The rise and fall of the public intellectual

An elegy for a shrinking class of thinkers

His physical remains were interred in Connecticut, but the virtual resting place for William F. Buckley Jr. is the website of the Hoover Institution, which maintains an archive of some 1,500 episodes of “Firing Line.”

There, when one gets wistful for an erudite conversation with “presidential hopeful” Ronald Reagan or a nuanced discussion on U.S. policy in Rhodesia, Buckley still holds forth with the formidable brain, respectful demeanor and tweedy, bow-tied look that put him at the forefront of a seemingly vanishing class: the public intellectual.

When Buckley died at his desk in 2008, he left his papers, weighing seven tons, to Yale University. He also left a world in which there was still an ample stock of public intellectuals.

Now, in the shockingly short span of 13 years, the public intellectual seems to have ceded the floor to the thought leader, who is more educated than the influencer (but not by much) and makes up for a lack of advanced degrees with multiple social media accounts.

Not that there’s anything wrong with thought leaders. But many lack the “polysyllabic exuberance” ascribed to Buckley in his New York Times obituary. In their TED Talks, thought leaders are generally just exuberant, leaving those of us who yearn for ye “Firing Line” of old with a question: Whither today’s public intellectuals? 

I put the question to George F. Will, the venerable Washington Post columnist who shares Buckley’s penchant for $10 words, old-school politeness and an august middle initial. 

Artfully dodging the question, Will said he first wanted to define what a public intellectual is. 

I suggested that a public intellectual is an unusually erudite person with advanced degrees; someone who spoke to the public, not just the academy; someone who made arguments so thoughtful and convincing that they rarely made anyone angry, and might actually change someone’s mind.  

To my mind, Will fits the description. Also, the University of the Arts’ Camille Paglia in Philadelphia and Thomas Sowell, whose remarkable career is chronicled in the new book “Maverick,” by Jason Riley.

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In his 2001 book “Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline,” Richard A. Posner spent multiple pages trying to define a public intellectual but eventually broke the term down to its simplest components: an influential thinker who writes for a general audience on political and cultural matters. The occupation, Posner said, has become “less distinctive, less interesting, and less important.”

That didn’t stop him from devoting a full chapter to people he considers “distinguished ornaments of American public life,” among them Henry Kissinger and the late James Q. Wilson and Patrick Moynihan.

The public intellectual, according to Posner, peddles both entertainment and information. He believes their shrinking ranks are due, in part, to the increasing specialization of knowledge; meaning, a scholar might devote his whole career to the philosophical implications of quantum theory and thus lack the breadth of knowledge that public intellectualism demands. (Posner does not require impressive degrees of his public intellectuals. He says Charles Dickens was one in the 19th century, George Orwell in the 20th; neither went to college.)

Will said the term was initially used to distinguish intellectuals of the academy from those whose audience was the ordinary American. “But I guess you want names.” He paused. “I’m having trouble,” he said.

Will offered that there was “a critical mass” of public intellectuals in Manhattan, beginning in the 1950s, writing for journals such as Partisan Review and The Public Interest. “But I don’t think they’re out there now, and I don’t know why.”

I asked if the proliferation of think tanks could have subsumed the individual thinker. “That’s an interesting theory,” Will said. “It’s analogous to the great industrial labs like Bell Lab taking over innovation and invention from the lonely Edison-type inventor. … Perhaps they’ve been absorbed by AEI or Brookings.”

But the talk of think tanks led Will to a name: “Jonathan Rauch, at Brookings, is constantly interesting, constantly germane, constantly intelligent. He would count, I think.”

And that led to others: Andrew Sullivan, “extremely talented,” and Bari Weiss, “who left The New York Times for greener pastures.” Will then mentioned a Stanford University podcast that he’d recently been on: “GoodFellows,” featuring Hoover Institution senior fellows Niall Ferguson, H.R. McMaster and John Cochrane. 

Lee Drutman, a political scientist named one of Washington’s most influential people of 2021 by Washingtonian magazine, recently published a scholarly book with a populist title: “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.” 

In praising the work, one Brookings Institution scholar described Drutman as “first-rate scholar and public intellectual.”

While Drutman was appreciative of the praise, he’s a little embarrassed by the designation. “It strikes me as a little pretentious, and I suffer from enough pretentiousness as it is,” he told me.

Like Will, Drutman hesitated when asked to come up with names of people he considers to be public intellectuals. He finally settled not on a person, but on a genre: podcasts. That’s where the public intellectuals are intellectualizing.

