Political Scientists and Philanthropy

The “Ideas Industry” and Populist Reaction in Education Policy

Editors’ Note: Sarah Reckhow, guest editor of the current forum on political science and philanthropy, reviews fellow political scientist Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry (OUP, 2017). She concludes by reflecting on the book’s relevance for students of American education policy and philanthropy.  

In May 2013, Bill Gates delivered a TED talk called “Teachers Need Real Feedback.” The talk followed the familiar TED tropes: Gates began by diagnosing a problem (in this case, that teachers got far too little feedback on their teaching), and then he showed attractive charts and international comparisons on the screen. Gates diverged from the data to bring up a classroom anecdote and pitched an appealing and straightforward solution that happened to draw on technology and support from the Gates Foundation. The audience offered rousing applause. The talk was completed in just over 10 minutes, with brief interruptions for additional audience applause.

According to Dan Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas, Gates is a participant in an increasingly typical form of idea marketing in our current era. In fact, Gates is a regular contributor to TED (he has 6 talks on the TED website). Drezner singles out TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) as emblematic of the more troubling features of the “ideas industry,” in particular, a lack of debate and substantive criticism. As Drezner argues:

When one watches a TED video, for example, all one sees is a sales pitch. More than half the TED lectures end with a standing ovation; the reactions are all affirmation without any constructive criticism. Yet it is how ideas survive the gauntlet of criticism that really matters… What is needed is a symbiosis—not just TED talks, but TED talks with discussants.

Now, imagine how Bill Gates might have been received with a panel of teachers and education researchers sitting on the stage to serve as discussants…

According to Drezner, TED, along with similar events, such as the Aspen Ideas Festival, South by Southwest, and the World Economic Forum at Davos, have created fertile ground for thought leaders, at the expense of public intellectuals. And the line between these two terms is not simply one between academics and non-academics. Rather, Drezner describes a thought leader as an “intellectual evangelist”—someone with a “singular lens to explain the world” who eagerly promotes that vision widely; examples include New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (the world is flat… very very flat) and Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen (who promoted the concept of disruptive innovation, spreading this idea from the technology industry and business schools into public sector areas like education). In contrast to thought leaders, public intellectuals are more likely to comment on a range of topics and offer a skeptical perspective. According to Drezner, they are “able to point out intellectual charlatans.” The trouble with an ideas industry dominated by thought leaders, in Drezner’s view, is that thought leaders can “garner too much uncritical attention too quickly, and then are taken down after they have wreaked significant intellectual carnage.” It’s important to note that Drezner does not view these as mutually exclusive categories. Over the course of a career, a single individual might sometimes behave more like a thought leader and at other times adopt the perspective of a public intellectual.

How did the public debate over policy ideas develop into an ideas industry where intellectual evangelists can thrive? According to Drezner, three major trends have played a role: 1) erosion of trust in institutions; 2) political polarization; and 3) growing economic inequality and the role of wealthy benefactors in promoting ideas. Although Drezner is a political scientist and a professor of international politics at Tufts University, this book is not a typical scholarly book and his empirical approach could be described as “breezy” and anecdotal—he draws quite a bit on his personal experience interacting with the ideas industry.

My strongest critique of this book is that Drezner adopts the writing and analytical style of many of the “thought leaders” he also critiques. It would probably be a stronger book if Drezner stayed closer to his academic roots. He uses many anecdotes that support a single argument—the distinction between thought leaders and public intellectuals—but the book is light on data and analysis (for data, he draws heavily on results from a survey he conducted of “opinion leaders”). Yet many of Drezner’s observations are likely to ring true for those who study the tangle of public scholars, think tanks, philanthropists, and consultants who populate the ideas industry across a wide range of policy areas. His book maps the landscape well and highlights some crucial changes in the terrain, including the role of private funders.

