By Michael Lind, Tablet
How the foundation-NGO complex quashed innovative thinking and open debate, first on the American right and now on the center-left.
I have never liked the term “public intellectual,” but like its 19th-century predecessor, “publicist,” it describes a social type that plays a useful role in liberal democracies in which at least some government decision-making is influenced by open debate rather than secret discussions behind closed doors. To influence voters, public intellectuals write for a general educated public (not necessarily the less-educated majority) in ordinary language, not jargon. Like the policymakers whom they also seek to influence, they are necessarily generalists. In the service of what the Brazilian American public intellectual Roberto Unger calls a strategic “program,” public intellectuals ponder connections among different policy realms—economic, foreign, and cultural—if only to ensure that one policy does not contradict another. Public intellectuals tend to annoy their own side by probing its internal weaknesses, while trying to convert members of the other team rather than simply denounce them.
The centralized and authoritarian control of American progressivism by major foundations and the nonprofits that they fund, and the large media institutions, universities, corporations, and banks that disseminate the progressive party line, has made it impossible for there to be public intellectuals on the American center left. This is not to say that progressives are not intelligent and/or well-educated. It is merely to say that being a progressive public intellectual is no longer an option, in an era in which progressivism is anti-intellectual.
If you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or a silent movie star. That’s because, in the third decade of the 21st century, intellectual life on the American center left is dead. Debate has been replaced by compulsory assent and ideas have been replaced by slogans that can be recited but not questioned: Black Lives Matter, Green Transition, Trans Women Are Women, 1619, Defund the Police. The space to the left-of-center that was once filled with magazines and organizations devoted to what Diana Trilling called the “life of significant contention” is now filled by the ritualized gobbledygook of foundation-funded, single-issue nonprofits like a pond choked by weeds. Having crowded out dissent and debate, the nonprofit industrial complex—Progressivism Inc.—taints the Democratic Party by association with its bizarre obsessions and contributes to Democratic electoral defeats, like the one that appears to be imminent this fall.