The Ideas Industry, Daniel Drezner [Review]

My teaching reviews often compare my lecture style to TED Talks. Students, I think, mean this as a compliment, but academics will understand my ambivalence at the comparison. TED Talks  deliver bite-sized, attractive, and simple explanations of complicated topics. That’s why audiences love them, and it’s why the format is beloved of popularizers of science as well as other salesmen. But academics pride themselves on being the opposite. Indeed, for many scholars, it sometimes seems as if having their work described as a “lengthy, plain, and complicated explanation of a simple topic”, it would be a compliment compared to being called a public intellectual. For many scholars, therefore, TED Talks represent what is wrong with the “marketplace of ideas”.

Yet for my students and the world at large, it is TED who is right and we who are wrong. In his new book The Ideas Industry, Daniel Drezner, a professor of political science at Tufts University and a prominent voice in public debates over international relations, ponders why. Drezner’s thesis is that the cozy, stolid, and critical world of the public intellectual—a craftsman of ideational handicrafts who learned his (and it was almost always “his”) trade in an apprenticeship—has been disrupted by a world of corporatized, mercenary, and partisan “thought leaders”.

This is, he argues, not altogether a bad thing.

The neologism “thought leader” strikes traditional academics and other intellectuals as preposterous, even insulting. Drezner defines a thought leader (p. 9) as “an intellectual evangelist” who develops “their own singular lens to explain the world” and then proselytizes “to anyone within earshot.” Academics, who live in a world of plentiful ideas, are more likely to note that “thought leader” implies that everyone else is a follower—a position anathema to scholars, the vainest class on the planet. Scholars often combine this with potshots at the most successful TLs, sneeringly and correctly noting that what is original in thought leaders’ thinking is rarely good and what is good is rarely original.

Yet Drezner’s contention that thought leaders are eclipsing intellectuals, public or not, seems unassailable. Everywhere, it is those who are supposedly living the life of the mind who are adopting the habits, vocabulary, and strategies of the thought leaders, rather than the reverse. (A recent distributed seminar on the practicalities and pitfalls of self-promotion for academics attracted widespread attention on political-science Twitter; both the subject and the medium were of the thought leader variety. Few are immune: this is a book review designed to draw clicks hosted on PaulMusgrave.Info, a Web site that I started to advertise my intellectual wares in the hopes of climbing various social and academic ladders.)

How did society come to turn to thought leaders in place of public intellectuals? Drezner argues that the most important factor has been the growth in economic inequality. The ideas industry produces much hot air, but it require patrons and clients to sustain itself. Such patrons must be wealthy, and political realities being what they are these days that wealth is likelier to come from the Koch family or the Soros foundations than from state governments. A shift from broadly social and public institutions (the midcentury private foundation and public research university, for instance) to plutocrats and their corporate camp followers as the sponsors of inquiry has been accompanied by a shift from supporting critique to demanding plans for action. Hazy notions of “reputation” have been replaced by more quantitatively, or at least concretely, specified metrics for “influence.”

That is the world in which the thought leader thrives. Consultants, policy entrepreneurs, and popularizers target audiences that can be measured in dollars, votes, or clicks.  They do so by proposing solutions to readily identifiable problems. And they are directly rewarded for their skill at conveying information: as Drezner notes (p. 167), “The for-profit [thought leader] sector excels at finding the one number, metric, or chart that will capture the attention of the audience, the ‘takeaway’ stat that even the innumerate can comprehend.”

Anyone who has attended even one panel at an academic conference will note the contrast with the plodding, unobvious, and often downright incomprehensible style of the scholar. Even lauded public intellectuals can sometimes be obscure; let me confess here that I find the most famous mid-twentieth century American historians—the Richard Hofstadters—to be so elliptical that I cannot understand them even on eighth reading.

