Reclaim a Tradition


One lesson of America’s recent past is that the sponsorship of ideas and the building of new intellectual institutions can make a difference. Two decades ago, when American conservatism seemed moribund, its advocates began developing a network of research centers, scholars, and publications. The new institutions played a key role in shaping the views of opinion leaders and guiding the direction of conservative policy in 1980s. No one today can miss the impact of that resurgence.

For over a decade, many liberals have sensed the same need for reflection and rebuilding. Talent is not scarce. As conservatives so often complain, the universities. press, and public agencies are thick with researchers and writers with liberal values. However, their work has not had the concerted effect that the right-wing policy intellectuals have recently enjoyed.

Liberals today often appear bereft of a public philosophy. Many have become disaffected from liberalism without having anything to put in its place. As a result, they do not see their work—and cannot persuade others to see it—in the perspective of any larger world view or tradition of ideas. At a time when conservatives have been possessed by an intense belief in their national mission, liberals have had none.

This difference in passion is particularly evident among younger writers and intellectuals, and it is not simply a reflection of national politics or varying temperaments. Conservative institutions have nurtured a younger generation of policy intellectuals and engaged them in public life. Precisely because the sponsors of the conservative movement felt that liberals dominated the universities and disciplinary journals, they set up their own institutes and publications focused entirely on the tasks of shaping a public philosophy and redirecting public policy.

American liberalism badly needs the same kinds of focused sponsorship and organization. No one effort can reverse the drift of the last decade. But an important contribution can come from a new journal devoted expressly to the tasks of reformulating a liberal public philosophy and new directions for public policy. That is our enterprise, and we hope to convince you to make it yours. At the very least, we hope to persuade you of the legitimacy and importance of our enterprise—and to show us the confidence of a subscription.

The American Prospect begins publication as a quarterly in 1990. From foundations and individual donors, we have raised enough money to ensure the launch of the journal. However, we want to expand further the circle of people involved, to invite suggestions, to solicit proposals for articles, and to ask for founding subscriptions.


Our Vision of The American Prospect

We are creating a journal about what America is becoming and what it can be—the deep-set patterns in our national life, the risks and choices we confront, and the paths we ought to take. The American Prospect will address the central issues of national economic and social policy as well as America’s political values and its long-run leadership and direction. In other words, this will not be another technical journal in policy analysis and management, though it will run some articles that might appear in such publications. We see it as a journal of wide and imaginative reflection, aiming to formulate new ideas of public improvement and a philosophy of government adequate to our times.

The American Prospect will be written for the broadly educated reader. It will avoid both technical jargon and sloganeering. We want not simply clear and readable writing, but writing that combines force and ease. One reason for our discontent with many journals now published is that they are missing that play of language and power of expression that writing about public affairs ought to have. We believe those qualities can be found—and achieved anew—even in complex argument. And argument is what this journal will pursue. It will be a journal of reasons, reflections, controversies, cases, analysis, memory, vision. It will not be a journal of random news, facts, tips, gossip, or—worst of all—methodology.

Make no mistake: We have no illusions that The American Prospect will be sold on newsstands and read on subways. Our aim is to produce an important public voice, not a popular one. We mean to find a course between the professional journal and popular magazine to reach an audience of opinion leaders: editorial writers, teachers, researchers, legislative aides, executives in public and nonprofit organizations, political activists, business and community leaders. While not the mass readership of TV Guide, we hope our audience makes up in weight what it lacks in numbers.


What The American Prospect Will Be About

The chief concerns of the journal can be described under three headings: policy and politics, trends and their implications, and public philosophy.

Policy and Politics

Policy, as we imagine it, is fundamentally about the possibilities of public improvement. For the past twenty years, the message of conservative and neoconservative critics has been the limits and even futility of public effort. On the left, too, and for different reasons, many have argued against the possibilities of reform. Our view is different. We look on the capacities of democratic government and public deliberation with neither faith nor contempt, but rather a conviction that they are worth the struggle: we have no alternative but to make them work. We need affirmative government to respond to challenges ranging from America’s loss of economic power to the continuing problems of the underclass and the working poor.

Our fundamental task is to reframe public discussion. In one policy arena after another, the same handful of deep assumptions underlie conservative dominance of political argument. For example, many have accepted the premise that more egalitarian policies inevitably hurt economic growth and efficiency.

We need to demonstrate that there are growth-oriented strategies that also promote equality. Likewise, many have accepted the premise that where government grows, the private economy contracts, as if the two were locked in struggle for a finite pool of resources. We need to show where public and private initiative and investment are best combined—indeed, where the failure to put government to positive use does positive harm to prosperity.

