Comment: Brighter Prospects


A decade ago, in year nine of the Reagan-Bush era, Paul Starr, Robert Reich and I founded a new liberal journal. The Prospect began as a quarterly, with 2,700 subscribers. Longtime readers may notice a few changes in this, our forty-seventh issue, the first to be published biweekly.

1989 was not a liberal moment. The right had the political and intellectual energy. The collapse of communism was too easily taken as a vindication of laissez faire. Ronald Reagan's budget deficit had created a politics of permanent fiscal crisis. Around us, a cottage industry of one time liberals, prosperously reborn as neo-conservatives, was warning that government had overreached, that rights had run riot, that taxes and regulations were strangling economic growth, and inclusion becoming political correctness. These were essentially conservative arguments. The only "neo" part, as Peter Steinfels dryly observed, was who was making them. Indeed, when the first issue of the Prospect came off the press, some commentators expressed surprise that we had not joined the chorus of repentant ex-liberals. The most steadfast liberals were the greybeards, who not only venerated Roosevelt but had served with him. It was time to rally our troops and our principles while we still had some.

In 1989, co-editor Paul Starr wrote:


"We are launching a journal with a point of view. Our objective is not so much to succeed in publishing as to succeed in restoring plausibility, sense, and persuasiveness to American liberalism. Political journals can do some things that no single book, conference, or research program can accomplish. At their best, journals create a continuing link among a group of writers and their readers. They give shape to evolving movements of ideas. New journals often bring together an emerging generation of writers... We want The American Prospect to change the center of gravity of public policy discussion."


Today the conservative tide has receded, but the liberal resurgence has scarcely begun. We hope to help it along. Once, we had the luxury of writing to an elite audience of policy intellectuals- of not needing to flourish as a publishing venture. But after ten years of publication as a small but influential journal of ideas, we seek a broader audience.

We think we can publish for a wider readership without sacrificing our core mission. Indeed, by publishing more frequently, we can still feature the definitive articles on public affairs that have become the magazine's signature; but with biweekly publication we can leaven the magazine with more cultural coverage, more topical commentary, more personal essay, more political and investigative reporting. The launching of a national liberal biweekly, not of celebrity or of entertainment, but of politics and public purpose, is itself a political event.

In the past decade, the Prospect has challenged a lot of conservative conventional wisdom. Early on, we ran articles suggesting that the economy was capable of higher growth if the Federal Reserve would just let it rip. We put some spine in the defense of Social Security and Medicare. We ran several articles on all facets of the decay of political democracy. We became a showcase for younger liberal writers.

In the next decade, we intend to carry this conversation to a much larger community. In the new Prospect, founders Paul Starr and Robert Reich, joined by Wendy Kaminer and Jedediah Purdy, will contribute regular columns. Reich takes a more active role as national editor. Randall Kennedy will write on the law. James Fallows will write regularly on technology and culture, Richard Rothstein and Peter Schrag on education. We will also run regular criticism of television and film, as well as an expanded books section. Josh Marshall, who has just opened our new Washington bureau, will share the "Below the Beltway" column with John Judis. Familiar features, such as "Devil in the Details" and "Behind the Numbers will be expanded. New features and departments will be unveiled in coming issues. Four times a year we will publish a double issue, on a major public question. The new format is the work of the award-winning designer Ken Silvia, and his longtime associate Meg Birnbaum, who is now our fulltime art director. This expansion is made possible by the generosity of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation.

Two senior editors have joined our staff, David Denison, who has edited the Texas Observer and Boston-based CommonWealth; and Rhea Wilson, a longtime op-ed editor who joined us in 1997 to edit the American Prospect Syndicate. We also unveil The American Prospect Online (, which will supplement the print Prospect and offer a stylish web magazine. We will continue our tradition of showcasing the work of younger liberal writers, through our Writing Fellows program, now housing four Fellows.


As liberals, we retain a core commitment to a strong public realm where citizenship defines membership. Otherwise, wealth reigns. As society evolves, new public questions keep demanding public resolution; to have government get out of the way is no answer. Some arenas, like criminal justice, are inherently public. Others, like education, require public subsidy or half the citizenry goes without while an elite buys its way out. Still other necessarily collective goods, like the environment, are so much of a commons that there are no private fort resses. Even in emerging realms like the internet, where entrepreneurship is the engine, government inevitably sets the terms of engagement. So the ultimate collective good is the quality of civic deliberation itself.

