ enthusiasm gives them an audience who will listen to their ideas.

Public distrust in authority figures has led to a significant rise in “thought leaders”. While this change in the marketplace of ideas has increased diversity in creative thinking, it builds obstacles for the public intellectuals trying to filter out the bad from the good.

In the following excerpt from The Ideas Industry, Daniel Drezner discusses the critical role of public intellectuals in a marketplace driven by thought leaders.

We are at a curious moment in the marketplace of ideas. It is the best of times for thought leaders. It is the worst of times for public intellectuals. It is the most disorienting of times for everyone else.

By “marketplace of ideas,” I mean the array of intellectual outputs and opinions and the extent to which policymakers and publics embrace those ideas. When a scholar publishes a book explaining why American foreign policy needs a rethink, when a think tank issues a report evaluating some aspect of statecraft, when a global brand strategist gives a TED talk about how the country’s climate change policy should be managed like a hedge fund, they will probably find their way into the marketplace of ideas.

When I refer to “public intellectuals,” I mean experts who are versed and trained enough to be able to comment on a wide range of public policy issues. The public intellectual serves a vital purpose in democratic discourse: exposing shibboleths masquerading as accepted wisdom. Public intellectuals are critics, and critiquing those who hawk bad policy wares is a necessary function in a democracy. When public intellectuals lose their prestige, it becomes that much easier for politicians or charlatans to advance an idea into the public consciousness, regardless of its intrinsic merits, through sheer, unflagging will.

The democratization of the marketplace of ideas has made it much harder for traditional public intellectuals to argue from authority.

The provenance of the term “thought leader” is far more recent than “public intellectual”. Nevertheless, a quick glance at Google Trends reveals that by 2012, the former term had eclipsed the latter in terms of usage. How is a thought leader distinct from a public intellectual? A thought leader is an intellectual evangelist. Thought leaders develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot. Both public intellectuals and thought leaders engage in acts of intellectual creation, but their style and purpose are different.

Public intellectuals know enough about many things to be able to point out intellectual charlatans. Thought leaders know one big thing and believe that their important idea will change the world.

What is happening is that the marketplace of ideas has turned into the Ideas Industry. The twenty-first century public sphere is bigger, louder, and more lucrative than ever before. A surge of high-level panels, conference circuits, and speaker confabs allows intellectuals to mix with other members of the political, economic, and cultural elite in a way that would have been inconceivable a half century ago.

This surge in demand has benefited the entire intellectual class, but there has been another interesting effect. The Ideas Industry now rewards thought leaders far more than public intellectuals. This is due to three interlocking trends that configure the modern marketplace of ideas: the erosion of trust in authority, the polarization of American politics, and the dramatic increase in economic inequality.

There has been a slow-motion erosion of trust in prestigious institutions and professions for the past half century. After a post-9/11 spike in trust, the rest of the twenty-first century has witnessed a steady decline of trust in authority—and authority figures. The democratization of the marketplace of ideas has made it much harder for traditional public intellectuals to argue from authority. This allows for new concepts to emerge, but also makes it more difficult to expose bad ideas.

As America’s elite has gotten richer and richer, they can afford to do anything they want.

The polarization of American society—and American political institutions—is another phenomenon affecting the marketplace of ideas. The creation of parallel, segmented audiences that will support ideologically pure intellectuals has led to the emergence of new kinds of thought leaders. They can thrive in an information ecosystem devoid of contrary points of view.

The most important trend, however, has been the growth in economic inequality and the increasing importance of wealthy benefactors as a force in the marketplace of ideas. As America’s elite has gotten richer and richer, they can afford to do anything they want. A century ago, America’s plutocrats converted their wealth into university endowments, think tanks, or philanthropic foundations. Today’s wealthy set up their own intellectual salons and publishing platformsand they are not hands-off about the intellectual output of their namesakes. Thought leaders will have an advantage over public intellectuals in pushing ideas that resonate with plutocrats.

There is a great deal of good that can come from the twenty-first-century Ideas Industry. It is surely noteworthy that a strong demand has emerged for new ideas and vibrant ways of thinking about the world. But like any revolution, there are winners and there are losers. These trends also handicap more traditional purveyors of ideas housed in universities or think tanks. Public intellectuals rely more on sources of funding that have either plateaued or abated. Some of these institutions have not adapted as quickly to the new ecosystem of ideas, even though some individuals housed within these institutions have. The resultlike previous revolutions in agriculture and manufacturing—is a massive churn in the intellectual class.

What is needed is a symbiosis. The cure for what ails the Ideas Industry is not a return to more powerful gatekeepers—it is more discord and more debate. Indeed, public intellectuals are now needed more than ever. They serve a new and vital purpose. They need to analyze and criticize popular thought leaders. Public intellectuals are necessary to filter the quality thinkers from the charlatans.

Featured image credit: “classroom-lecture-hall-college” by Wokandapix. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    In the past, most people were silenced, people such as myself. But it isn’t just that more people have access to being heard today. People also have more access to information and education than ever before. There simply are more smart educated people than there once was. Along with higher rates of high school graduation and college degrees, the average IQ has jumped up 20 points these past generations.

