Reading Progressive History Through the Prospect

For most of the 20-year history of The American Prospect, I have been not a writer but a reader of the magazine. When the first issue was published in 1990, I was probably exactly the sort of reader the founders had in mind. In fact, having just been hired as a speechwriter for an ambitious and wonky Democratic senator (Bill Bradley of New Jersey), I got a copy as soon as I could, figuring that immersing myself in the swirl of new ideas about policy and politics could be considered a legitimate part of my new job. If the goal of the early Prospect was to set an ambitious liberal agenda, I hoped to be a cog in the transmission belt between the magazine's ideas and actual policy.

Looking back, it was quite a moment, full of potential and intellectual ferment, with a tangible sense that the Reagan decade had run out of steam (as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. argued powerfully in the Prospect's first issue) and that the end of the Cold War had brought a long-delayed opportunity to focus on domestic needs and blunt the Republicans' electoral advantage on national security -- a hope summed up in the forgotten term "peace dividend." Conservatives often cite the last two years of the 1970s, from Republican gains in the 1978 elections through the Reagan victory, as the most exhilarating period in their political life -- a frenzy of big ideas and unlimited possibility without the burden of actually implementing those ideas. For progressives, the dawn of the 1990s was similar, although it didn't have quite the same feeling of having hit bottom and starting over. (That would come in 2005 or so.) After all, Democrats -- though not progressives or liberals, a crucial difference -- controlled the House and Senate and assumed they always would. Although the party had lost five of the previous six presidential elections, the opportunity to change that record seemed always just around the corner. But how to get around that corner was a subject of vigorous debate within the center-left.

The Prospect brought a distinct viewpoint to that debate, one in which lines were clearly defined: The most notable alternative came from the Democratic Leadership Council. These moderate-to-conservative "New Democrats" had launched the Progressive Policy Institute in 1989 with a long essay called "The Politics of Evasion," by William Galston and Elaine Kamarck. They argued that the party had not come to terms with the electorate's deep conservatism, especially with worries about crime and welfare, and that neither "liberal fundamentalism" nor more effective mobilization of minorities and low-income voters would overcome that reality.

There were other alternatives as well, and the Prospect was engaged with and often critical of them: There were remnants of a movement from the late 1970s called "neoliberalism" (not to be confused with today's use of the term on the left to mean unregulated markets) that proposed revamping liberalism to achieve its goals through technocratic and market-based solutions -- the "new ideas" promised in Sen. Gary Hart's 1984 presidential run. (This group was sometimes called "Atari Democrats" -- after a computer-game company that was once thought to be the future of the economy.) There were the Wall Street Democrats, whose focus on deficit-reduction and investment-friendly tax policies would be a major challenge to liberalism over the next two decades. All but forgotten were the campus leftists, grassroots activists, and practitioners of "identity politics," long derided as a cause of Democratic defeats.

To a reader, the Prospect's "liberal fundamentalism" was straightforward and earnest, a refreshing contrast to all the tortured proposals for "how progressives can win." Much of the debate of the early 1990s came down to the choice between strategy and policy. In 1991, Harris Wofford won a special election in Pennsylvania on a platform of universal health care. The next year, I heard him tell a group of senators, "People think I talked about health care because the polls said I should talk about health care. They didn't. The polls said I had to talk about welfare. But I didn't want to talk about welfare, so I talked about health care." That was the spirit of the early Prospect: a dedication to not just winning elections but to full social and economic justice and an economy that created jobs and opportunity for an expanding middle class.

In those days, the Prospect was heavy on pure policy proposals, with graphs, tables, and footnotes. (One of the proposals, by economist Barry Bluestone and several colleagues to create a fund that individuals could tap for college loans and lifelong retraining, formed the basis for the first policy project on which I worked.) The assumption, it seemed, was that good policies that "benefit all citizens," as sociologist Theda Skocpol put it in a 1990 Prospect article, would result in political support from the citizens who benefited. "Integrity is surprisingly sound policy" for winning elections, John Kenneth Galbraith declared in the Prospect's first issue.

But few politicians shared the clarity of Galbraith, Wofford, or Sen. Paul Wellstone, elected the year the Prospect was founded and to this day an icon of the idea that unapologetic liberalism can win elections. Most politicians treated the great battle of ideas as a kind of menu from which to pick and choose as convenient, and none chose more omnivorously than Bill Clinton. His election put the airy debate over policy versus strategy into the realm of political reality, where the Prospect was often disappointed -- by Clinton, when he chose deficit reduction and later welfare reform over liberal alternatives, and by Congress, when it failed to pass health reform in 1993.

The greater disappointment came when the hopes for progressive resurgence were destroyed by the conservative comeback in the 1994 election. And so for the remaining six years of a Democratic presidency, and then eight of George W. Bush's -- two-thirds of the Prospect's short history -- we lived with not only the continued drama of government shutdowns, impeachments, deadlocked elections, corruption, and wars launched on deception but also the sobering reality of a government that was overwhelmingly conservative, with little opportunity for progressive policy ideas to be heard. Public opinion and demographic change augured an alternative future, such as that foreseen in Ruy Teixeira and John Judis' 2000 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority -- an argument that I was reminded recently, the Prospect had published five times before it was proved correct in 2008.

Those optimistic predictions didn't change the brutal realities of government. The mission of the Prospect quite naturally shifted during this period from questioning what kind of liberal vision should prevail to understanding the conservative challenge, detailing its excesses, and helping to develop both an alternative set of policies and a vision of justice that had been lost.

As we all struggled to understand the powerful hold of the conservative movement, it became apparent that media was itself a vital force in promoting it. From Fox News and The Weekly Standard to talk radio and the Drudge Report, conservative media were functioning as a kind of glue to the political movement, propagating new ideas, narratives, and individual writers and speakers who then became prominent voices in the mainstream. As the Prospect's readership expanded, the magazine became less of a policy journal and began to play a similar role in the nascent progressive renewal. Exposing and analyzing the excesses of conservatism, galvanizing readers around an alternative vision, and nurturing new voices through our writing fellows program became ever more central to the Prospect's mission.

The idea that good policies that benefit a broad cross-class constituency could lead to political success was put to the test in this period, as policies that instead benefited a narrow few, bankrupted the country, and left the American middle class stagnating seemed to persist without electoral consequences. Progressives developed a critique of "policy literalism," calling for a more coherent "framing" of the progressive vision and greater awareness of people's emotional responses to policy and language, insights that helped progressives gain ground in the last four years.

And so 20 years after I sought out that first copy of the Prospect, the arc has turned, and once again we are at a moment of great potential for progress and daily risk of disappointment or backlash. But things seem to be going a little better this time, with significant victories on health-care reform and now financial reform, even as the consequences of the Bush era continue to present new challenges. We're doing better in part because of structural changes, such as the emergence of the first congressional majority that doesn't depend on Southern conservatives.

But we've also all learned a lot from 20 years of debate. We understand that the American electorate embraces progressive change only reluctantly. But we also know that a clear vision of a society with opportunity for all can attract and excite voters in a way that tactical pandering cannot. We know that mobilizing minority and low-income voters actually can help progressives win, that using market mechanisms for progressive goals can work if the markets are adequately regulated, and that good policies need to be embedded in language and a larger vision of a just society.

But as a severe global recession, multiple wars, and environmental disasters dwarf the problem of winning elections, the best policy response is once again likely to be the best political tactic. This moment calls for Galbraith's insight that "integrity is surprisingly strong policy."

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