Pundits for Hire

Partisanship and plutocrats are changing the way what Daniel Drezner calls the “ideas industry” shapes our future
Daniel Drezner at Tufts
“The idea of public intellectuals is that they are supposed to speak truth to power,” said Daniel Drezner. “Speaking truth to power is hard. Speaking truth to money is harder.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
September 5, 2017

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In Washington, D.C., finding an expert is easy. Ever since World War II, policy expertise has been a growth industry, as think tanks have proliferated, consulting firms have nabbed multimillion-dollar contracts, and voices from academe have drawn more and more attention.

But the role of those experts is changing, says Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School. In his new book, The Ideas Industry (Oxford University Press), he argues that the marketplace for policy ideas has become splintered due to distrust of authority figures, heightened partisanship, and the rise of plutocrats buying expertise that fits their agendas. The result, he says, is a loss for the public, as bad ideas spread more easily and good ideas are lost in the mix.

Drezner knows the ideas industry firsthand: he’s a participant, what with a blog for the Washington Post, a very active Twitter account (with more than 94,000 followers), a gig as a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and regular appearances on Bloggingheads.tv.

Tufts Now talked with Drezner about how the world of expertise came to this juncture, and what it might mean for foreign and domestic policies.

Tufts Now: First off, in this age of Trump, do ideas even matter?

Daniel Drezner: I would argue that Trump is actually the toughest test of whether the ideas industry matters at all, and if the first seven months is any indication, it turns out yes, it matters a great deal. It is remarkable that we have a president who is this unpopular, given that the economy is going pretty well and by and large any national security crisis is of his own making. Part of this is that Trump has no actual agenda—he has no ideas. Furthermore, the few connections he’s had to the ideas industry have been severed.

On policy after policy, where Trump articulates something that he wants to do, inevitably a whole array of experts will explain why this is a dumbass idea. He’s losing this conversation. His base might love him, but that doesn’t matter; his base doesn’t legislate. This is a guy who, precisely because he doesn’t have any ideas, winds up angrily saying things that make a lot of news headlines, but don’t change policy all that much.

You talk about public intellectuals and thought leaders—the core of the ideas industry. What’s the difference?

I think of it the way Isaiah Berlin talked about intellectuals in his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” where he said the fox is someone who knows a little about a lot, and the hedgehog knows one big thing. Public intellectuals are like foxes; they are experts, but perfectly willing to opine about a wide array of topics. They are critics—they can tell you everything that is wrong with everyone else’s ideas; they are really good at that. In some ways, public intellectuals are the peer reviewers of any marketplace idea; they stress test ideas.

Thought leaders are the hedgehogs. They know one big thing; they are evangelists, proselytizers. They think their one big idea can explain anything. You give them any sort of problem, and they will somehow fit it with whatever idea they have that’s preconceived.

A functioning marketplace of ideas needs both of these kinds of thinkers. If it’s dominated by public intellectuals, the marketplace of ideas gets ossified. Public intellectuals act as gatekeepers, making it harder for new ideas to be introduced. As a result, the marketplace becomes stagnant.  If, on the other hand, thought leaders are predominant, you have a lot of new, interesting heterogeneous ideas introduced into the mix. The problem is that stupid ideas don’t die, because public intellectuals aren’t powerful to criticize them to within an inch of their lives.

Why are thought leaders now in the ascendency—and what’s the implication of that?

The book argues that public intellectuals are much weaker than they used to be, because of three broad trends. The erosion of trust in authority and expertise makes it harder for pubic intellectuals to dismiss alternative ideas out of hand. The rise of political polarization makes it difficult for any intellectual to engage more than one partisan base. And the rise of plutocrats with an interest in ideas gives thought leaders more resources to push back against any criticism by a public intellectual.

In your book, you talk about the rise of plutocrats funding intellectuals to promote their own agenda. What’s the problem with that?

Plutocrats have a different set of policy preferences than you or I do. The really rich tend to underappreciate the merits of the welfare state to a broad swath of the population, because plutocrats don’t interact with that population; in some ways they live in the biggest bubble of all. They want to fund thinkers who essentially align with their preconceived world views, and some thought leaders are perfectly happy to fill that role.

The idea of public intellectuals is that they are supposed to speak truth to power. Speaking truth to power is hard. Speaking truth to money is harder.

You say that partisanship in the ideas industry started rising in the late 1960s and was accelerated by President Reagan, who embraced the conservative think tanks. How are political polarization and the reduced influence of public intellectuals affecting us now?

The rise of political polarization means essentially that both ideological sides want their house intellectuals; they don’t want to hear from heterodox thinkers. Public intellectuals tend to be more heterodox. People like Dinesh D’Souza will do really well in this environment, not because their thought is particularly good—it’s not—but because they are perfectly willing to tell the base whatever it wants to hear.

What do these shortcomings in the ideas industry mean for foreign and domestic policies?

It means two things. First, because bad ideas will not disappear, the cacophony of public policy debates will only grow louder. In some instances, it will be difficult to get past first principles. Second, and related, government officials will find it exceedingly difficult to build a broad consensus around any high-profile public policy issue.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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