Little Magazine, Big Ideas

The American Prospect began with a small circulation and great ambitions. Our aim was to rethink ideas about public policy and politics and thereby to restore plausibility and persuasiveness to American liberalism. The first issue appeared in spring 1990, a historical moment in some respects like today: Democrats had lost successive presidential elections, there was a George Bush in the White House, conservatives were pushing schemes for privatization, and liberals were in disarray.

But in 1990, Congress was still in Democratic hands, the Cold War was coming to an end with the Soviet collapse, and the focus of politics was turning from foreign to domestic policy. Rising economic anxieties, it seemed, might spur political change just as a “peace dividend” could finance new initiatives. By historic good fortune, the Prospect had arrived at a time not only of global change but of “liberal opportunity,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., called it in the first issue, which carried a cover image of an old world cracking open to reveal a new world born within.

The central preoccupation of the Prospect in its first years was how to realize the promise of the moment. The prescriptive focus of the magazine -- what policies were needed to generate economic growth? to reduce inequality? to protect the environment? to provide universal health coverage? -- reflected an underlying optimism that political power was within reach. And so it proved to be: Several of the Prospect's editors and writers became involved in the Clinton campaign and, in quick order, went from serving up ideas to serving in a new administration.

From the outset, the Prospect's articles about public policy were often closely tied to a central political concern: the creation of a durable liberal majority. For example, when William Julius Wilson wrote about “Race-Neutral Policies and the Democratic Coalition” in the first issue, he was trying to formulate a politically feasible strategy for achieving liberal aims. A frequent theme was how to shape a program to win back the “working middle-class,” including the “Reagan Democrats” [see Stanley B. Greenberg, “How We Found -- and Lost -- a Majority”].

While some articles sought to dissect conservative policies and “reframe the debate,” many others addressed disputes among liberals. Several early cover stories, for example, posed issues in the form of questions: “Should We Compromise on Abortion?” (Walter Dellinger, 1990); “Should Foreign Ownership Matter to the U.S.?” (Robert B. Reich and Laura D'Andrea Tyson, 1991); and “Have Rights Gone Wrong?” (Benjamin R. Barber's “The Reconstruction of Rights,” 1991). Gene B. Sperling debated Cass R. Sunstein on whether social-reform movements were too reliant on courts. The magazine also ran conflicting views on the Gulf War, affirmative action, and health-care reform.

“Mend it, don't end it” could have been the magazine's prescription for much of political legacy of the 1960s and the Great Society. Several articles, such as Karen Paget's discussion of “Citizen Organizing: Many Movements, No Majority” (1990), criticized the political balkanization of issue-based organizing and identity politics and called for a renewed effort at building an electoral majority. Echoes of the same argument still reverberate.

Besides articles about specific issues, the first years of the Prospect also featured more general discussions of “first principles” by Stephen Holmes (“The Liberal Idea,” 1991), Jane Mansbridge (“Feminism and Democracy,” 1990), and the editors of the magazine (Paul Starr's “Liberalism After Socialism,” 1991, and Robert Kuttner's “The Poverty of Neoliberalism,” 1990).

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The Prospect began as a quarterly, based in Princeton, New Jersey, with a paid circulation of 2,700 and a paid staff of two. The magazine moved to the Boston area in 1992, and it began publishing bimonthly four years later, when its circulation reached 12,000. By 1999 the circulation had doubled to more than 24,000.

Even as our founding chairman, Reich, was on leave as Bill Clinton's secretary of labor, the Prospect was often a critic of the administration. The magazine featured articles calling for more emphasis on public investment, a more assertive trade policy than Clinton supported, and a more accommodating monetary policy than Alan Greenspan was following [see James K. Galbraith, “Boasting on Demand”]. Some pieces such as Jeff Faux's “The Myth of the New Democrat” (1993) criticized the Democratic Leadership Council, while Richard Rothstein's “The Left's Obsessive Opposition” (1993) chided liberals for being too hard on Clinton.

Welfare reform brought out the Prospect's ambivalent view of the administration. From its first issue, the magazine had published articles by Christopher Jencks and others critical of the welfare system [see “Welfare Then and Now”]. A common thread was support for an alternative that “rewarded work” through the Earned Income Tax Credit and a higher minimum wage, while also guaranteeing health insurance and child care. But in 1996, when Clinton's compromise with the Republican Congress omitted key elements of this program, the Prospect provided a platform to critics who had left the administration, such as David T. Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane. Later articles, however, acknowledged that welfare reform had worked out better than expected, though serious problems remained.

The uncertain health of American democracy was a continuing theme during the '90s. Robert D. Putnam's “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America” [see “The Civic Enigma”] provoked a notable debate in our pages that included Theda Skocpol, Michael Schudson, Andrew Greeley, Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry E. Brady, and Sidney Verba. We also ran frequent discussions about money, politics, and campaign-finance reform, including the magazine's first investigative pieces by Robert Dreyfuss -- the beginnings of a turn toward reporting and narrative. Marshall Ganz's “Motor Voter or Motivated Voter?” (1996) and other articles addressed the practical question of what needed to be done to raise turnout.