Drezner traces the role of wealthy benefactors in the ideas industry through a few different mechanisms. For example, he discusses the social and intellectual world of plutocrats, drawing on both journalistic and scholarly sources, including recent research by political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright on the gap in policy attitudes between the very wealthy and the general public. In summary, Drezner argues, “Many plutocrats will prefer policy solutions that simply bypass the state completely rather than try to reform existing policies.” This observation partially parallels my research with Jeff Snyder on education, where support for “non-state actors” like charter schools and private schools is surpassing major foundation funding for traditional public schools.

Drezner also examines the growing role of individual wealthy philanthropists such as think tank funders. Some of these funders are motivated by strong ideological convictions and seek to ensure that the think tanks they patronize are loyal proponents of the funder’s ideology. The close association with ideological patrons has impacted the output and activities of these think tanks, including an emphasis on affiliated 501(c)4 organizations (like Heritage Action and Center for American Progress Action Fund) as well as reports and events that cater to the specific interests of donors. Further, many wealthy patrons are not interested in offering general operating support. Instead, they are looking for “results-oriented return on investment,” a difficult product to deliver in the unpredictable world of politics.

Overall, Drezner leaves a troubling impression about the state of policy deliberation in American politics and the influence of wealthy patrons. His argument also helps to shed some light on the polarization that has developed within education policy between a reform movement supported by many wealthy philanthropists and thought leaders (such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family) and a populist reaction involving teachers, unions, and scholar activists like Diane Ravitch.

Drawing from Drezner’s account of the ideas industry, it is possible to consider how philanthropists helped promote ideas developed by thought leaders (including enthusiasts of the Common Core and test score based teacher evaluation such as William Sanders and David Coleman), and how these ideas faced too little scrutiny, critique, or revision before they were written into policies like Race to the Top. For example, Elizabeth Green’s book, Building a Better Teacher, describes the rapid uptake of teacher evaluation as a policy strategy by the Gates Foundation after Bill Gates read a report from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project in 2007. The report argues that “having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap,” and recommends test-score based teacher evaluation as a policy solution. By 2008, Gates announced an abrupt shift in grant-making strategy away from small schools and towards teacher evaluation. Many philanthropists, such as Gates, are understandably drawn towards policy solutions that offer a promise of measurable impact through ideas that can be translated into national policy. Thought leaders—and think tanks that promote their work—have been effective at connecting these ideas to wealthy patrons.

Meanwhile, the association between Ravitch and populism is not a new one—a 2010 piece in the New Republic discusses “Diane Ravitch’s populist rage.” Ravitch herself endorses some aspects of populism, and on her blog she has promoted the idea of “populism with a brain.” For education populists, such as Ravitch, the alignment of elite philanthropists and elite thought leaders has provided fertile ground for mobilizing teachers, parents, and other non-elites against the corporate/philanthropic/private/plutocratic “takeover” of public education. The trouble with this polarized outcome for education politics is that Common Core and some form of teacher evaluation reform could be very effective ideas, if they had been debated and revised with greater public and intellectual scrutiny (in fact, Ravitch was once a proponent of national standards). Although Drezner does not travel down this road, his argument about the rising role of thought leaders and the support they enjoy among mega-wealthy philanthropists suggests that we can expect ongoing elite and populist tensions over American public policy.

-Sarah Reckhow

Sarah Reckhow is assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. She is the author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, which received the Virginia A. Hodgkinson Research Book Prize in 2014.

One thought on “The “Ideas Industry” and Populist Reaction in Education Policy

  1. It is hard to argue against subjecting proposed education reforms to more scrutiny before reformers — and their benefactors — subject children to them. But is the lack of such scrutiny a new phenomenon? One can easily list numerous curricular, organizational, testing, and other kinds of changes, going back a century or more, that began as ideas in some “thought leader’s” mind and with influential backing (including from schools of education) were let loose on school systems. What’s too often been lacking is not scrutiny before reforms are proposed, but clear-eyed monitoring of what happens after they are implemented.

    But here’s a simple rule that all thought leaders, public intellectuals, philanthropists and professors of education can follow: if you have an idea for changing education, make sure that your own children are included among those who will be affected by it.


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