What We Know Now

Victor Juhasz

This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Celebrate our 25th Anniversary with us by clicking here for a free download of this special issue.

In 1990, when the two of us started this magazine with Robert Reich, we saw a need and an opportunity. The Democrats had lost three presidential elections in a row, national policy had moved sharply to the right, and liberalism was in dire need of new ideas about the direction of the country. Some of the publications that we once looked to (and wrote for) had grown ambivalent about liberal politics or uninterested in engaging practical choices and no longer provided intellectual leadership. But the Reagan era was waning, and a new generation of writers and intellectuals was ready to pick up the challenge to think through alternatives. We saw the Prospect as bridging the usual divides between journalism and the academic world, and between policy and politics—and as a way to stimulate a public conversation about the substance and strategies of change. 

Twenty-five years later, the world is different in crucial ways that factor into our thinking. In 1990, liberal democracy was in the ascendancy in Eastern Europe and other parts of the globe. With Soviet communism collapsing and the Cold War receding into the past, new liberal possibilities opened up abroad and at home. Today, the international picture is more sobering. Since the early 1990s, Russia has reverted to authoritarianism, China has never escaped it, and September 11 has ignited a new global conflict with Islamist fundamentalists. We are more aware of the danger of climate change—and of the danger that the international community will act too slowly to control it.

By 1990, the information revolution was already far advanced, and we knew that liberal ideas about the economy, government, education, and other institutions had to be recast in light of the emerging post-industrial realities. Again, there were good reasons for optimism, and there still are. Digital innovation is essential for a more productive economy as well as cleaner growth and for reforms that can strengthen civic life and democracy. But the digital revolution has also had an underside—threats to privacy and security on a larger scale than ever, cyber warfare, the loss of middle-class jobs, and indirect damage to such institutions as the press. We are more conscious now of all that needs to be done politically to see that technological change serves progressive ends.

American politics has also evolved in ways that have made some earlier notions obsolete. In 1990, the species “liberal Republican” had not yet become extinct, and moderates in the GOP were open to working with Democrats, instead of simply throwing boulders in their path. Under those circumstances, many of our writers offered ideas with potential bipartisan appeal for changes in health care, the environment, education, and other areas of social policy.

But just as polarization has affected politics, so it has affected the plausibility of bipartisan reforms. Compromise in Congress is necessary just to keep the machinery of government running, but it is increasingly difficult to see the basis for common ground on the nation’s biggest challenges. If you want to control climate change, there is no splitting the difference with people who deny it is happening. If you want to reduce economic inequality, there is no way to join forces with those who favor policies that help the rich and hurt the poor. If you see big money as a corrosive force in democracy, there is little chance that the beneficiaries of that money will sign up for effective reform. The idea of transcending partisan differences works only when there is some basic agreement on the ends. When there isn’t, each side has to make its case to the public as effectively and persuasively as it can—and that in large part is what we have been doing.

Repeatedly over the past quarter-century, Republicans and Democrats have each thought they had won a decisive, realigning election, only to be set back a few years later. After the defeats of the 1980s, Democrats have come back to win the presidency four out of six times (and won the popular vote in five out of six, counting Al Gore in 2000). But under both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Republicans have regained control of one or both houses of Congress after the new president’s first two years, denying Democrats the opportunity to build sustained programs of reform. With their dependence on constituencies that don’t turn out for midterm elections, the Democrats are persistently liable to these reversals. Republican control of the House of Representatives may be particularly lasting. Demographically, there is an emerging majority favorable to the Democrats; that is, if they can awaken it. In life, as Woody Allen says, success may depend on showing up, but in politics it depends on inspiring people to show up. And that has never been truer for liberals than it is now.

None of these developments—the global return of old geopolitical and religious conflicts, the digital revolution, the ideological polarization of American politics, and the difficulty of building a progressive political majority—change our basic beliefs about the good society or about the values and interests that need to be supported to achieve it. Since the 1970s, American society and politics have been out of kilter: Working people and ordinary citizens have lost power, while the wealthy and powerful interest groups have gained it. Restoring the balance we once had is hardly a radical goal. If it seems radical, it is only a measure of how deep the problems are and how much work it will take to overcome them.

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

That was then: Demonstrators protesting corporate environmental polices stand on the steps of Federal Hall, across from the New York Exchange, Monday, April 23, 1990.

Rolling Back Inequality

The last few years have brought increased recognition of rising inequality, but no agreement about the remedy, even among liberals. That question—what to do, in particular, about concentrated wealth and power at the top and constricted life chances for the middle class and below—is the focus of this 25th Anniversary issue.

The magazine’s three co-founders lead off. A quarter-century ago, believing that technological changes and globalization were at the root of inequality, Robert Reich saw education and training as top priorities. Now he argues that inequality stems chiefly from political decisions about the rules of the market that reflect the power of moneyed interests. The response to inequality, therefore, has to focus on changing those rules to serve ordinary citizens.