    Yes, there are more thought leaders today. But there are also more public intellectuals. And generally there is simply more people involved in public debate. That is the only hope that we might one day have a functioning democracy. That is far from public intellectuals being in decline. It’s just that people don’t automatically bow down to them. When I think a public intellectual is wrong, I’ve challenged them and have done so with knowledge, even though I lack higher education. I’m more widely read than the average public intellectual, as understandably most public intellectuals have a field of expertise that has allowed them to gain public attention.

    Is the world a worse place for there now being people who will force public intellectuals to be accountable and won’t let them slip past based solely on their claims of authority? This is a good thing and the author begrudgingly agrees to an extent, although one can sense that he is nostalgic for an earlier time when he imagines public intellectuals were respected. I’d point out that it wasn’t only the average person who was silenced in the past. Even most intellectuals and aspiring public intellectuals were silenced while a few public intellectuals dominated nearly all public debate, not always the cream of the crop rising to the top. There is no better time in all of history than right now to be a public intellectual or be involved in public debate in any manner.

    Besides, anyone who thinks bad ideas didn’t flourish in the past is utterly clueless about history. And when a public intellectual makes statements to that effect, he should be confronted about it. The role of the public intellectual hasn’t changed. And don’t for a moment think that public intellectuals never spread bad ideas. In fact, bad ideas would rarely become popular if not for public intellectuals. This is because there is no clear distinction between a public intellectual and a thought leader.

    To be fair, he does make a good point about think tanks. There is big money promoting bad ideas. And it is hard for public intellectuals to fight against that. And he is right that the only solution is “is more discord and more debate.” But also more demand for honesty and integrity, especially from public intellectuals, whether working for think tanks or not (unfortunately, even scientists are increasingly getting their funding from corporations and corporate-related organizations). When a bad idea gets spread by a public intellectual, which happens on a regular basis, it gives that bad idea legitimacy. That is more dangerous than a thousand thought leaders spouting bullshit.

    More than anything, what we need is more common people who are well read and well informed to be involved in public debate. Their voices need to be promoted, as they often have perspectives that are lacking among the formally educated. For example, if we want to have a debate about poverty, the voices that are most important are the poor who have genuine insights to add, insights that most in the economically comfortable intellectual class would likely never consider.

  2. S. Zafar Iqbal

    A cogent analysis that very well defines the terms the “market place of ideas”, “public intellectuals”, and “thought leaders” to the perplexed like me. These concepts are made very clear, and a layman like me can now understand what their roles and significance is in, what the learned author describes, as the “ideas industry” of our times.
    An excellent article. It whets my appetite to learn more. I’ll certainly buy the book.
    Thank you Dr. Drezner. Thank you OUP.
    S Zafar Iqbal

  3. Patrice Ayme

    To have a public intellectual, one needs an intellectual who has something to say, that is something different from what anybody else says, but also, one needs a public.

    How many people dare think differently on campuses in these times of ruling Political Correctness. Political Correctness means people are thinking with their hearts, not their brains. Brains are not needed anymore, just marketing potential.

    True, in theory, the Internet provides with a worldwide public, but search engines, to start with, are manipulated (my site used to be found immediately with Bing; my site grew in popularity, but disappeared from Bing; only the vicious will imagine that this is related to vibrant critiques I made of the founders of the company behind Bing… I had the same problem with Yahoo, overnight, a decade ago: I suddenly vanished from the search engine overnight).

    In practice the access to the public, hence wealth, power, survival, renow is controlled by the obsequious servants of the world’s richest people. (Many art directors, writers, etc. for the mainstream media blocked me in the last year, because I was for Sanders, not Clinton: they were employed by plutocrats devoted to their puppet, so they quickly went on a campaign of invectives which they justified by saying “I had to be stopped”)

    Absolute money corrupts absolutely. The media, in the most general sense of the term, is owned, controlled or influenced by plutocrats. The most respected newspapers in the USA have owners or most important shareholders which never get criticized therein (even if one is the richest Mexican). In a discrete conspiracy which did not need to be put into so many words, these arrangements are carried among competitors, who are, fundamentally, fellow plutocrats. It is as if plutocrats gave public service to plutocracy by controlling the world’s media.
    “Public forums”, “Think Tanks”, top “universities” are all under the control of foundations, which are mostly tax free devices for the world’s wealthiest heirs (I engaged some).

    Thus thinkers who want to access renow, and thus enough power to feed themselves, in style, travelling around to conferences, will favor the sort of thoughts that those with most of the money in the world want to hear. All right, Medvedev or Putin in Russia may be worse, but they are simply more of the same (this time with direct, rather than indirect, control on nukes: the assistant National Security Adviser in the USA has no degree beyond college, but was paid a fortune at Goldman Sachs, just because of her public relation role with politicians, and now sits at the center of power, one can only suspect, to inform her true bosses).

    Paradoxically, as the ice caps melt, resources get exhausted, inequality becomes unheard of previously, and dictators get access to nukes, brains have never been needed as much to get out of all these traps. Innovative, vibrant, brilliant brains.brains.

  4. Rob R.

    The press used to seek out public intellectuals; Bertrand Russell made regular appearances, as did Sartre, and Borges once complained that the newspapers would call him up all to often to comment about “today’s youth”, and other subjects he claimed he knew nothing about. Now, it’s too often soundbites, good hair and a “proper” smile that gets the attention. Except in forums like this one, of course. You’ll still hear public intellectuals on public broadcasting like the CBC, BBC, NPR, etc., but can you imagine Fox News actually calling on an intellectual and letting her or him speak without constant interruption?

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