In his 2011 book Reading Obama, the historian James Kloppenberg called the president “a man of ideas,” an “intellectual” who had long “showed the capacity and inclination to mobilize America’s intellectual traditions to bolster democratic political action.” Indeed, in a recent New York Times interview Obama revealed that even during his years in the White House he dedicated himself to reading—in an effort, as he put it, to “slow down and get perspective,” to “get in somebody else’s shoes,” to “maintain my balance.” Unlike many high-profile politicians, he wrote many of his own speeches, trying, as he says future political leaders must, “to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people.”
If Barack Obama embodies the promise of public intellectualism, his own record also reveals its shaky prospects. Deep learning eloquently brought to bear on the contemporary moment has, quite evidently, not been enough to shore up the aging foundations of our republic—much less bind us together as a people. And a live-from-the-West-Wing Twitter feed is not likely to advance our fortunes, either. “The evolving edifice of public intellectualism,” to use the term of Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena’s editor Michael C. Desch, rests on a foundation whose cement seems to be returning to sand. We have it on good information what comes next.
“Once human societies stop being essentially grounded in tradition, something like public intellectualism becomes constitutive,” observes the political scientist Michael Zuckert in his chapter of this volume. And herein lies the challenge these authors—fifteen in all, from a range of disciplines and nationalities—glimpse and name in diverging ways. If our grounding in tradition is gone, and if the enlightened replacement yet continues its deconstructing course, what have the intellectual avatars of the contemporary order to offer?
Economics, apparently. Desch names the discipline “the preeminent home of public intellectuals” in today’s academy; Mark Lilla drily notes that “Economics 101” is now “the world’s de facto core curriculum.” The economist J. Bradford DeLong agrees, announcing that “Economists are here to tell you what’s what and how to do it”—teachers in the authoritarian mold, it seems. He follows this pronouncement with the observation that, given the triumph of global capital and subsequent failure of any other organizing principle, mere citizens have no choice but to “listen” to economists. “But you have nearly no ability to evaluate what you hear,” he warns. “When we don’t reach a near consensus, then heaven help you.” As DeLong goes to lengths to show, the country—the world—is in the hands of a field that is nowhere close to such consensus. Such news does not reassure the democratic soul.
DeLong baldly states that “a market economy’s underlying calculus is a calculus of doing what wealth wants rather than what people need.” Several contributors are intent on finding a way to thwart that desire and explore alternatives. Willy Lam, writing on the fate of public intellectuals in China—where, he says, their “toughest challenge” is mere “survival”—places his hope in the triumph of what he calls, variously, “universal norms,” “universal-style democratic institutions,” and “the values enshrined in the charters of the United Nations.” Writing from the United States, Zuckert too finds the “liberal-democratic tradition” to be “the indispensable ground for our common moral and political life.”
But is the liberal democratic tradition up to the challenge—the challenge of disciplining an economic order that exists not to prosper democracy but itself?