Who is the most influential public intellectual of the last 20 years?
This designation should go to someone who actually has helped change the world, rather than just changing lots of minds. It also should go to someone who has embodied key trends of the time, noting that for both standards I am focusing on the United States.
Based on those standards, I am inclined to pick Andrew Sullivan, who is most recently in the news for his announcement that he is quitting after fifteen years of blogging.
Any discussion of Sullivan's influence must begin with gay marriage. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia already have legalized gay marriage, representing a majority of the American population, with possibly Alabama and others to follow. A broader Supreme Court decision for nationwide legalization may be on the way. More generally, gay rights have taken a major leap forward.
Sullivan is hardly the only person behind this struggle, but he was one of the first — and the most relentless. Beginning in the late 1980s — when gay marriage was an idea that seemed loathsome and bizarre to many — he tirelessly kept the issue on the political agenda and also in the minds of the intelligentsia, for instance through his classic 1989 New Republic essay.
At first, most civil-rights figures didn't give the issue much thought — or maybe they wanted to run away from the fight they saw as too controversial or as an obvious loser. Sullivan, somehow, felt he could see this one through, or at least he was determined to go down trying. His position, while it is now by no means universally accepted, in 2015 feels mainstream and conservative. And it is spreading around the world, as gay marriage is now legal in seventeen countries with likely more to come.
But that's just the start. Sullivan was a very early blogger, and in that arena he was tireless too, so dedicated that he now claims blogging is endangering his health. For many years, it was common for his site to put up fifteen or more posts a day, a remarkably large percentage of them interesting or in some way provocative or informative. He embodied the classic blogosphere like no other writer, as he fine-tuned and mastered the art of the blog as an ongoing critical — and indeed substantive — dialog with oneself. He was an inspiration for many writers, myself included, and he gave many of us our first big links and our first taste of how to deal with a crashed site from heavy traffic.
While the future of blogging in the narrow sense may well be marked, most of the intelligent online media are now quite "bloggy," If one had to pick a single individual who embodied, drove, and represented the evolution of media to online forms, Andrew Sullivan would be a good choice.
That's two big wins right there, and how many other public intellectuals can come up with one?
Andrew's blog coverage of the now-failed revolt in Iran was another milestone in web journalism, showing the power of crowdsourcing and collective information-gathering, as well as integrating text, photos, and video in novel (but now standard) ways. He and his team were ahead of mainstream media on that topic for weeks or even months. His interests always have been global, and perhaps it is no accident that the most influential American public intellectual is by birth a Brit and by upbringing a critical Tory.
I thought long and hard before selecting Andrew for the designation of most influential public intellectual. Perhaps Paul Krugman has changed more minds, but his agenda hasn't much changed the world; we haven't, for instance, gone back to do a bigger fiscal stimulus. Peter Singer led large numbers of people into vegetarianism and veganism and gave those practices philosophic respectability; he is second on my list. A generation ago, I would have picked Milton Friedman, for intellectual leadership in the direction of capitalist and pro-market reforms. But that is now long ago, and the Right has produced no natural successor.
I have read and heard many bitter complaints about Andrew Sullivan. Many critics resent his "war blogging," which encouraged the American military intervention in Iraq. Or they attack his editorship of The New Republic, which led the magazine in a more conservative direction than many wished to see. What about his insistence that Trig was not the biological son of Sarah Palin and his repetitive crusade against that woman? Or what was to some observers his turn to the Left, overreaction against the Right, and his subsequent infatuation or perhaps even obsession with President Obama? (I'm of the opinion that our President read him daily for years, and that counts for something, too.)
In any case Sullivan has lots of failings, even if we cannot all agree on exactly which ones they are. Those shortcomings, by the way, often reflected our time. Imperfections are a part of influence, too.
I've never met Andrew Sullivan, even though we live not too far away from each other. I've long felt it would be a slightly nerve-wracking experience, as perhaps he would abruptly rise from a dinner-table discussion to put up yet another blog post. That risk is now gone, I am sorry to say, but not all is lost. Andrew is only fifty-one years old, and there is no reason to think we have seen his final act.
Related: What Andrew Sullivan's exit says about the future of blogging.