It is an unfortunate, but fairly obvious truth that most intellectuals, both on the left or right, don’t have particularly original ideas. Go to the Aspen Ideas Festival, or TED, or any of their ilk and you won’t find much that is genuinely surprising or exciting. Instead, you will find a lot of people whose stock-in-trade is not so much innovation as influence.
This used to be true in some quite specific ways of conservative intellectuals. The conservative movement perceived the need for intellectuals, both to hold their own fractious coalition together through ‘fusionism’ and the like, and to justify their goals to liberals, who dominated the space of serious policy discussions, and could possibly stop them. Liberal policy types, for their part, needed to understand what was happening among conservatives, and perhaps hoped to influence it a little. The result was that conservative intellectuals were in a highly advantageous structural position, serving as the primary link between two different spheres, which didn’t otherwise come much into contact. As network sociology 101 will tell you, this allowed them a fair amount of arbitrage and enough slack that e.g. people like Jonah Goldberg were treated as serious thinkers.
Now, however, the game is up, thanks to an unfortunate concatenation of events. Conservative intellectuals defected en masse from Trump, thinking that it was a fairly cheap gesture of independence, but Trump got elected. Not only did this damage these intellectuals’ personal ties with the new administration and the conservative movement, but it opened up the way for a conservatism that basically didn’t give a fuck about policy ideas and the need to seem ‘serious’ any more. The result is that conservative intellectuals don’t have all that much influence over conservatism any more.
The problem is that without such influence over conservatives, these intellectuals’ capital with liberals and the left is rapidly diminishing too. If conservative intellectuals don’t have much of an audience within conservatism itself, why should people on the opposite side listen to them any more? Their actual ideas are … mostly not that strong. Some of them are good writers (David Frum, for example), but good writing only goes so far. The only plausible case for paying attention to conservative-intellectuals-qua-conservative-intellectuals, is that perhaps the pendulum will swing back after Trump, and the old regime be restored. That might happen, but you wouldn’t want to betting serious money on it.--Henry Farrell "Who has any use for conservative intellectuals?" @CrookedTimber
First, it is important to note what Farrell really gets right here. Most conservative (quasi) public intellectuals really (recall and here)rejected Trump. (And this explains why conservative support for Trump was of such mediocre intellectual quality.) However much they were willing to be in the same party with white nationalists before, and even were partially complicit in facilitating their seat at the table, once they saw that Trump could win most really did become anti/never-Trump figures. (In fact, their rejection really predates that; recall this post and look at the date.) I suspect some of these intellectuals really have suffered not only loss of status but also of income and friendships. I am not suggesting we need to engage in massive (to use Kate Mann's useful term) himpathy toward them; but if civilization is possible such acts of local courage are required and it is useful to acknowledge these. (Even if, as seems likely, a lot of them are, thereby, emulating in reverse Oedipal direction the turn from New Deal Democrat to neocon of their (intellectual and real) fathers.)
Second, there is indeed very little original thought at the Aspen Ideas Festival, or TED, for folks like (ahh) us (you know, serious academics who stay abreast or even produce the really real intellectual innovation). This lack of genuine thought is true of most of the technocratic liberals, the technological utopians, the eloquent entrepreneurs, and conservative intellectuals that may be showcased in such places. This is one reason to be suspicious of inviting people whose primary intellectual habitus is that world to campus events and to treat them as genuine academics as opposed to cognitive entertainment events [recall this post on Charles Murray whose ideas never survived serious intellectual scrutiny]).
But Farrell also underestimates and so misrepresents the role of political intellectuals. First, there is great skill involved to transform original ideas into ideas that can be discussed by policymakers, opinion-makers, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and the general public. My proof for this is introspective. Most academics are awful at it and we know it--yes, such 'we' should be mistrusted (I hear you, Dotson!). But look into your heart of hearts and convince me otherwise [unless you are Martha Nussbaum, Dan Dennett or Danielle Allen]. (And this is why I have argued that public philosophy should be recognized as a distinct intellectual achievement.)
Second, there is also a serious gap between original ideas and actual policy. Such political intellectuals mediate between the two. By this I do not merely mean the familiar distinction between pure and applied research or original model and policy. For it is extremely rare that genuinely original ideas in the policy sciences (public health, economics, political science, etc.) offer actionable policy solutions. And, alas, what society and policy-makers want and believe that they desperately need is actionable would be solutions that can, in addition, benefit/strengthen one's movement, party, interest group, or ideology (etc.).
Third, those of us who do not share, say, the conservative outlook read them not just because of their perceived influence. To be sure this is one good reason to read them (especially when they are good writers--as the recent generation of conservatives often are, alas.) But also because they help challenge us to consider what is thought possible in alternative political bubbles. This is interesting in its own right and also can generate useful ideas for one's own side.
Let me close with an example. The economist John Quiggin responded to Farrell's piece also (here) at Crookedtimber. As it happens, Quiggin is focused on academics who turn hacks. (That's a different type then the conservative intellectuals Farrell writes about.) In particular, he focuses on academics who are both thought leaders within the profession and have the would be ear of some policy-makers. (In my research on scientific communities I call such people Aggregators. I think such Aggregators are an important site of moral and epistemic responsibility. And Aggregators can be politically motivated and still be excellent academic scientists/researchers.) One point he makes as illustration is the following:
There was a time when free-market economists like Milton Friedman saw defense spending as the exemplar of the rent-seeking “iron triangle” (interest groups, bureaucrats and politicians) ensuring that public expenditure is always wasteful. I Don’t suppose that Boskin and the rest have looked at the evidence and concluded that Friedman was wrong. Rather they’ve correctly calculated that heresy on defense spending would see them cast into the outer darkness of irrelevance.
In response I noted (on facebook) that rent-seeking and crony capitalism was once a core theme of the (Chicago school) right. In addition to Friedman, I am thinking of his buddy Stigler, who (recall my post) made important contributions to theorizing rent-seeking behavior. It was also a key element in public choice economics (associated with Buchanan and Tullock [see especially here]).* In part that was animated by their aversion to social planning and the welfare state. But it is often forgotten that a theory of rent-seeking was already available to and deployed by (nineteenth century) good government Progressivists, who were studied by Max Weber (an important influence on Frank Knight the teacher in some way or another of Stigler, Friedman, and Buchanan (and more indirectly of Tullock). Some other time I'll return this. The point I wish to make is this: while there are Libertarians and conservatives left who have concerns over rent-seeking and crony capitalism, in light of Trump's massive (supply!) shock to the system it seems the theme and ideas associated with it is drifting back to the left including first rate academics, Aggregators, and progressive intellectuals. And it does not require reinventing the wheel if one is familiar with the ideas of one's opponents. For good actionable policy and anti-policy ideas are often adaptable to different ends.