Little Magazine, Big Ideas: The American Prospect at 25

The American Prospect began 25 years ago with a small circulation, a limited budget, 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 moment when Democrats had lost three successive presidential elections, 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 also 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. William Julius Wilson, for example, was trying to formulate a politically feasible strategy for achieving liberal aims when he wrote in the magazine’s first issue about “Race-Neutral Policies and the Democratic Coalition” (views he subsequently revised, as he explained to the Prospect’s readers in 2011).  A frequent theme was how to shape a program to win back the “working middle-class,” including the “Reagan Democrats” (a theme that Stanley Greenberg wrote about in Fall 1991 and revisits in the Spring 2015 issue).

While some articles sought to dissect conservative policies and “reframe the debate,” many others addressed disputes among liberals. Several early cover themes posed issues in the form of questions: “Should We Compromise on Abortion?” (Walter Dellinger, 1990); “Should Foreign Ownership Matter to the U.S.?” (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 majoritarian politics. 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. Some pieces such as Jeff Faux's “The Myth of the New Democrats” (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. 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 1990s. Robert D. Putnam's “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America” 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 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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From the beginning, the Prospect was an intergenerational project. We sought not only to pick up the torch from an older generation of liberal intellectuals and journalists such as Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith but also to mentor and support a new generation to carry on the tradition.

Two of the first managing editors, both right out of college, were David Callahan and Jonathan Cohn. (Callahan recently founded Inside Philanthropy and Cohn, after many years  at The New Republic, is now at The Huffington Post.). 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 a remarkable line of young journalists, including Joshua Micah Marshall, who went on to found Talking Points Memo; Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox; Matt Yglesias, Vox’s Executive Editor; Adam Serwer, national editor of Buzzfeed; Dana Goldstein of the Marshall Project; Jamelle Bouie of Slate; Michelle Goldberg of The Daily Beast; Nicholas Confessore of The New York Times; Laura Maggi of the New Orleans Advocate; Richard Just, editor of National Journal; Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine; Kate Sheppard, environment reporter for Mother Jones; Chris Mooney, science reporter for the Washington Post; and Gabriel Arana of The Huffington Post. Among those who have gone on to notable careers in the universities are Jedediah Purdy of Duke Law School and Tara Zahra of the University of Chicago. Other Prospect alumni include Scott Stossel, editor of the Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta, editor-in-chief of Yahoo Politics; and Joshua Green, senior national correspondent of Bloomberg Businessweek.

Discussions of politics in the magazine during the second half of the 1990s included broad, interpretive essays as well as reporting and analyses 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.  Whether there was “an emerging Democratic majority” became the subject of a continuing debate. The politics of race and ethnicity drew critical scrutiny from these and other writers, including Kennedy, Lani Guinier, and Carol M. Swain. Civil liberties were a recurring concern, too, as in Anthony Lewis' “The Prosecutorial 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 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. Reich and Faux have been two of the most frequent writers on economic issues. Robert S. McIntyre, an expert on taxes with a rare gift for droll prose on the subject, contributed a regular column, “The Taxonomist,” between 2000 and 2006.

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, George Lakoff, and Drew Westen, 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 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, 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—an effort that the magazine later abandoned. The Prospect's own site, besides offering pieces from the print magazine, features original online articles to respond to breaking events and provide wider coverage than our pages can accommodate. The magazine also long had a group blog, Tapped, which had a significant audience of its own. After a four-year hiatus, we hope to revive Tapped in coming weeks.

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Between 1999 and 2003, the Prospect's print circulation doubled to more than 50,000. 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 (and in the past year has reverted to its original frequency as a quarterly). 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. Between 2000 and 2005, these addressed such themes as “The Open-Source Society,” “Making Work Pay,” “Children Left Behind,” “Bridging the Two Americas,” and “Checkbook Democracy.”

After September 11, the Prospect 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 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 (including his recent essay, “On Realism Old and New”). Some of the notable articles on foreign affairs have put contemporary problems in a wider historical frame, such as John Patrick Diggins's analysis of the history of neoconservatism, “The -Ism That Failed,” (2003); Kinzer's “Regime Change: The Legacy” (2003); and James Chace's analysis of the architects of Soviet containment, “Wise After All” (2004).