One of us, Paul Starr, argues against counsels of despair about inequality on two grounds: Democratic administrations can check the growth of inequality in the short term—as they have, in fact, done—and the long-term project of rolling back oligarchic dominance is a cause with deep historical roots and potentially wide support. Strategically chosen objectives in three areas—taxes, rules of the market, and rules of politics—can help end the new Gilded Age as they did the original one.

The other of us, Robert Kuttner, then addresses the wealth problem: All of the instruments of the postwar era that allowed people of moderate means to accumulate modest wealth over a lifetime have been weakened or destroyed. These include policies that supported homeownership, decent pensions, rising real wages, and debt-free college. New wealth-broadening instruments, particularly for young adults, have become an urgent priority.

Other articles about inequality treat it over the life cycle, from childhood to retirement. Stephanie Coontz writes about the destructive impact of inequality on the white, working-class family; Andrea Louise Campbell explores why the United States has long ignored the problems of working parents but may be ready to take up a new “parent agenda.” David Kirp discusses a higher-education system in which smart poor kids go to college only at the rate of dumb rich kids. In the last years of life, pensions and Social Security once provided greater equality. But, as Teresa Ghilarducci writes, wealthy people now live longer and have more years of retirement, whereas many of the less affluent do drudge work into their golden years out of sheer financial necessity.

Finally, Harold Meyerson provides another installment in the analytical reports about labor and politics that he has been writing in the Prospect for more than a decade. Here he tells a story of wage suppression and its possible cure. In California, a new model of union organizing reaches low-paid workers in businesses such as car-washing, short-haul trucking, and retailing. The strategy brings together on-the-ground organizing with the regulatory power of friendly governments. The problem, of course, is that there aren’t enough of the latter, which raises the problem addressed in a second group of articles in this issue.     

The Political Challenge

In a 1991 Prospect essay widely recognized for its influence on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, Stanley Greenberg—who became Clinton’s pollster—explored why Democrats in the 1980s had lost the votes of white, working-class voters. Here he returns to that subject, marshaling evidence for the proposition that motivating those voters requires a robust progressive agenda. Shifting the focus to the Republican side, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explore the forces behind the radicalization of the GOP. Two articles focus on women in politics. Rachel Cohen points to the emergence of unmarried women as a critical Democratic constituency; Heather Hurlburt argues that Democrats in 2016 will be more identified than ever with women as candidates and as voters—unless Democratic candidates confront public anxieties effectively, Republicans could win by stoking fear and presenting themselves as the “daddy party.” Taking off from the panic over Ebola, Jonathan Cohn explores why the media fall silent when government works and how liberal policies should be designed to get the credit they merit.

What links these articles and the broader mission of the Prospect is a recognition that policy can’t be divorced from politics. David Rolf, the organizer Meyerson profiled in our fall issue, recently described policy as “frozen politics.” At critical moments, political action produces durable reform, energizing democracy and reinforcing the belief that participation is worth the trouble. For a time, that policy endures, the “frozen” fruit of what was once living activism. But as democratic engagement wanes or if reaction gains force, policy tends to “melt” or break down. (Hacker and Pierson, using a different metaphor, refer to this process as “drift.”) Today, the legacy reforms of earlier eras—Social Security and Medicare, civil rights laws, the right to form a union, wage protection, progressive taxation—are under attack from legislatures and courts reflecting right-wing resurgence.

As several of our articles make clear, American liberalism and the larger project of democracy itself are endangered by a vicious circle. As Republicans hamstring government, they are rewarded by cynicism on the part of liberal constituencies about whether government can deliver. The very groups most inclined to support liberal Democrats and progressive policies (when they bother to vote) stay home. Reversing this pattern is at the heart of the political challenge—and of the Prospect’s mission.

The Prospect at 25

Like other issues of the magazine, this one also offers a variety of freestanding articles of general interest. Lincoln Caplan profiles Elena Kagan, the emerging leader of the Supreme Court’s embattled liberal bloc. E.J. Dionne profiles Pope Francis as a radical leader confronting a deeply conservative institution. Alan Blinder analyzes the lessons of the past quarter-century for economic policy today. Randall Kennedy reflects on the uses and misuses of the memory of the Civil Rights Movement. Joshua Kroll explains why the government’s current cybersecurity strategy puts electronic data at risk of the kind of attack that Sony and other companies have suffered. Ann Markusen shows why the blue-state policies of Mark Dayton’s Minnesota have outperformed the red-state policies of Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.

We are proud of what the Prospect has accomplished in a quarter-century. We were one of the first to embrace web journalism. Our writing fellows program, which provides a two-year fellowship for aspiring journalists, jump-starts careers of people who hope to write stories that combine politics, policy, and narrative. The more than 40 alumni of the program, which began in 1997, now make up an all-star team of younger progressive writers—from The Washington Post and The New York Times to Vox, Slate, and Talking Points Memo. We will be honoring our former fellows at our Anniversary Gala, May 13 in Washington, D.C. (Tickets are available here.)

If this is the first issue you’ve read of the Prospect, welcome. And if you’ve been reading it for many years, thanks for sticking with us. The need and the opportunity that we saw 25 years ago, we still see today.

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