A 20-Year Odyssey

In the two decades since Paul Starr, Robert Reich, and I founded The American Prospect, there have been surprising gains and losses to the liberal project. After the ascendancy of Reaganism, our purpose was to articulate a muscular liberalism, defined as a more effective democracy, an enlarged civic space, and a more just form of capitalism -- a liberalism that could once again animate a majority politics.

As it happened, many people associated with the Prospect soon got involved with the Clinton presidency. In our pages, Stan Greenberg helped define the message that got Bill Clinton elected. Two of our three founders served with distinction in the administration. (I got to mind the store.)

Since we began publication as a quarterly with a circulation of 2,700, the Prospect, now a monthly with a lively Web magazine, has been a forum for inspired argument, both with the right and within the liberal family. We've been hospitable to a wide expanse of the liberal spectrum without sacrificing our core belief in effective government, robust progressive politics, and broad economic opportunity. The magazine has rejected facile contrarianism in favor of extensive reporting and evidence. Our friend and colleague Sandy Jencks describes the Prospect's signature as "policy as narrative."

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At the time of our founding, "interest-group liberalism" was described by many commentators as an alarming blight. Supposedly, gay rights, feminism, disability rights, and expansion of opportunities for minorities were making liberalism a fragmented collection of narrow interests at the expense of the broad collectivity. Many of these same neo-liberal voices also called for markets to displace government responses to collective problems, but their marquee quarrel was with identity politics. But then a funny thing happened.

A 20-year liberal scorecard easily shows that the era's greatest liberal gains have been in the politics of inclusion -- setting the stage for an African American president. Barack Hussein Obama was no affirmative-action baby. He won based on pure merit because he was the most effective politician of any stripe. There have been similar gains in the normalization and growing acceptance of sexual minorities, the chipping away of the glass ceiling constraining women's opportunities, and the greater accommodation of people with disabilities.

Minorities have now transcended radical identity politics and joined the mainstream. Just look at the Republican Party, with a black chairman and rainbow candidates for Congress and state offices. Women who are former corporate CEOs are running as Republican candidates for governor and senator in California. Indeed, thanks to the success of a radical women's movement banging on the doors, Sarah Palin and several other faux-feminist conservative women have emerged as crackpot notables. Such are the fruits of liberal success.

Yet the alarms about "interest -- group liberalism" were not entirely wrong. For liberalism is a persuasive ideology when it offers broad benefits to all citizens, not just to aggrieved groups. Since 1990, particular movements demanding inclusion made great gains, but the general movement to harness capitalism and broaden prosperity has suffered terrible losses.

The economy today is more unequal, more precarious, and more prone to catastrophe than it was in 1990 -- or for that matter in 1960. The counterweights to raw capitalism -- a strong labor movement, effective economic regulation, valued public institutions -- are on the defensive. Though a Democratic president has won partial reforms to restore public investment, revive economic regulation, and repair an unjust and inefficient private health-insurance system, the very idea of government as a needed counterweight to laissez-faire capitalism remains a hard sell.

President Obama took office at a moment when free-market ideology, Wall Street hegemony, and conservative incumbency were thoroughly disgraced by recent events. But Obama has not yet been able to translate that failure into a durable progressive counterrevolution.

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I draw three conclusions from the big wins in the struggle for inclusion and the severe losses on the economic front. First, the out-groups that won major gains did so as genuine and impolite social movements, not as supplicants. The Tea Party today has a movement, but on the progressive side, the movement for economic justice is far too weak.

Second, liberals in and out of government need to think bigger, not smaller. Large, expansive projects such as Social Security, the GI Bill, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Medicare persuaded majorities that government could be a source of genuine help. At a time of big crisis, small incremental efforts neither restore government as a force for broad economic inclusion nor rebuild a majority politics.

Third, whether on the liberal left or the conservative right, the gains and losses of the era from Reagan to Obama began as battles of ideas. Magazines like this one matter because ideas matter.

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