The very concept of investment needs more careful attention. Conservatives have so long dominated the debate about government expenditures and the deficit that Americans reflexively counterpose public spending to private investment, as if public investment were irrelevant. Indeed, the usual measures of investment only take private investment in plant and equipment into account. We need to respecify the terms of debate so that the key concern becomes total national investment, including public investments in education, research, and infrastructure.

Beneath these and many other issues lies the enduring question of the proper boundary and relation between the market and politics. A liberal society relies upon both as frameworks for decision, but liberalism has no eternal formula for the mix. Another time, another country—and we might be calling for greater reliance on market forces. In the United States of the 1980s, however, conservatives have so single-mindedly celebrated the market and vilified government that liberals now need to speak for the collective intelligence of democracy and its capacities for discovery and self-correction.

Where public policy has been failing, the explanation may lie, not in the intrinsic incompetence of government, but in the shortcomings of some of our political arrangements. The American Prospect will not be much concerned with particular campaigns or candidates, nor will we endorse any. Rather our interest will be the framework of government and politics. We want to examine the basic workings of the Congress, the courts, the parties, and other institutions to see what can be done to improve their competence and capacities.

Some complain today that Americans are too selfish, our politics too dominated by “special” interests. But rather than look for a defect in the national soul, we might more profitably look at how our politics sifts and synthesizes interests. Short of constitutional change, we may need reforms that, instead of further privatizing policy, strengthen the national outlook of policy makers. We need, not sermons on the common good, but institutions that reward those who put national interests ahead of private and local ones.

We also need to think through the checks and balances of our political system that all to often now seem to block effective governmental responses to emerging problems. What can be done to unblock the arteries of American government?

For too long liberals have relied on the courts to carry out their ideas. As a practical matter, this strategy can no longer work: conservative appointments to the federal courts stand in the way of any new important legal initiatives. The Supreme Court’s decision in Webster showed that even previously settled law may now be overturned. Moreover, relying on the courts encouraged liberals to invest more faith in litigation than in public persuasion. Now liberal policies will find no refuge from politics in law.

For our own part, we will not waste tears on this change. The need to reestablish public support can be a healthy tonic. What to do in the face of conservative courts will be one of the questions we take up in The American Prospect.


Trends and Their Implications

This will not be a journal of forecasting and futurology, but it will be concerned with the political implications of trends in our economy, environment, population, and society.

Consider one profound shift that will occupy much of our attention: the internationalization of the American economy. At the beginning of this century, liberals like Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann confronted the reality that the old Jeffersonian version of liberalism no longer made sense. With the growth of large corporations or organized on a national basis, political decisions had to move from the state to the national level. Instead of attempting to return to a world of small producers and free competition, liberals had to come to terms with the modern corporation and embrace a more activist conception of the federal government. As Croly saw it, they now had to use Hamiltonian means to pursue Jeffersonian ends.

That remains a central tenet of modern liberalism, but as the American economy becomes more integrated into world markets, the means appropriate and necessary for achieving the goals of liberalism are no longer clear. Our economy can no longer be treated as if it were a closed system. Macroeconomic policy, tax policy, industrial policy, even our models of labor relations need to be revised to take into account our economy’s new relation to the world.

So, too, with the environment. The emerging threats to the global environment have underlined a point many have been arguing for years—that our world is interdependent in its physical climate as well as its economic relations. Yet we lack any sort of institutional framework to respond. One of the easy conceits of some neoconservatives was the claim that environmentalists were pastoral romantics and affluent Luddites. Now the dangers of environmental degradation are beyond dispute, and it is clear that many hazards put poor nations and poor people especially at risk.

The “globalization” of problems is closely connected to another set of developments: the emergence of new information and telecommunications technologies. By increasing the mobility of capital, the new information systems have weakened the regulatory capacities of governments and bargaining position of labor. They have thereby helped to disrupt the power equilibrium at the base of democratic capitalism in the twentieth century. New information technologies are also transforming the organization of work—creating new jobs, eliminating old ones, and raising large questions about the kinds of social relations that prevail in offices, plants, and schools. With the new technologies come new ways of performing old services, including many services that governments provide, from postal communications to law enforcement and education. How public policy deals with all these manifold changes is another topic for The American Prospect.

While the organization of work has changed, so has its sexual distribution. The entry into the workforce of growing numbers of women, including mothers with small children, has radically altered the demand for care of preschoolers and even school-age children during after-school hours. We are not even close to matching our public policies to the patterns of life emerging in American families. Nor have we yet found the means to relieve the growing concentration of poverty among women and children that has accompanied the rise in number of single-parent families.

