Windmills, Revisited

The once and future mission of the Washington Monthly.

By Nicholas Lemann

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I reported for duty at the Washington Monthly on July 1, 1976. For the magazine, it was a time of economic distress (nothing new there) and psychological glee. Jimmy Carter, by then the certain Democratic nominee for president, was an actual subscriber to the Monthly, meaning that every year a renewal check came in drawn on his personal bank account and signed by him. And he had just hired one of the magazine’s alumni, James Fallows, as his chief speechwriter. To Charlie Peters, the Monthly’s founder, owner, and editor, it was clear that we were now going to be listened to. The previous year, Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift had been published, and my conversations with Charlie that summer and fall reminded me distinctly of Bellow’s renditions of the fevered conversations between Von Humboldt Fleisher and his protégé Charlie Citrine about the coming glories of the Adlai Stevenson administration.

Everybody in Washington dreams of having a new president’s ear, but in the case of a political magazine the dream is usually highly particular: the program the magazine was founded to advocate will become at least an important part of the new administration’s thinking. This may have happened for, say, National Review or Commentary in the Reagan administration, but it did not happen for the Monthly in the Carter administration. I watched Charlie’s hope turn inexorably into a hurt disappointment.

It’s hard, thirty years later, to recapture that moment, but it’s worth doing because it helps bring a larger point about the Monthly, and about political magazines, and about liberalism, into focus. In those days, in Dupont Circle circles, President Carter was suspiciously right-wing, Ralph Nader was the Establishment, and it was unimaginable that Ronald Reagan was on the verge of being elected president. Although the Washington Monthly had published its first issue, in 1969, in the aftermath of a Republican victory in a presidential election, it had been a very close election; it was nowhere in Charlie’s thinking that, as he was planning his new magazine, he was witnessing the beginning of a string of seven wins and three losses by the Republicans in presidential politics.

The Monthly was a direct descendent of the Peace Corps’ department of evaluation, which Charlie had founded and run. It was imbued with the Peace Corps’ liberal, reformist spirit, but it also had the reality-testing ethos of Charlie’s evaluators: the writers were supposed to go out in the field and report back, unsentimentally and truthfully, on whether government programs were working or not. The Public Interest, founded at around the same time by a group of writers who soon began calling themselves neoconservatives, had a similar mission, but in its case the tough-minded examination of government programs’ effectiveness was supposed to be more social scientific. The Monthly, methodologically, was
always reportorial, and it was never conservative—but, when I joined the magazine, the other editorial employee besides me and Charlie was Tom Bethell, an actual conservative, and it seemed as if the magazine devoted its main energies to attacking conventional liberal positions. When I first came to the magazine’s office for my job interview in the winter of 1976, I was amazed to see an issue just back from the printer’s with the cover line “CRIMINALS BELONG IN JAIL.” Charlie thought we would purify liberalism, the naturally dominant strain in American politics since his New Deal childhood in West Virginia, by relentlessly ridding it of tired, automatic bromides and by insisting that liberals see government’s performance as it actually was, not as liberals wished it to be. He wanted to understand and call attention to government’s failures so that in the future it would work properly, not so that people would stop believing government could solve problems. Nonetheless, issue by issue, this entailed criticizing liberals more often than conservatives.

The Monthly was always hard to classify. It investigated, but it wasn’t exactly investigative in the traditional sense, because its main interest was not in catching officials breaking the law but in understanding why, without being corrupt, government agencies didn’t get the job done. It was reformist, but it lacked the patrician hostility to democratic politics that has often characterized good-government reformers. It was not conventionally liberal, but it wasn’t centrist, moderate, or pro-business in the manner of the Democratic Leadership Council, which was founded in the 1980s. It wanted liberal politicians to hold the policymaking reins, but, at least in the early years, it almost never published articles proposing winning political strategies for its side. It was interested in policy, but it mainly eschewed traditional policy analysis. It was interested in ideas, but—in contradistinction to the Public Interest crowd, as its views developed—it was far more interested in facts on the ground.

Still, to Charlie’s mind all the disparate aspects of the magazine’s concerns were beginning to cohere into a worldview. Anyway, political magazines are supposed to be associated with movements, not merely to consider everything that happens on a case-by-case basis. So Charlie began promoting the word “neoliberal” as a rubric that captured what the Monthly stood for.

That the magazine is now forty years old and has outlived many of its early peers is testament to the incredible determination and passion of Charlie and his successor, Paul Glastris. Its history is a generally happy one, punctuated by regular financial crises. There is, however, one great cruel irony hovering over the Monthly’s institutional life, which is that “neoliberal” has failed spectacularly as the name for the magazine’s ideology. That term has gone into common usage all over the world—but it is always used pejoratively, and with a meaning attached (free markets can solve all social problems) that has no point of intersection with Charlie’s idea of neoliberalism.

Years ago the magazine held a conference on neoliberalism, at which I remember somebody in the audience standing up and asking, “What’s the constituency?” None of us had an answer. Indeed, we found the question offensive. Weren’t we right? Wasn’t that enough? Haven’t all three Democrats elected president during the magazine’s lifetime been neoliberals in the Washington Monthly/positive (rather than the London Review of Books/negative) sense? But over the years, the magazine has gradually come to see conservatism more as something it is opposed to, and, especially under Glastris’s editorship, beginning at the start of George W. Bush’s presidency, has devoted more of its editorial energies to suggesting ways for liberals to succeed electorally. That, it turns out, is the necessary precondition to the Monthly’s original project of figuring out how to make specific government policies and agencies work effectively to help ordinary people who need it.

The failure of neoliberalism as a label means that, at forty, for all its achievements, the Monthly not only has a mission to perform, but also has some work to do in defining what its mission is. What is unquestionable is that the magazine’s core activity from the beginning, evaluating the performance of government, is still something the world badly needs. The Monthly has always complained that too few journalists were assigned to cover government; today, because of the economic woes of newspapers and television, the number is surely lower than it was forty years ago. And all those Republican presidents did not, in fact, meaningfully shrink government (that’s one reason why they were elected and reelected). George W. Bush started two enormous and consequential government programs, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. How well do they work? Do you know? This is the kind of work the Monthly was, quite literally, born to do.

But the other, and evolutionarily next, aspect of the magazine’s project is just as important. The liberal electoral successes of the Clinton and Obama years have been fragile, and they have not been associated with a strong, coherent set of ideas to the same extent as the conservative successes of the Reagan and Bush years. A century ago, intellectuals like Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Jane Addams, and John Dewey helped define what liberalism meant in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century thus far, we haven’t developed a similarly significant liberal template. Liberalism can and should concern itself with finding winning electoral strategies, but it also needs ideas that fit together into a larger whole. A great deal of liberal thinking over the past generation has consisted of making concessions to conservatism on issues like the size and efficacy of government, the effectiveness of the Cold War, the virtues of markets, and the importance of civil society. As a result, at this moment, conservatism stands for big ideas (in ways that have largely played themselves out) and liberalism does not.

Small, struggling political magazines make for excellent laboratories for the formulation of governing philosophies. The Washington Monthly’s particular interest in the effectiveness (or not) of government gives it an ideal body of material from which to extrapolate to larger ideas. The work of pointing out the flaws in conventional mid-twentieth-century liberalism is largely complete. So is the work of pointing out the flaws in Reagan-era conservatism. Figuring out what comes next—even though we probably shouldn’t call it neoliberalism—is as pressing a task as figuring out which government programs work and which don’t.

Click here to return to the Best of the Washington Monthly 40th anniversary collection.

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Nicholas Lemann is dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, and chair of the magazine’s board of advisers.  
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