The simplicity, directness, and attractiveness of thought leaders’ proposals makes them attractive to those who have more influence or wealth than time.  Yet that very simplicity also means that structural critique is not among the products thought leaders offer. As Drezner notes, solutions must be tailored to client requirements, and few audiences for thought leaders’ projects are interested in hearing that the path to ameliorating social ills will require elites to give up their privileges. There’s simply no percentage in it.

As the subtitle of the book–How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas–hints, Drezner also identifies Americans’ declining trust in institutions and rising levels of partisan polarization as permissive causes of thought leaders’ rise. With traditional gatekeepers in decline and partisan cheerleaders in ever greater demand, thought leaders have found their structural rivals sidelined.

So far, so bleak. But Drezner is not wholly critical of the trend. The monetization and democratization of the marketplace for ideas demonstrates that there is a great market for ideas—that there is a demand for intellectual engagement. And, indeed, the rise of TED Talks suggests that it is possible to get millions of people to listen to academic lectures voluntarily; perhaps professors should be willing to wonder why students will watch those talks but fall asleep in their seminar. Moreover, if people are willing to pay for Stratfor’s analysis, then there must be at least some market for ideas that are better than theirs, which offers a dim light of hope for academics in cash-strapped institutions.

Drezner’s presentation of his case is thorough, engaging, and compelling. Befitting his subject, this is a hybrid of an academic and a general-interest book–he footnotes like a professor but writes like a (very good!) blogger. Drezner’s presentation rarely strays from the foreign-policy universe he knows best, which at times makes the book feel like seeing an intellectual revolution through a straw; even as a foreign-policy guy myself, I find it difficult to believe that foreign policy is the only, or perhaps even the most, affected sector of the ideas industry.

At times, Drezner may oversimplify the causal story. As Donald MacKenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera and Hans Noel’s Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America demonstrate, the role of intellectuals in shaping debates and outcomes can run through many channels. Thought leaders may occasionally create successful memes (like Goldman Sach’s invention of the “BRIC” category, an idea whose creation and real-world influence Drezner masterfully recounts) but those thought leaders are themselves shaped by something. The regularity with which I encounter people in the ‘real world’ who would deny the influence of their schooling on their beliefs but also cling to (frequently outdated) academic theses as the foundations of their worldviews seems to suggest that it is easy to count out the role of the people who bake the bricks that thought leaders later assemble.

The book also engages only partially with the ramifications of shifts in communication media. The heyday of the public intellectuals was also the height of media centralization; the emergence of a market for synthesizing and simplifying information followed the fragmentation of the ideasphere. (Here, though, I am torn between two contradictory critiques; the other is that there was always more thought leadership than we remember retrospectively–someone made Reader’s Digest and Ronald Reagan into major players in American politics at midcentury.)

Despite overt optimism, Drezner himself seems more inclined toward pessimism. Indeed, much of the book is informed by what can only be described as Drezner’s participant ethnography. Some of the most biting passages involve Foreign Policy editor David Rothkopf, who, upon taking the reins at the journal where Drezner was a columnist, declared that academics wrote too poorly and slowly to dominate the journal. (Drezner quickly decamped for the Washington Post.) And the thumbnail biographies of the rich and famous–political scientist Fareed Zakaria and historian Niall Ferguson–stand more as cautionary tales than lives to be emulated. His concluding pages seem to suggest that he is contemplating stepping back at least a little bit from his public engagement (none dare call it thought leadership!) out of concerns that it makes his intellectual output weaker and less persuasive.

Such tradeoffs occur in many places.  Part of my ambivalence over having my lectures compared to TED Talks is that…well, I decided to structure (and visually prepare) them as TED Talks. And my reviews have never been better! But reading Drezner’s book has made me understand not only the forces that inclined me–and my students–to prefer that strategy but also to wonder about their long-term effects. If there exists a way to convert the ideas industry into a more sustainable, slower version of itself–not the cliquish old boys’ club the world of public intellectuals was (and is) but also not the corporate think tank it is rapidly becoming–that would be all to the good.