The promise of racial justice remains a distant goal and enduring dilemma in the American experience. As William Julius Wilson, one of our editors, has observed, the decline of well-paid blue-collar jobs coupled with new opportunities for better educated blacks has divided the black community and left much of it isolated from mainstream society. The continuing social degradations of American life—inadequate housing, education, job opportunity, and even AIDS—afflict the black poor with special force. Another generation of black children is at risk of being lost. Full equality before the law, affirmative action, court-mandated school integration have benefitted many individuals but not reached enough of the minority poor to integrate them into the economic mainstream. Much of American education and housing remains segregated; income inequality is widening. If the liberal remedies of the past two decades have not entirely succeeded, the conservative alternative of leaving the problems to the harsh incentives of the market offers even less hope. For liberals, the challenge is to show a steadfast dedication to just ends, and a new inventiveness in seeking more effective means.

Consider also the implications of demographic trends, such as the aging of our society and the coming shortage of younger workers. The age shift has primarily been treated as a problem, but it also offers historic opportunities. As young workers become relatively less numerous, employers will have incentives to reach out to the poor on welfare and to train others who have been written off as illiterate or thrown out of work in the ceaseless turmoil of economic change. A positive program for investment in human capital then becomes more easily intelligible as a response to needs confronting the entire national economy rather than an act of charity. That view of policy encapsulates an underlying reason for exploring the social currents leading into the next century: to clarify the collective burdens and opportunities that the future holds out before us.

Public Philosophy

We expect to focus our attention not only on choices of policy, but also on the values and conceptual premises that underlie them.

We need to scrutinize more carefully some of the idols of political thought—for example, the right’s devotion to the market and the left’s belief in community. We need to ask the conservatives “What market?” and the communitarians, “Which community?” The market mechanism, invaluable though it is, does not have a natural form: markets are shaped by history and politics. It is never enough to leave things to the market; we can and do decide how markets are to be structured.

Similarly, Americans do not belong to any single community. The geographic community has long ceased to define the boundaries of family, friendship, and work. Nor is there any way to resurrect the classical polis as a model for our political life. To be sure, we see great value in community activism and community institutions; strengthening them ought to be a high priority. But we do not believe that public endeavor need crowd out private and voluntary initiative. Public and private action can complement and strengthen each other. And only through the channels of politics and law can we establish frameworks for markets and civil society that satisfy our deepest interest in fairness and freedom.

As we have already indicated, The American Prospect will describe itself, without apology, as liberal in its orientation. Liberalism is too rich a legacy, as we see it, to be abandoned because of its recent troubles and confusion. Indeed, the attacks on liberalism in the 1988 presidential campaign—and the hesitancy of liberals in coming to its defense—convince us of the need for a journal that reestablishes continuity with the liberal tradition. By liberal tradition we mean not just the ideas of FDR and John F. Kennedy, but rather the greater tradition of Locke, Milton, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Madison, Emerson, John Stuart Mill, and others in our century, like Croly, Lippman, and John Dewey, for whom liberalism was no complacent orthodoxy.

We see our ideas in that long tradition—the liberalism that from Jefferson to Roosevelt, from Tom Paine to Martin Luther King, has attempted to realize in practice the promise of law, liberty, and equal respect.

Some critics of liberalism portray it as a doctrine of radical individualism and self-interest, hostile to the public sphere and little concerned with the good of the community. What liberalism has opposed, however, is not public action per se, much less civic virtue, but the arbitrary exercise of power, whether by private parties or the state. As the history of illiberal societies so plainly demonstrates, the discipline of power that liberalism insists upon is essential to political democracy and to the vitality of economic life.

Fifty years ago communists and fascists, who despised liberal democracy even more than they despised each other, thought that liberal societies were too weak to survive, too riddled by internal divisions and contradictions and incapable of adapting to stern new realities. A half century later, communism is a tattered ruin, and fascism is everywhere discredited. Liberalism, on the other hand, has not only adapted and survived; as our own constitutional tradition shows, it has grown. The classical political ideas of liberalism have shown a capacity to embrace new groups and new claims, to accommodate a widening conception of national identity and citizenship.

So, too, has liberal understanding of the economy changed, first with the advent of the modern corporation and again with the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the emergence of Keynesian ideas. When we speak of liberalism, we obviously do not have nineteenth-century laissez faire in mind. In this century, American liberalism has embraced the general notion of a social compact mediated by the polity. That compact includes a belief in social insurance, trade unionism, and Keynesian macroeconomic management as well as expanded political participation. For nearly half a century, this compact was part of the majority public philosophy in America that we propose to reclaim.

