The Ideas Industry by Daniel W. Drezner (part 1)

9 May 2017

The Big Picture

This American-centric book, accurately titled, is about the evolving sources of “big ideas,” such as soft power, creative disruption and many others.  It also elucidates the complex competition for funding and influence among various idea sources, including traditional think tanks, thought leaders, public intellectuals, and a significant cohort of relatively new for-profit firms fielding thought leaders and offering proficiency enhancing services to governments.

The author, Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University is an active ideas industry participant.  He authors a popular foreign affairs blog, tweets regularly, and contributes columns to the Washington Post newspaper, in addition to his scholarly writing.  He is, in short, well-positioned to write such a book.

Several chapters consist substantially of a mini case study that illustrates the chapter’s theme.  These are very engaging.  But generally little systematic or statistical information is presented in support of the case presented, except in the three critical chapters on “key developments,” defined below.  The chapter on social media, for example, consists only of tales about the nastiness of the Twitter world for posting policy comments.

That said there is a great deal of value in the book.  Certainly, for me an in-depth explication of the world of thought leaders and the outsized role now played by the rich (often called plutocrats in the book and elsewhere) was enlightening.

The comments presented in this first part of a two-part blog posting provides definitions used by Drezner and outlines the forces driving the reallocation of creative thinking advanced within the policy community, successful communications, and, to a lesser extent, analytic work among players listed in the opening paragraph.  The second part, to be posted soon, considers Professor Drezner’s analysis of developments in the think tank sector.

Definitions given in the book

  • Marketplace of ideas: the array of intellectual outputs and opinions about foreign affairs, and the extent to which policymakers and publics embrace those ideas.
  • Public intellectuals: experts who are versed and trained enough to be able to comment on a wide range of policy issues. Many have traditionally been housed in think tanks.
  • Thought leader: an intellectual evangelist.  “Thought leaders develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.”+ Successful thought leaders become their own brands and do very well financially.
  • The ideas industry (in current format): the supply of big ideas, now dominated by thought leaders using various intellectual fora, such as TED, South by Southwest, the Aspen Ideas Festival and others, as well as through other media, to present their ideas often to plutocrats, who then use their access to senior policy officials to pass them on and thereby influence policy decisions.

Three developments that have had wide reaching effects on the structure of the ideas industry

Erosion of trust in prestigious institutions

This erosion is easy to understand when one surveys the seemingly small progress made in the past 50 years on the great issues including defeating poverty, inability to sustain the middle-class’s economic position, lack of successful military campaigns (and other foreign policy frustrations), poor performance of youth in school achievement by international standards, the inefficiency and inequities of the health care system and more.

Public intellectuals at universities, think tanks, and in government (most temporarily) have not delivered.  The decline of trust is particularly great among conservatives.

Polarization of American society

Dresser argues that the creation of parallel, segmented audiences that will support ideologically pure intellectuals has led to the emergence of new kinds of thought leaders.  There is a feedback effect between rising levels of partisanship and media cocooning.

He states that:

The erosion of trust levels the playing field in the marketplace of ideas.


The erosion of trust in experts and the rise of political polarization means that everyone will not accept a common set of stylized facts even if there is a consensus among intellectuals.  Some thought leaders will have an obvious incentive to craft arguments around facts not in evidence to hawk their policy ideas.

Growth of economic inequality and the increasing importance of wealthy benefactors in the marketplace of ideas  (clearly the most important)

The number of plutocrats is large, probably a few hundred thousand.+

However, the new rich are much less content to follow the example of their earlier counterparts and give money to their own foundations or passively support think tanks and other NGOs.

Rather, they want to be players.  They want to be connected to actual policy impacts:

Lawrence Jacobs and Benjamin Page argue that the preferences of key elite groups have a much strong effect on policymakers than the broad public.

Wealthy Americans are also much less supportive of social programs and education initiatives than the general public.

Since many plutocrats are first generation and self-made (meritocratic achievement), they are attracted to libertarian policies. Public intellectuals tend to be more critical of the structures that enabled the wealthy to get their station in life.  Worse, according to Drezner, they are more likely to challenge the notion that plutocrats achieved their status entirely through merit. 

The plutocrats attend intellectual conclaves such as TED to be exposed to big ideas that they might support.  Very worth noting is that at such events thought leaders make their presentations and there are no discussants.  Indeed, few of the big ideas advanced are subjected to rigorous outside review, sometimes for many years.  Some of the ideas that have had the greatest impact have later been documented to not be based on reliable analysis, even though the thought leader pushing them had strong academic credentials.

In this marketplace, thought leaders fiercely compete to get on the radar screen of wealthy benefactors:

Many new philanthropies are leery of traditional social science in favor of other sources of ideas.

What is striking and important is that all three of these driving forces are presently strongly influential in the U.S.

The second part of this posting will explore what all this has meant for think tanks.