Another recurrent theme has been what markets can and cannot be trusted to do. In the first issue, Deborah Stone's “AIDS and the Moral Economy of Insurance” took AIDS testing as a point of departure to explore inherent problems in private health insurance. Sunstein defended the use of market incentives in “Remaking Regulation” (1990), while other articles criticized airline, financial, and electricity deregulation, as well as proposals for privatizing Social Security and the public schools.

Education received frequent attention in our pages during the mid-'90s, particularly in writings by Rothstein, Peter Schrag, and Howard Gardner. In “The Myth of Public School Failure” (1993) and other pieces, Rothstein emerged as a passionate defender of public education and a powerful critic of the dubious data proffered in support of school vouchers. Schrag, who has contributed more than 30 pieces to the Prospect, wrote brilliantly about the politics of education in such articles as “The New School Wars: How Outcome-Based Education Blew Up” (1995).

Sexuality, gender, and the family also provided a focus of debate amid the “culture wars” of the mid-'90s. On the one hand, writers such as Sara McLanahan (“The Consequences of Single Motherhood,” 1994) left little doubt that children were better off with two parents. On the other, Arlie Hochschild in “The Fractured Family” (1991) and Arlene Skolnick in “The New Crusade for the Old Family” (1994) rejected conservative nostalgia as a basis for policy. In “Will Class Trump Gender?” (1996), Wendy Kaminer, a longtime writer for the magazine, dissected the free-market “women's libertarianism” of an elite group of right-wing women. Jane Mauldon and Kristin Luker examined right-wing attacks on sex education in an article with the memorable title “Does Liberalism Cause Sex?” (1996).

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In 1995–96, the Prospect created a one-year assistant-editor position that grew into our writing-fellows program. Our goal was to train progressive journalists in public affairs in the hope that they'd go on to distinguished careers. We count among our alumni Jedediah Purdy, author of the acclaimed book, For Common Things; Nicholas Confessore, now at The New York Times; Joshua Micah Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com; Jonathan Chait, Jason Gray Zengerle, and Richard Just, all at The New Republic; Mark Greif, editor of the new n+1; Laura Maggi, at The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune; and Drake Bennett, at The Boston Globe, as well as Noy Thrupkaew and Chris Mooney, freelancers who continue to write for the Prospect. Scott Stossel and Joshua Green, now of The Atlantic, Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic, and David Callahan, author of three public-affairs books, also worked for the Prospect early in their careers.

Discussions of politics in the magazine during the second half of the '90s included broad, interpretive essays as well as analyses and reporting of contemporary events. Among the articles that offered a new way of thinking were Stephen Holmes' “What Russia Teaches Us Now” (1997), arguing that too weak a state, as well as too powerful a state, could threaten liberty; Bruce Ackerman's “The Broken Engine of Progressive Politics” (1998), analyzing the historic changes in the relations of progressive movements, presidents, and the Democratic Party; and Melvin Konner's “Darwin's Truth, Jefferson's Vision: Sociobiology and the Politics of Human Nature” (1999), defending sociobiology as consistent with liberal politics.

Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore's “Is God a Republican?” (1996) argued that separation of church and state serves the interests of both. Ackerman, Sunstein, Randall Kennedy, and Kathleen M. Sullivan also contributed articles on constitutional questions. Alan Brinkley, Michael Kazin, and Sean Wilentz brought history to bear on contemporary issues.

John B. Judis and Harold Meyerson became our two chief analysts of contemporary politics. Beginning with a 1992 article, “The Pressure Elite,” Judis shed brilliant light on the inner workings of Washington. Meyerson, who began writing in our pages in 1996 and is now our editor-at-large, as well as a weekly columnist for The Washington Post, has covered national politics and given particular attention to labor and progressive organizations. The Prospect has also frequently run important analytical pieces by E.J. Dionne Jr., Ronald Brownstein, and Thomas B. Edsall. The politics of race and ethnicity drew critical scrutiny from these and other writers, including Kennedy, Lani Guinier, and Carol M. Swain [see “Blacks and the Republican Party”]. Civil liberties became a recurring concern, too, as in Anthony Lewis' “The Inquisitorial State” (1999), the lead article in an issue on privacy and individual rights.

The Prospect devoted regular attention to economic policy, beginning with an early preoccupation with trade, labor, and the global economy. Among the economists to appear in our pages have been Galbraith and Alan S. Blinder on monetary and fiscal policy; Jeffrey Sachs on the International Monetary Fund; Joseph Stiglitz on globalization; Lawrence Mishel, Barry Bluestone, and Theresa Ghilarducci on labor economics; Alicia H. Munnell on pensions; Alice H. Amsden on East Asian economies; Rebecca M. Blank on Eurosclerosis; and Paul Krugman on income inequality [see “Staircase to Nowhere”]. Reich and Faux have been the two most frequent writers on economic issues; Merrill Goozner has covered regulation. Robert S. McIntyre, an expert on taxes with a rare gift for droll prose on the subject, began contributing a regular column, “The Taxonomist,” in 2000.

