by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
… [T]o the extent that we do have public intellectuals at all in our society, they are far more likely to be think-tank scholars than tenured academics. Think tanks, however, have faced their own problems in recent years, as the never-ending quest for funding has made many think tanks both more partisan as well as loath to address issues that might alienate donors.
This is the thesis of Dan Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry. Drezner argues that public intellectuals are on the wane, for reasons both old and new, and that in their place we are seeing the rise of “thought leaders.” As Drezner puts it: “It is the best of times for thought leaders. It is the worst of times for public intellectuals.” The distinction between the two categories appears to be based on the scope of an individual’s commentary. A public intellectual weighs in on a wide variety of topics. Whatever the topic, he’s rarely at a loss for words. A thought leader, in apparent contrast, focuses on one or possibly a few big ideas, and limits his commentary to subjects related to the big idea. In Isaiah Berlin terms, public intellectuals are foxes, while thought leaders are hedgehogs. And thought leaders are on the rise.