Drutman mentioned “The Ezra Klein Show” in particular. “There are a lot of really thoughtful ideas being discussed in podcasts,” he said. (Full disclosure: Drutman is part of a podcast called “Politics in Question.”)

That reminded me of the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who probes the minds of influential thinkers like Ryan T. Anderson, Joseph Bottum and Martin E. Marty on his podcast “Thinking in Public.”

And of Christian apologist Justin Brierley, whose “Unbelievable?” podcast in the U.K. features scholars politely picking apart each other’s arguments on social issues, as well as what a famous public intellectual, sadly long dead, once called “mere” Christianity.

All that’s missing for that “Firing Line” vibe for these shows is a live audience and the opening notes of a Brandenburg concerto. 

But here’s the thing: Podcasts, while generally free and available to anyone with a computer or smartphone, aren’t quite as public as public television was when Buckley’s “Firing Line” was on the air from 1966 to 1999. 

Competition acts to obscure them. A critical mass of people may be listening to Klein; less so, “GoodFellows.”

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While podcasting may be a hiding place for public intellectuals, the internet in general has not been good for their kind, according to historian George Marsden, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, and a bona fide public intellectual himself.

“There may be more good public intellectuals out there than ever. But the internet means that there are also more bad ones that can nonetheless get attention,” Marsden said in an email. “So, the extent or the impact is probably a good bit less than in the days of Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, etc.”

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat was even gloomier writing for New Statesman about what he deems “intellectual torpor” in the world today. “I can’t imagine anyone making a confident claim about contemporary philosophers, religious thinkers and would-be scientists of human nature that ranks them with Friedrich Nietzsche or Karl Marx or even Sigmund Freud, with Søren Kierkegaard and John Henry Newman,” he wrote.

Douthat then came up with a list of the people he considers the most important thinkers of the past 20 years, “assessed purely for their influence, with no comment on quality.” Among them: Ibram X. Kendi, Peter Thiel, Steven Pinker, Michelle Alexander, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, Samantha Power and Thomas Friedman.

“Some of these writers are impressive; some less so,” Douthat wrote, adding, “Will many of them adorn a Great Books curriculum in 2075, if such an antiquated thing exists? I’m doubtful.”

One might argue that the smartest people among us have finally figured out, some 2,420 years after Socrates drank the hemlock, that it’s better to keep their intelligence to themselves. Be an intellectual if you want, but stay out of the public square.

“There are psychic costs for thin-skinned academics who have skeletons in their closets and so dare not invite publicity,” Posner wrote. “There are also reputation costs, since the risk of error in public intellectual activity is very high.” 

That’s even more true now than in 2001, when those words were written. Even Paglia, who always seemed willing to come out of the ivory tower for a good fight, has been quiet since 2019, when a group of students tried to get her fired for incendiary views that she had been expressing for more than 30 years.

That said, it’s hard to imagine Milton Friedman or C.S. Lewis backing slowly away from the lectern, even if there had been Twitter mobs in their day. The bigger problem seems to be that the existing field of public intellectuals is aging without equivalent numbers storming the field to take their place. Will is 80. Sowell is 90 as I write this. Paglia, a youthful 74. 

In one last bid for hope, I reached out to Christopher Buckley, William F. Buckley Jr.’s only son, who could have been a public intellectual had he not made a career writing satirical novels such as “Make Russia Great Again.”

“The answer, tout court, as WFB might say is: No, I don’t think there’s an equivalent of ‘Firing Line’ these days,” the younger Buckley wrote in an email. “There is, I hasten to point out, a ‘Firing Line’ show, hosted by the able Margaret Hoover, but it’s very different from its namesake.

“I have to say that I miss Charlie Rose. The excellent George Will got canceled off Fox News for being critical of Donald Trump. And my beloved Christopher Hitchens is long gone. How does the line go? ‘Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.’”

“Cheers,” Buckley said, although his message had not been one bit cheery, leaving me to YouTube and a Thomas Sowell Twitter account, which has 709,000 followers and is run by a fan who’s never met the scholar.

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The popularity of the account, though, does offer a small, wispy hope that the market still exists among the general public for high-level critical thinking. At least up to 280 characters.

But then I searched for a similar William F. Buckley Jr. account and found one. It was the right Buckley. It said he was Christopher’s father and the founder of National Review. Among the most recent tweets was a video of a dog jumping rope at a park, retweeted from WeRateDogs.

On second thought, will the last public intellectual in America please turn off the lights? Tout court.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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