The Rise of Thought Leaders Like Bono and Trump (Yes, Trump)

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Rejoice and be glad!

Like a good Guinness, the marketplace of ideas — “The Ideas Industry” — is rich, frothy, and vibrant. And ideas still matter. So believes Daniel W. Drezner, author of one of this year’s best books, The Ideas Industry. But think responsibly.

Not long ago, big ideas percolated and incubated in the labs of research centers of universities like Harvard and MIT; were debated on the pages of influential opinion journals like The New Republic and National Review; were analyzed over and over at think tanks like the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute; and were articulated from the sharp minds of public intellectuals like Walter Lippman and William F. Buckley Jr.. While ideas still flow from this collective fountainhead, Drezner writes that a new kind of thinker has “supplanted that archetype.” The Thought Leader.

A thought leader is an “intellectual evangelist.”

“Thought leaders,” Drezner clarifies, “develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.” They differ distinctly from the above group, understood traditionally as “public intellectuals.” Both engage in acts of intellectual creation, mind you, but “their style and purpose are different.” How so?

Public intellectuals “know enough about many things to be able to point out intellectual charlatans.” Thought leaders, on the other hand, “know one big thing and believe that their important idea will change the world.” And thought leaders share three key attributes. They are optimistic, they are confident, and they focus on one exceptional idea for solving problems. They are more interested in action than analysis. So, former President Barack Obama, Drezner convincingly determines, was a public intellectual. Whereas President Donald Trump, perhaps surprisingly, is “the brassiest thought leader in existence.”

Tellingly, if not controversially, the Ideas Industry “now rewards thought leaders far more than public intellectuals.”      

Drezner describes himself as a public intellectual but he is otherwise not dangerous; his book is highly readable. He is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and has been thoroughly immersed in the Ideas Industry for two decades:  teaching, blogging, writing, debating, reading, advising, interviewing. And thinking. One intriguing aspect of his work is explaining how and why a thought leader could become a president. Or even the notion that our current president is a thought leader, period.

It’s a fascinating history lesson, too.

Certainly, technological innovations (the Internet and smart phones) have provided a “dizzying array of new outlets” (such as social media platforms Twitter and Facebook) that have opened new distribution channels for the dissemination of content (ideas), which, in turn, have affected the supply and demand of those very ideas (good and bad) in the marketplace. However, as Drezner observes, three “interlocking trends” that “configure the modern marketplace of ideas” have given rise to the thought leader.

The first trend is the erosion of trust in prestigious institutions over the last fifty years. Scandals at, and skepticism in, such diverse institutions as the government (Vietnam War/Watergate) and, more recently, financial companies (The Great Recession), universities (liberal bias), and mainstream media (fake news) have fostered an erosion of trust in authority. Accordingly, the power and prestige of these and other “intellectual guilds” has declined, allowing thought leaders — armed with technology — to bypass “traditional sources of power.” Nascent thought leaders, therefore, have fewer barriers to entry today. Fewer gatekeepers. More new ideas.

The second trend is what Drezner understandably calls the “polarization in American society.” The creation of “parallel, segmented audiences that will support ideologically pure intellectuals” has led to the emergence of new kinds of thought leaders. They can exploit these new realities and thrive in an “information ecosystem devoid of contrary point of view.” On this stage stand George Soros and the Koch brothers. Their wealth and influence has contributed to the third trend.

This third and most important trend, argues Drezner, is the growth in economic inequality. This corresponds to the “increasing importance of wealthy benefactors” who can funnel vast sums of money into new avenues, thereby “advancing polarizing political agendas.”

In the past these benefactors would convert their wealth into university endowments, think tanks, or philanthropic foundations. But today they are more likely to set up their own “intellectual salons and publishing platforms.” And they now take an active role in their investments. Thus, the “creedal passions” of what Drezner describes as the old public sphere of “genteel oligopoly” has given way to the new Kool Kids of modern ideas, the so-called “philanthrocapitalist.” The new plutocrats are responsible for such things as “for-profit” think tanks (some embedded in companies, like Google’s “Jigsaw”), uber-elite confabs known as the World Economic Forum (Davos, Switzerland), and TED Talks.

TED Talks, as a cultural phenomenon, fit neatly into Drezner’s compelling narrative.

