Influential Intellectuals Revisited

Important thinkers of the early 21st century, the bonus round.

In the strange cycling way of internet journalism these days, I wrote a post here two months ago about decadence and Western intellectual life — which the editors of The New Statesman thought was interesting enough to adapt and republish recently as an essay in their fine magazine across the Atlantic — which in turn prompted a number of people on this side of the Atlantic to take issue with my somewhat-casually-chosen list of the most important active intellectuals of the last twenty years — which means that I’m back here with an update and a few more thoughts.

First, some of the people taking issue missed the (arbitrary) limits of the original list. I tried to choose thinkers who have been doing their influential work since the year 2000, not just thinkers whose work has mattered in the last twenty years. Thus Samantha Power was on my list because A Problem From Hell came out in 2002, and Judith Butler wasn’t because Gender Trouble came out in 1990 — even though Butler is clearly extremely important for understanding recent cultural developments, and a more important intellectual figure overall than Power. And I mentioned Butler later in the essay for that reason, along with figures like the subject of my most recent Times column, Michel Foucault, because part of the point of the exercise was to suggest that many intellectuals from thirty or fifty years ago still loom larger than their present heirs. (However, I made one mistake: By my own standard I probably shouldn’t have included Peter Singer on my initial list, since his most famous texts on animal rights and effective altruism are four decades old; even though he’s alive and working, he probably belongs with Foucault and others on the list of intellectuals from a prior era who still influence our own.)

Other critics, though, just helpfully pointed out people I had missed. So I thought I’d do a short bonus round, with some candidates for intellectuals-of-influence that my initial survey left out, and some explanatory notes. (As with the initial list, this is strictly about cultural importance; no other judgment is implied.)

Nate Silver/Ezra Klein: My former and my current colleague were nominated together for their influence on what you might call the high-wonk era in liberalism, which ran from Obama’s 2008 election through the 2013-2014 stirrings that became the Great Awokening. Klein was probably the most important liberal writer-analyst-explainer during the Obamacare debate, Silver became an almost-totemic figure for liberalism in the 2012 election, and between them Vox and FiveThirtyEight were two of the most intellectually influential publications founded in the flush period of internet journalism.

Michael Anton: Maybe Donald Trump could have been elected president with any intellectual narrative to make conservatives feel justified in rallying around him. But if you think the nature of that narrative mattered then Anton’s “Flight 93 Election” might be the most important political essay of the last five years — setting up not just the right’s 2016 mindset but its fraud-pilled radicalization in the waning days of 2020 as well.

David Frum: My original list included Power, Andrew Sullivan and Thomas Friedman for their influence on the Bush era but it lacked an actual neoconservative. Whether Frum is the perfect choice is debatable, but more than other neoconservative figure his ideas have been important twice over: During the post-9/11 years and again during the evolution of center-right NeverTrumpism in 2016-2020.

Nikole Hannah-Jones: My original choices included Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, but The 1619 Project is arguably an even more important cultural document and academic-political flashpoint than White Fragility or How to Be An Anti-Racist. You could pick one of the “new history of capitalism” academics to represent the 1619 debate, but I will claim journalist’s privilege and pick my colleague.

Rebecca Solnit: A few people noted the absence of any feminist writer to match the writers on race and anti-racism. I’m not quite sure if Men Explain Things to Me is actually the most influential feminist book of this era or Solnit the most important writer. But her book of essays is the text I would choose to capture the moment just before the #MeToo era, the foundation on which that shift was built.

Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger: I didn’t include the retired pontiff for the same reason I didn’t include Judith Butler et. al., on the grounds that his most influential work — both under his own name and in collaboration with Pope John Paul II — belongs more the 1970s through the 1990s than to the years of his actual pontificate. But via the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy and his papal encyclicals and addresses he was a pretty active figure in the first decade of the century too, and — whatever the fate of Ratzingerian Catholicism since his retirement and henceforward — he should probably be included on a post-2000 list.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali/Tariq Ramadan: Two very different figures who loomed large in the debates about Islam’s compatibility with Western liberalism and democracy in the later 2000s. (For those too young to remember them, here’s a 28,000-word taste.)

Patrick Deneen: In the original post I wrote that “in another ten years I might add a post-liberal Catholic, but not yet,” but I’ve reconsidered and think it’s fair to say that Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed played a unique role in opening the door to all of the right’s ongoing post-liberal arguments.

Scott Sumner/Stephanie Kelton: Because market monetarism and modern monetary theory arguably stand in the same relation to our “no, really, deficits don’t matter” policymaking era as Milton Friedman did to Reagan-Thatcher neoliberalism.

Michel Houellebecq: I didn’t include him because my post was distinguishing between novelists and intellectuals, but he’s so fundamentally a novelist-of-ideas, and so important to debates about late capitalism/the end of history/the sexual revolution that it seems a little silly to leave him out.

Glenn Beck: An intellectual, Mr. Beck? For our purposes, yes: More than any of the opportunistic libertarians who claimed the mantle he was the true mind of the Tea Party movement (another ideological moment now lost in time) and a model for all kinds of subsequent autodidact intellectualism and paranoid analysis, encompassing not just the right’s variations but the paranoid style that flourished on the anti-Trump center-left as well. Other right-wing and right-adjacent media figures, like Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan, matter more as entrepreneurs or idea-driven entertainers. But Beck was an idea guy in a very specific way, and a man not just for his 2009-era moment but for ours: The internet is his blackboard, and we all live there, all the time.