Public Intellectual or Campaign Flack? Killing the Category

It is aspirational but silly to think that millions of voters will drop everything to do their own analyses and think carefully about their November decisions. Instead they will delegate the job of informing themselves, at least in part, to those whom they trust as “public intellectuals.” The role is prestigious, filled with TV appearances and speaking engagements, highly remunerative and much coveted. Pretenders and category killers elbow each other for the spotlight.

Pretenders are generally those with whom one disagrees. Category killers — a huge advertising no-no — destroy the entire field. If Coke and Pepsi accused each other of filling the cans with rat fragments, nobody would drink any.

The brand attributes of the public intellectual are respect, intellect and trust.

Here are three recent examples of public intellectualism sometimes gone astray. What might elections be like if there were no longer any respected and trusted public intellectuals on whom to rely?

Why the silence from economist Larry Summers? – Robert J. Samuelson

Here is an excerpt but read the whole piece.

“One role of ‘public intellectuals’ — the small class of scholars, ‘experts’ in think tanks and elsewhere, public-policy advocates and some pundits — is to elevate our public debates. They can say things that public officials cannot without losing their jobs or influence. At their best, idea merchants of left and right expand what’s acceptable by broaching the new, unfamiliar or unpopular.

Summers’s silence on government’s size and role abdicates this responsibility. To some extent, that’s understandable, given his personal history.  But this may not be the whole story.

Ambition seems to have gotten the better of candor. His columns leave the impression that he’s trying not to offend his political patrons. It’s hard not to wonder whether he’s auditioning for a job — head of the Federal Reserve? — in a second Obama term or some future Democratic administration. If this verdict seems harsh, it is perhaps softened by the certainty that the same calculated behavior applies to many other public intellectuals.”

Galt, Gold and God – Paul Krugman

Contrast this with the next. Here is an excerpt.

“This last point is important. In pushing for draconian cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and other programs that aid the needy, Mr. Ryan isn’t just looking for ways to save money. He’s also, quite explicitly, trying to make life harder for the poor — for their own good. In March, explaining his cuts in aid for the unfortunate, he declared, ‘We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.’”

Ryan’s Biggest Mistake – by David Brooks

Here is an excerpt from

“In the real world, leaders have a dual consciousness. They have a campaign consciousness in which they argue for the policies they think are best for the country. But then they have a governing consciousness, a mind-set they put on between elections. It says: O.K., this is the team the voters have sent to Washington. How can we navigate our divides to come up with something suboptimal but productive?

Paul Ryan has a great campaign consciousness, and, when it comes to things like Medicare reform, I agree with him. But when he voted no on the Simpson-Bowles plan he missed the chance to show that he also has a governing consciousness. He missed the chance to do something good for the country, even if it wasn’t the best he or I would wish for.”

Three authors and three subjects. Paul Ryan does not count because he is not even a pretender. Yet.

Rank the other four on the category killer scale.


5 Responses to “Public Intellectual or Campaign Flack? Killing the Category”

Sellers McKee, August 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm said:

Well, Krugman has really lost it. He and other Democrats just don’t get the fact that entitlements are more pernicious than drugs. Give them out; the recipients get hooked. Is this a surprise? Entitlements are more addictive than crack cocaine. They make slaves out of the very people they are supposed to help, but at least they buy votes.


Ashley Higgins, August 24, 2012 at 7:16 pm said:

I understand that I live in rural Nowhere, so this may not be significant. But, to tell you the truth, I cannot recall anyone (except a few city dwellers) ever saying or inferring in my presence that he relies on public intellectuals for anything. Most of the folks I deal with have never heard of Summers, Krugman, or Brooks. The few that have heard of them usually do not consider them to be intellectual leaders or, more specifically, voter resources. But all these people seem to consider their own interests and to make self-referential electoral choices on their own! Astonishing!


Haven Pell, August 28, 2012 at 5:58 pm said:

Point taken. I should have written that public intellectuals are A source of guidance for SOME voters. The implication of the piece was that they are THE source for ALL voters. As written, it is over inclusive. Thank you for helping to sharpen it.


GARRARD GLENN, July 09, 2017 at 12:51 pm said:

I have an insight with regard to public intellectuals:

We tend to agree with the ones we agree with, and we tend to disagree
with the ones we disagree with.

Any comments?


Haven Pell, July 09, 2017 at 4:57 pm said:

They seem to exist to keep the partisan battle going. It brings the $$$$ in to the swamp.


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