This is not to say, of course, that the liberal project is unchanging. Expedients that made sense a century ago should not be mistaken for first principles. Some of what was public in the 19th century can be reasonably private in the 21st- and vice versa. We may need to privatize, say, some postal services, which the market can now provide efficiently, in order to make room to substantially socialize health care, which the market cannot. With changing technologies, we may regulate the rules of competition, say in telecommunication and airline services, rather than rates and franchises. But all of this still requires a competent pubic sector, a vigorous politics, and alert citizens.

A lot has happened to the political balance sheet in ten years. On the positive side, the end of the cold war, the slaying of the budget deficit by a Democratic president, the drop in the crime rate, and the full-employment economy have set aside liberal bogeys and have liberated our collective imagination. While the economy today is less regulated and more entrepreneurial, issues of social justice have not gone away, but arisen in new forms, often afflicting the middle class as well as the poor.

On the negative side of the ledger, there is now a politics of permanent budget surplus which also constrains public investment (though less than permanent deficits did.) In the ten years since we founded the Prospect, voting turnout has continued to dwindle. Money has become the currency of politics to an even greater degree. The issue of how to integrate a global economy with a domestic mixed economy that includes social regulation and social income has stymied most politicians, and the global economy seems to be winning by default. Other issues that deeply trouble ordinary Americans, such as the work-family straddle, are discussed every where but in political debate.

Yet in many ways, the conservative revolution seems spent. With a Democratic administration presiding over an economic boom, one big Republican issue is moot. Conservatives who try to make the culture wars their centerpiece find themselves badly at odds with public opinion. The majority view of America's geo-political role in the world is rather more like the Kennan-Marshall vision of the early postwar than like either the revanchism of Republican China- hawks or the isolationism of a Pat Buchanan.

Reconciling a dynamic private economy with a decent society and vigorous political democracy remains the central liberal project. As the century closes, broadly popular issues mock the right's dogma of laissez faire. As the market has taken over health care, ordinary Americans are clamoring for both regulatory protections and social guarantees of coverage. Greater public support of public education tops every poll as a voter priority. The right came very close to privatizing Social Security, but in the end liberal politicians stood firm- because public opinion supported them on this issue, too. So the millennium could be a moment of liberal resurgence.


One of our recent Writing Fellows, Jed Purdy, has lately emerged as something of a wunderkind, with his book, For Common Things. Purdy's message is that Americans of his generation, like young people before them, are natural idealists. But they don't want to seem foolish by "caring too much;" so they affect a premature world-weariness reinforced by the popular culture which is nothing if not ironic. For Purdy, to be fully alive is to care- as a citizen, a friend, a member of a family, as one pursuing a profession or a trade, as a steward of the planet. After suffering some early and predictable cheap shots, Purdy is finding a respectful readership.

A problem, however, is that even admitted idealists of Purdy's generation often express their idealism in every realm but politics- as volunteers, as artists, as entrepreneurs with social consciences. This is all essential to a healthy society, but not quite a substitute for politics. Jed Purdy speaks of common things- a felicitous play on words: common in the sense of everyday and common in the sense of collective. When people retreat into private pursuits, even with decent motivations, the consequence is inherently conservative.

To the extent that public issues are on the public mind, the mood is surely more liberal than a decade ago. But the most serious threat to liberal ideals is not that voters are in a conservative mood, but that they are not in a political mood at all. Politics, increasingly, is seen not as a fundamental enterprise in a democracy but as one competing form of entertainment among many. And money is increasingly the ticket of admission for serious players; others are spectators. The debasement of politics colors all other political issues. That is why the issue of money and politics is not just another good government issue. Money distorts the framing of issues in public discourse and distances citizens from the political enterprise itself.

So as the Prospect begins its second decade, we aim to champion not just liberal ideas, but the worth of politics and public life. Today's conservatism is largely is a retreat into privatism. The rehabilitation of liberal ideas and the restoration of confidence in public institutions are necessary complements.

It is a gamble to launch a biweekly with these purposes, at a time when web journalism is said to be crowding out print, when people already have too much to read, and when trendy publications are built on glitz. If there aren't a hundred thousand liberal- minded souls who share our concerns about the republic, then the American prospect is in deeper trouble than we suspect. Let us know how you like the new Prospect.

You may also like