Thought leaders and public intellectuals in the ideas industry

I have never liked the term ‘thought leader’. But Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, persuades me that even if the language is unappealing the concept is useful in describing how the contemporary world of ideas works. In some cases, the category of people known as thought leaders can also make the marketplace of ideas more effective.

Drezner argues that the marketplace of ideas is much larger and more open now than it was in the post-war decades. Technology is one obvious reason; anyone with an internet connection can now publish and social media can be used to bypass the old publisher and broadcaster gatekeepers to audiences. Drezner covers this, but I think the most interesting parts of the book are about how even though it is more possible now than in the past to promote ideas on a small budget, this is also an era of for-profit ideas.

The language of thought leadership is used most by consulting firms, which publish reports as part of their branding – these are the trends and problems your industry faces, come to us for solutions. Drezner says McKinsey spends $400 million a year on these activities. Locally, PwC, Deloitte and others advertise their thought leadership in various fields.

While government spending on consultants seems volatile, there is little doubt that they play a much bigger role in advising governments than they did in the past. So their ‘thought leadership’ is likely to transmit directly to government this way. (Drezner has a chapter on how economics is more influential than other social sciences; that consulting firms are big employers of people with economics degrees is another route for economists to influence government).

Drezner contrasts ‘thought leaders’ with the older term ‘public intellectual’. He has a table of what he sees as the distinctions between them:

The foxes and hedgehogs contrast is one popularised by Isaiah Berlin (a great public intellectual, IMHO), between a fox which knows many things and the hedgehog which knows one big thing. Thought leaders sell one big idea, while public intellectuals have range and a more sceptical style. Drezner sees the most useful role of public intellectuals as showing when the ’emperor has no clothes’. But in the modern ideas industry, thought leaders have been doing better than public intellectuals.

As Drezner says, people have been talking about the decline of public intellectuals for a long time, but I think it is true that they are relatively less important, and possibly there are fewer public intellectuals in absolute terms. Despite the on-going media love of rankings, they no longer do the lists of top public intellectuals that were popular ten-plus years ago. Even if they did, I think they would struggle to identify successors to the people who made the lists last time but have since died or are now elderly.

Often this is put down in part at least to academia becoming specialised in narrow fields and more inward looking; the main audience for an academic is other academics. While Drezner has a chapter pointing out that many academics are engaged with public debate, and locally there are direct efforts to increase that engagement via websites like The Conversation, overall I think the career incentives within universities are stacked against academics developing the breadth and skills to engage with wider audiences. In the US context especially, some academics became thought leaders rather than public intellectuals, with substantial financial rewards.

While the decline of the public intellectual is regrettable, the rise of thought leaders is not a bad thing – as a type of intellectual, rather than endorsing everyone who has claimed that title. The work we do at Grattan is generally at the thought leadership end of the ideas industry. In public policy, critique is necessary but not sufficient. We need to find practical solutions to problems (creators rather than critics, from Drezner’s list), we need to persuade others of their merits (evangelists rather than sceptics), and we need to be optimists rather than pessimists, because there are usually many setbacks along the way. (I am not convinced by all of Drezner’s list. On their topic thought leaders generally have strong subject matter expertise. What they often lack is the ability to put that in a broader social, historical and philosophical perspective.)

No ideas industry category is without flaws. Thought leaders with their focus on one big thing can miss other things, and be prone to hyperbole in their need to grab attention. For-profit thought leaders will be careful critics of their clients, if they are critics at all. But in public policy the other main actors in their space have weaknesses. Public intellectuals can be too impractical. Interest groups are constrained by the views of their members, including too much diversity of opinion to arrive at clear positions on important issues. Politicians and public servants struggle to escape the tyranny of the urgent to think about the long term. Ideally in the marketplace of ideas the debate between the groups helps correct for their respective weaknesses, and gets us closer to policies that can work politically as well as solve problems.

  1. Certainly beats “thinkfluencer” and the like. But “thought leader” suggests an authority which isn’t always there (or deserved).

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