But reclaiming, of course, does not mean repeating. For once more in our own time, liberal policy is adapting in recognition of new conditions, like the global economy and changed relations of working families. This pragmatic adaptation is characteristic. The core of liberalism is not an orthodoxy about policy, but a vision of a just society and self-governing democracy. One objective of this journal will be to recover an accurate understanding of that liberal vision, to rescue it from misreading and misrepresentation, and to return even to liberals themselves a clear view of the foundation and power of their own ideas.

For too long, liberals have been preoccupied with self-criticism, dominated by unceasing reminders that they have made mistakes. Some of this criticism has merit; we certainly have no intention of defending all that happens to be called “liberal” in America. However, neoliberalism and other ill-defined alternatives have generally been too given to berating the liberal past while little understanding it.  

A new liberal periodical should recognize that the principal danger to our goals is not liberalism itself. It is the sense of despair that critics of liberalism have managed to insinuate into public discourse. Part of our critical task lies in scrutinizing the arguments that support that sense of futility, but we also have a positive task: to find particular avenues of improvement and to make a case for a revival of commitment to that strange idea of liberal democracy—government by discussion.

The troubled reputation of liberalism has led some people who once called themselves liberals to see the label as a political liability, particularly with the white working and middle classes. The problem here is real, the remedy not so clear. We have no sympathy with anyone who wants to give up on the cause of racial justice. That sort of solution to the political problems of liberalism would come only at the price of its soul. But in the interests of a multiracial society, liberals must look for policies and approaches that unify their natural constituencies, white and black, by stressing interests that cut across race. Liberalism now bears the twin stigmas of reaching further for racial equality than many formerly liberal voters wanted—and then failing to achieve the full promise of change. Dissembling will not work: we have no choice but to confront the experience honestly and find those avenues of improvement that genuinely advance the pursuit of equality.

Some will hesitate at the name “liberal” because they see it as too feeble, or because they think liberalism has failed. We believe, on the contrary, that the strength, successes, and deep roots of liberalism in our history and culture give it the capacity to survive and regain confidence. Liberalism, properly understood, remains the best single term to describe the tradition of political ideas that we want to carry on. Moreover, American political life is firmly defined on a liberal/conservative spectrum, and the alternative labels some prefer—“progressive,” “reformist,” “populist”—each carry their own historical baggage. Inventing new terms is pointless: no one will be persuaded and no one will be fooled. Denying the “liberal label” suggests embarrassment and shame more than open-mindedness.

Those who disown all traditions, moreover, are prone to illusions of originality. We are not presuming to invent, much less to sell, a new brand of public philosophy. We hope to contribute, instead, to the replenishment of a hardy tradition for the circumstances of a new time.


But Why Another Journal?

The natural reaction to any proposal for a new journal is that we are already swimming in a sea of words: Why more? However, ours is not another journal seeking a niche in the periodical literature around some allegedly neglected topic or field of research. 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 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 who do not feel entirely at home writing for publications where other voices and messages prevail. We think The American Prospect will serve these purposes.

We want The American Prospect to try to change the center of gravity of public policy discussion. The conservative publications founded in the last decade by the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and other conservative groups have all moved the center of gravity in public policy circles further toward the right.

Even the professional publications in public policy and management are now increasingly dominated by conservative “public choice” theory. Moreover, whatever the views of the editors of the academic journals, those journals could never serve the intellectual and political purposes we have in mind.

To be sure, there exists an honorable periodical literature of the left. Some of these journals belong to the Marxist tradition, which is not ours. Many others likewise take pride in positioning themselves well to the left of national policy debate. By contrast, we locate ourselves within that debate, even as we hope to recast it and expand its terrain.

Though we plan to maintain a clear perspective, we do not intend to draw narrow boundaries around the circle of The American Prospect. When we have the chance to publish important work from writers who do not think of themselves as liberal, we will accommodate it in our pages. After all, we are not interested in turning liberalism into a sect. There will be no “party line” in our journal, but no one will likely mistake our general orientation.  …


Who We Are


PAUL STARR, co-editor, is professor of sociology, Princeton University, and author of The Social Transformation of American Medicine, winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and the Bancroft Prize in American History. His recent work concerns the relation between the public and private spheres, and the history and predicament of American liberalism.

ROBERT KUTTNER, co-editor, is a syndicated columnist. He is the author of The Revolt of the Haves, The Economic Illusion, and The Life of the Party. He has a monthly column in Business Week and a weekly column in newspapers from The Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times. Many readers know him from his writing as economics correspondent for The New Republic. He is now working on a book on the policy implications of changes in the international economy.