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National politics turned around in 2005. Although George W. Bush had won re-election, his popularity nosedived soon thereafter as a result of his slow and inept response to Hurricane Katrina and deepening popular disillusionment with the Iraq War. That was the context for a rising sense of political confidence among liberals and a series of major articles in the Prospect between 2006 and 2008 setting out thematic and policy ideas for what was, in fact, an emerging Democratic majority.

These articles included Michael Tomasky’s “Party in Search of a Notion,” Robert Kuttner’s “Can the Democrats Think Big?,” Harold Meyerson’s “A Global New Deal,” Paul Starr’s “The Democrats’ Strategic Challenge,” Robert Reich’s “Financing the Common Good”), and Maria Echaveste’s “Color, Values, America.” In “Why 2009 is the Year for Universal Health Care,” the Prospect’s prolific young writer Ezra Klein proved to be off by only one year. During the run-up to the 2008 election, the Prospect also ran extensive election reporting and analysis by Tomasky, Meyerson, Klein, Mark Schmitt, and Matt Yglesias, as well as Dana Goldstein, Terence Samuel, Tim Fernholz, and Thomas Schaller.

Although domestic issues were again taking priority, the Prospect continued to feature important articles on foreign policy and national security, including the work of Spencer Ackerman on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; Tara McKelvey on counterinsurgency, torture, and arms control; and Gershom Gorenberg and Daniel Levy on the Mideast. Environmental issues, which had been a domestic issue in the Prospect’s early years, became a global one, with the Prospect featuring writers on climate change such as Chris Mooney (“This Will Mean the World to Us”) and Ross Gelbspan (“Two Paths for the Planet”).

The financial crisis and recession beginning in 2008 brought renewed attention to economic problems that had long been core concerns for the Prospect. In April 2010, Elizabeth Warren (at that time a professor at Harvard Law School), Simon Johnson, Heather McGee, Robert Johnson, Nomi Prinz, and others contributed to a Prospect special report on financial reform, analyzing the choices being debated in connection with what became the Dodd-Frank legislation. Special reports also explored other aspects of the crisis: “America’s Endangered Middle Class” (February 2011) on the ramifications of the recession for middle-class security; “The American Dream Deferred” (May 2011) on the collapse of the housing bubble and abuses in the mortgage market; “Entrepreneurs and the Banking Crisis” (March 2012) on the problems of small business.

During the past decades, sexuality and gender have received increased attention in the Prospect through the powerful feminist work of such writers as Ann Friedman, Monica Potts, and Adele Stan and through the analysis of LGBT issues by such writers as Gabriel Arana, Urvashi Vaid, and Peter Montgomery. Randall Kennedy, Jamelle Bouie, and Adam Serwer have given insight into race and politics in the age of Obama.

Since returning as hands-on co-editors to lead the Prospect in July 2014, we’ve sought to build on the work of the many people who have contributed to the magazine and to renew the focus on public and political remedy that has been at its heart. The Spring 2015 25th anniversary issue, with “rolling back inequality” as its central theme, exemplifies that commitment. (You can download the issue here.)

As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue in the spring issue, the contemporary structure of American politics has not only allowed conservatives to move further to the right but also rewarded them for sheer obstructionism. The distribution of income and wealth has become more radically unequal; America suffers more from a deficit of public investment than from a fiscal deficit; and global climate change threatens communities throughout the world and here at home…  Yet as the right hamstrings legislation and undermines democracy, the very people who most need public remedy as a counterweight to concentrated wealth and power give up on government. The task for liberals and progressives is to help turn this vicious circle back into a virtuous one, where the government delivers, and the people see the positive difference their own active citizenship makes.

For the Prospect, the immediate work is to bring new insights, policy ideas, and powerful narrative writing to the liberal project. But the larger challenge is to rekindle faith in democratic possibility itself. That is mostly the work of citizens and of leaders. Yet magazines like ours can help enlarge the liberal imagination.

Political magazines have never been a lucrative enterprise, but the past decade has been especially difficult as the Internet has cut into both subscription and advertising revenue. Like many other publications, the Prospect has tried to take advantage of new opportunities for communication and engagement and to adjust to the bracing economic realities.   

Through all the changes we have made (and will be making), however, the Prospect’s mission remains the same: to bring liberal intelligence to bear on the urgent problems of our country. Stay with us. —May 12, 2015

This article is a revised and updated version of an article, “Little Magazine, Big Ideas,” which appeared on the 15th anniversary of the magazine in 2005. Articles linked to that were published between 1990 and 2001 carry a 2001 or 2005 date because of a programming error in the website.

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