Begun in 1984 as a new kind of corporate conference, TED — Technology, Entertainment, and Design — is now a sprawling influential nonpartisan and nonprofit enterprise, a global brand “devoted to spreading ideas,” usually in the form of short powerful talks. Speakers present before a small audience (earlier audiences were by invite-only) accompanied by animated Power Point for sessions usually lasting no longer than 20 minutes. All without post Q&A or discussion. Buttressed by a back catalog of over 2,500 videos (all talks are recorded today), TED Talks were viewed 100 million times a month in 2015. They have become highly anticipated online sensations.

Its speakers are “thinkers, doers, and idea-generators.” And they run the gambit across a broad spectrum of disciplines including:  medicine, science, business, architecture, and philosophy. And music. Notably, U2’s Bono. He is representative of the new thought leader:  ideas turbocharger, inspirational marketer, and philanthrocapitalist.

Bono’s 2013 talk in Long Beach, California was mesmerizing. Like him or loathe him, he also is the textbook definition of Drezner’s new thought leader. He focused on the singular topic of poverty in Africa and he spoke with resounding confidence and endearing optimism; a message supplemented by metrics (childhood mortality rates in 10 sub-Saharan Africa countries had been cut by a third). For extra credit, his self-deprecating brogue-tinged humor (“an evidence-based activist, the factivist” and “an insufferable little jumped-up Jesus”) makes him among the best, most distinctive thought leaders in the world.

The fact that a non-scholar — a pop star in his day job — from the streets of the northern side of Dublin can speak effectively (well versed in policy) at TED is proof that the Ideas Industry has radically changed. Bono easily made the transition from the argot of bass lines to the arcana of baselines. Incidentally, his talk has been viewed about 1,658,655 times on

But like all industries, there are challenges and troubles in the Ideas Industry.

TED Talks, by their nature, are designed for “thought leaders to appeal to plutocrats” in a format that “rewards more utopian thinking” and “personal authenticity” with “no discussants” and “no critical feedback.” This cycle becomes predictably repetitive. And TED embraces a political worldview that aligns nicely with the touchy-feely Silicon Valley theory “of conflict-free politics” in which technological solutions “can triumph above all.”

While it is true that social media can amplify good ideas, much online criticism — in many cases anonymous trolling — has devolved into vile attacks, stoked by emotion, not reason. There walks a fine line between polemicist and arsonist. Women, Drezner notes, “bear a disproportionate burden” of such unnecessary viciousness. As a consequence, he advises against engaging in any senseless “puerile exchanges.”

Big money in search of big ideas has bred a new class of intellectuals, superstars like Tom Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, and Niall Ferguson, who saturate their ideas with endless writing, speaking, promoting, and jet setting. New structures and forces within the Ideas Industry have granted them enormous — some might say outsized — influence and affluence. As Drezner says, they have become brands, like soda pop and pop stars. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Justin Fox believes this system rewards “those who make it into the magic circle of top-flight speakers even if they don’t have anything new or interesting to say.” And such exalted status inoculates them from constructive criticism.

And, perhaps most interestingly, economists have stayed at the top of the social science pyramid because “they act like thought leaders.” But some of their ideas have taken on larger-than-life existence and some have not withstood validation under rigorous testing. Still others are deeply flawed.

Drezner fully examines the conceptual idea of BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China; the brainchild of Goldman Sachs economics research, originally a marketing idea). And he exhaustively charts Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s 1995 theory of “disruptive innovation.” (Through various permutations, that idea still resonates twenty years later in the language of management consulting.) Though not mentioned by Drezner, who can forget Jonathan Gruber, the MIT economics professor, whose faulty ideas contributed to the flawed national healthcare system, Obamacare? Despite serious questions and inconclusive evidence about the application of these ideas, Goldman Sachs, Christensen, and Gruber continue to thrive as thought leaders.

The arguments presented in Drezner’s thoughtful book are, he concludes, “really about changes in American politics.” And no other change has been more evident than the first thought leader becoming president. Trump, love him or loathe him, meets the criteria:  He confidently and cheerfully (brazenly, to detractors) advocates that government (“The Swamp”) is what ails America and that he is the leading change-agent. His simple idea is being fiercely debated in every corner of the Ideas Industry.

Raise your Guinness …


James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, and