ROBERT B. REICH, chairman of the editorial board, teaches political economics and management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of Minding America’s Business (with Ira Magaziner), The Next American Frontier, New Deals (with John Donahue), and Tales of a New America. He edited and co-authored The Power of Public Ideas and has recently published a collection of his essays, The Resurgent Liberal.

DEBORAH A. STONE, senior editor, is David R. Pokross Professor of Law and Social Policy at Brandeis University. She is the author of The Disabled State and, most recently, Policy Paradox and Political Reason.


Editorial Board

ALAN S. BLINDER is Gordon S. Rentschler Professor of Economics and chairman of the Economics Department at Princeton University. He is the author of Hard Heads, Soft Hearts and has a monthly column in >Business Week.

ALAN BRINKLEY is professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate School. He is author of Voices of Protest, winner of the National Book Award. His next book is The Transformation of New Deal Liberalism.

WALTER DELLINGER is professor of law at Duke Law School.

JEFF FAUX is President of the Economic Policy Institute.

ARLIE HOCHSCHILD is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Managed Heart and The Second Shift.

STEPHEN HOLMES is a philosopher and political theorist at the University of Chicago, author of Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism.

CHRISTOPHER JENCKS is professor of sociology at Northwestern University, author of The Academic Revolution (with David Riesman), Inequality, and Who Gets Ahead? He is currently working on a study of changes in well-being in the United States over the past three decades.

SHEILA B. KAMERMAN is professor of social work at Columbia University and co-author of Not for the Poor Alone and other books on social welfare and families.

STEVEN KELMAN is professor of government at the Kennedy School and author of many books, including Regulating America, Regulating Sweden and Making Public Policy. His new book is on government procurement procedures.

J. ANTHONY LUKAS is the Pulitzer prize winning author of several books, including, most recently, Common Ground. He was a founding editor of More.

ALICIA H. MUNNELL is senior vice president and director of research of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and author of books on Social Security and private pensions.

KAREN PAGET is director of the California Policy Seminar at the University of California.

CASS R. SUNSTEIN is Karl Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School and Department of Political Science. He is author of a forthcoming book on the modern regulatory state.

LESTER C. THUROW is dean of the Sloan School of Management at MIT and the author of The Zero-Sum Society, Dangerous Currents, and The Zero-Sum Solution.

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON is Lucy Flower Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and currently the president of the American Sociological Association. He is the author of The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF, a social psychologist, teaches organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. She is the author of In the Age of the Smart Machine.


Board of Sponsors

KENNETH J. ARROW is a Nobel Laureate in Economics and Joan Kenney Professor of Economics and Operations Research at Stanford University. He is author of Social Choice and Individual Values and The Limits of Organization.

DANIEL BELL, Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences emeritus at Harvard University, is the author of The End of Ideology, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

KENNETH B. CLARK, professor emeritus of psychology at the City College of New York, is author of Dark Ghetto and other books. He is a recipient of the Kurt Lewin Prize and the National Medal of Freedom.

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN is director of the Children’s Defense Fund. She is a MacArthur Prize fellow and author of Families in Peril.

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH is Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics emeritus at Harvard University and author of American Capitalism, The Great Crash, The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State, and many other books. He was Ambassador to India in the Kennedy administration.

SIDNEY HARMAN is a former undersecretary of commerce and the author, with Daniel Yankelovich, of Starting With People.

ALBERT O. HIRSCHMAN is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and author of many books on trade, economic development, and the history of ideas, including Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, The Passions and the Interests, and Shifting Involvements.

CHARLES E. LINDBLOM is professor of Political Science at Yale University and author of Politics, Economics, and Welfare (with Robert A. Dahl), A Strategy of Decision (with David Braybrooke), and Politics and Markets.

ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR., holds the Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Twice winner of a Pulitzer prize, he is the author of The Age of Jackson, The Vital Center, The Age of Roosevelt (3 volumes), The Imperial Presidency, and most recently The Cycles of American History. He was special assistant to President Kennedy.

FRITZ STERN is Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University, where he has also served as provost. He is author of The Politics of Cultural Despair, The Failure of Illiberalism, and Gold and Iron.

JAMES TOBIN is Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale University and a Nobel laureate in economics. He is author of National Economic Policy and Policies for Prosperity.

SHIRLEY WILLIAMS is currently acting director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. She has served as a member of Parliament and cabinet minister in Great Britain and was a founder and president of Britain’s Social Democratic Party.

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