The conventional wisdom is that politicians aren't influenced by what the late George Wallace called "pointy-headed intellectuals." The recent death of Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington is a reminder that the opposite is often the case. Scholars do influence the "real world" of politics -- for both good and ill.
Huntington will be remembered most for two influential ideas. One was his assertion, in a 1993 article in Foreign Affairs and also in a book, that international conflict increasingly was being driven not by economics or ideology but by the "fault lines between civilizations," including the split between Western and Islamic cultures. That view informed the Bush administration's declaration of war on "Islamic fascism.”
President Bush was Huntington's thesis that unchecked immigration, especially from Mexico, threatened to transform the U.S. into a bilingual society. Huntington's doomsaying in a 2004 book was disputed by research showing that proficiency in English increased among the children and grandchildren of Mexican immigrants. Even so, his argument retains more currency than it deserves in the debate over immigration's cultural consequences.
Huntington isn't the first intellectual to influence government policy. The bipartisan post-World War II policy of containing, rather than seeking to overthrow, the Soviet Union had its genesis in a 1947 Foreign Affairs article by George Kennan, drawing on his diplomatic experience in Moscow. President Reagan's policy of resisting leftist movements in Central America echoed a 1979 article by Jeane Kirkpatrick -- later Reagan's envoy to the United Nations -- contending that right-wing autocracies were likelier than revolutionary leftist regimes to evolve into democracies. Two bipartisan domestic initiatives -- welfare reform and community policing -- were drawn from the academy as well. Charles Murray's 1984 book, "Losing Ground,” argued that benefits for the poor perpetuated a culture of dependency -- a thesis that President Clinton endorsed. Los Angeles and its police chief, William J. Bratton, owe much to George L. Kelling's and James Q. Wilson's 1982 article, "Broken Windows,” in which they argued that inner-city residents were terrorized not only by violent criminals but also by petty crime and urban decay.
Most of these theories were challenged by other academics. Some, like Kirkpatrick's, were discredited by events. But all of them proved that even public officials who aren't intellectuals rely in their decision-making -- sometimes too much -- on the life of the mind. Or as the conservative intellectual Richard Weaver put it: Ideas have consequences.