Although the Prospect has run occasional reviews of film, fiction, and art, our primary coverage has focused on how culture intersects with politics and public life. The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg first appeared in our pages with a critical analysis of the English-only movement (“Lingo Jingo,” 1997); subsequent articles of his, along with those of Deborah Tannen and George Lakoff, have highlighted the political uses of language. Beginning in the mid-'90s, the Prospect also devoted attention to the politics of the media, often through the writing of Joshua Gamson, beginning with his analyses of tabloid media (“Incredible News,” 1994) and daytime TV (“Do Ask, Do Tell,” 1995). Other notable pieces have included Tom DeVries' prescient “We'll Talk About That: Can Liberals Do Talk Radio?” (1996); Jane Rosenzweig's inquiry into efforts to use television scripts to promote social reform, “Can TV Improve Us?” (1999); Stossel's “Echo Chamber of Horrors,” on what happened on TV on election night 2000; Todd Gitlin's many articles, such as his takedown of fox News, “We Disport. We Deride” (2003); Eric Alterman and Michael Tomasky's analysis of the press and the 2004 election, “Wake-Up Time”; and Neal Gabler's essay “Liberalism's Lost Script” (2004).

The Prospect was one of the first magazines to enter electronic journalism, launching a Web site, www.prospect.org, in 1994. In 1995, the magazine created the Electronic Policy Network (epn.org, later renamed movingideas.org), originally to build Web sites for progressive policy groups and then to function as a portal to sites they built independently. From a base of 12 affiliates, Moving Ideas now has an institutional membership of more than 150, and serves as a portal for progressive research, commentary, and activism online. The Prospect's own site, besides offering pieces from the print magazine and the popular blog Tapped, features original online articles to respond to breaking events and provide wider coverage than our pages can accommodate.

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Between 1999 and 2003, the Prospect's print circulation doubled to more than 50,000 and has since reached 65,000. In 1999 we opened a bureau in Washington, D.C., and in the summer of 2001 moved the main editorial offices there from Boston. For just over three years, beginning in November 1999, the Prospect published on a biweekly basis, but in January 2003 the magazine restructured itself as a monthly. Ever since its move to Washington, it has provided more sustained coverage of national politics, both in print and online.

Yet, in keeping with its original concerns about policy, the Prospect has also published special sections on major public issues, typically in partnership with foundations that support work on the topic. Since 2000, these have addressed such themes as “The Open-Source Society,” “Checkbook Democracy,” “Making Work Pay,” “The Politics of Family,” “Globalism and the World's Poor,” “Immigrants in the New Economy,” “Wealth in America,” “Youth and Politics,” “Can We Give America a Raise?”, “Children Left Behind,” “Political Inequality,” “Bringing Human Rights Home,” ”Bridging the Two Americas,” and Social Security privatization.

In recent years, especially after September 11, the Prospect has also turned more of its attention to foreign affairs and national security, the protection of civil liberties, and the escalating threat of the far right. In “Defending an Open Society,” our first issue after 9-11, we supported the war in Afghanistan but argued that the United States had to preserve its historic liberties even as it fought terrorism. In two special reports on foreign policy, as well as in other issues, writers such as Stanley Hoffmann, Morton H. Halperin, Theodore C. Sorensen, Lawrence J. Korb, Gary Hart, Stephen Kinzer, James Mann, Juan Cole, and Michael Walzer [see “Demystifying Terrorism”] have presented an alternative view to the administration's of America's best interests in the world [see also the editors' “The Liberal Uses of Power,” March 2005]. Hoffmann and Halperin have repeatedly emphasized the value of multilateralism. Mann, who saw the radicalism of the Bush foreign-policy team from the start (“Not Your Father's Foreign Policy,” 2001), has written incisively about policy toward China. Some of the notable articles on foreign affairs have put contemporary problems in a wider historical frame, such as John Patrick Diggins' analysis of the history of neoconservatism, “The -Ism That Failed,” (2003); Kinzer's “Regime Change: The Legacy” (2003); and the late James Chace's analysis of the architects of Soviet containment, “Wise After All” (2004).

In 15 years we have come full circle. As in 1990, there is a conservative administration in power, with policies well to the right of public opinion on most issues. During that period, The American Prospect has evolved from a small policy quarterly into a political magazine with a wider readership and a broader range of interests. But its mission remains unchanged: to bring liberal intelligence to bear on the urgent problems of our country. Stay with us.

Paul Starr and Robert Kuttner are co-editors of The American Prospect.

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