Return of the thought leaders

Eric Alterman in The Nation on “thought leaders” via a new book by Daniel Drezner. He says Drezner doesn’t pay enough attention to the power of money to corrupt and control literally everything with which it comes into contact—most particularly intellectual culture.”

Drezner by no means ignores the issue. Early on, he makes a crucial distinction between old-fashioned “public intellectuals” and the now-trendy “thought leaders.” The latter model is one that sells itself less to an identifiable “public”—something that has become increasingly difficult to define in a society continually segmenting itself according to ever-more-narrow criteria—than to plutocratic patrons…

Today, our most famous purveyors of ideas sell themselves to the wealthy much like the courtiers of the Middle Ages. Drezner notes that these ideas are therefore shaped by the “aversion” that plutocrats share toward addressing the problems we face. Inequality? Global warming? Populist nihilism? An explosion of global refugees? From a Silicon Valley perspective, Drezner notes, such things are not a failure of our system but rather “a piece of faulty code that need[s] to be hacked.” Examining data from a survey of Silicon Valley corporate founders, Drezner notes their shared belief that “there’s no inherent conflict between major groups in society (workers vs. corporations, citizens vs. government, or America vs. other nations).”

“Intellectuals who wish to cater to this crowd will find it difficult to contradict the narrative of meritocratic achievement,” Drezner explains. His discussion of the function of the TED phenomenon is especially cogent: “TED talks are designed for thought leaders to appeal to plutocrats.”

These are the progressives, Alterman emphasizes.

That money demands compromises from culture is not exactly breaking news. But its effect on progressive politics has been devastating, and here, Drezner’s account fails to do the problem full justice. The labor movement long ago lost the ability to compete with corporate America and individual billionaires for the funds needed to make ideas meaningful in the real world, so liberals and progressives must now drink from the wells of wealth.

He quotes a passage from Obama’s book about being drawn into that web – nice, progressive, thoughtful people, but rich and with views that rich people do tend to have.

After spending so much time with donors, Obama admitted, he found himself “avoiding certain topics during conversations with them, papering over possible differences, anticipating their expectations…. [A]s a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.”

That’s what happened to both Clintons, except that they embraced it more enthusiastically than Obama did.

The primary talent demonstrated by the “thought leaders” who rise to the top of this stew—people like Thomas Friedman, Niall Ferguson, and the heavyweight champion, according to Drezner’s own poll (in which I participated), Henry Kissinger—is to somehow flatter great wealth even as they pretend to challenge it. Should they pull it off, they get to feel good about themselves as enormously well-remunerated and highly respected public servants. The truth, however, is that by comforting the comfortable, they end up further afflicting the afflicted. It’s no wonder that not only Donald Trump but the entire Republican Party and its supporters now feel that they can ignore the arguments of this class. It was they who built this city: this city of ruin.

He’s not wrong.

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