Tilting at Windmills

March/ April/ May 2014 A bygone age … The unraveling … Faith in institutions

By Nicholas Lemann

This column marks the dawn of the post-Charles Peters era of “Tilting at Windmills”; at eighty-seven, Charlie has decided to stop writing the column himself, and from now on a rotating cast of alumni of the magazine will be writing it. It’s appropriate that I am beginning the rotation, because I’m the one who, many years ago, had the idea for the column.

My motives were not entirely pure. I came to work at the Washington Monthly on July 1, 1976, and in those days Charlie almost never wrote for the magazine under his own byline. But that didn’t mean he didn’t write. Often he would append material he’d written to other people’s articles, usually at the end, and usually as a means of getting more of his own and the magazine’s editorial positions into print. It fell to me to try to persuade the authors that Charlie’s additions had improved their stories, which wasn’t always so easy. Thinking of Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory that the open frontier had provided a safety valve to relieve the social pressures of nineteenth-century America, I wondered whether a column under Charlie’s byline could serve as an editorial safety valve, lowering the pressure on articles by other people to become the bearers of his views. And so it did. Because of what preceded the column, and because it’s how his mind works, the column became a collection of short takes, rather than a single essay; as several people have pointed out, he was a blogger before there were bloggers. And the title was a reference to Charlie’s favorite novel, Don Quixote.

The many shades of liberalism

Not long before I went to work at the Monthly, Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift was published. I often thought about the ecstatically hopeful conversations between the title character, Von Humboldt Fleisher, and his protégé, Charlie Citrine, about the golden age that would dawn when Adlai Stevenson was elected president, because that was the way we talked, in the summer and fall of 1976, about the prospect of a Jimmy Carter administration. The Monthly was a small enough magazine that our skeleton staff would open subscription-renewal letters by hand in the office, so that we could rush the checks to the deposit window at the bank. We knew not only that Carter was a subscriber, but that his subscription went to a home address, and was renewed with a personal check in his own hand. Even if Carter no longer had time to read every word in the magazine, we imagined, he could focus on Charlie’s new column and get the key points on how to conduct his presidency.

We had no idea that in four short years, an era would dawn in which five of seven presidential terms would be held by Republicans who were far more conservative than most of the Republicans one encountered in Washington in the 1970s. Our mission was to help Carter make liberalism, the country’s reigning creed, function better. Our name for this project was neoliberalism.

Today, all these years later, we are in another moment (possibly evanescent, as moments always are) in which the Democratic Party seems to have a firm hold at least on the White House, and the reigning form of liberalism is more centrist than was the reigning form in the 1970s. So one could say that the mission for which the Monthly was created and in which it participated with many other actors was successful, despite the very long detour along the way into a period of conservative rule. But that strikes me as too facile. In the strictly political sense, liberalism is nowhere near as regnant as the results of the last six presidential elections—four Democratic victories, one Republican victory, one tie—would lead you to believe. Republicans control the House of Representatives and most of the governorships and state legislatures, and they may control the Senate too after this fall’s elections. More importantly, the Monthly was always more about an idea of the good society than it was about promoting the fortunes of a political party. There, I’d see the picture as distinctly mixed.

A bygone age

Charlie has always been openly nostalgic for the West Virginia of his Depression- and World War II-era childhood—not in every respect, but because the culture (not just in West Virginia, but nationally) was more democratic and people had more faith in politics and government as an appropriate realm for projects expressing common purpose. The magazine was from the very beginning wary of social fragmentation, overemphasis on market values, exaggerated mistrust of the public sector, and disproportionate elite power, all of which Charlie was prescient in seeing as looming dangers. On these dimensions, it’s impossible to argue that things are better today than in the early days of the magazine. It isn’t just that economic inequality—of income and, even more, of wealth—has increased so much over the lifetime of the magazine. It’s also that the rising, optimistic feeling that has characterized the lives of many (especially white, of course) ordinary Americans from the very beginning seems to be disappearing, and there seems to be less shared social and political space. Both data and instinct indicate that a fairly small elite has pulled away from the rest of the country, and that we have only begun to feel the full effects of this change.
How and why did this happen? There are many reasons, but it’s the Monthly’s tradition to engage in painful self-examination, so let’s take a moment here to look beyond the idea that all these social and economic changes are the fruit of the efforts of a well-organized, well-funded, and successful conservative movement. Liberals are part of the story too.

Rage against the machine

If anybody asked me for a book to read that would capture the atmosphere around the Washington Monthly in the 1970s—other than articles in the magazine itself—I’d suggest Theodore Lowi’s The End of Liberalism, which was published in 1969. This was an attack on liberalism from the left, by a prominent political scientist. Lowi’s scorn was particularly directed at what he called “interest group liberalism”—the takeover of the apparatus of government, such as congressional committees and regulatory agencies, by people who wanted some goodie or other and knew what to do to get it. The Vietnam War was raging, the cities were burning, and Washington seemed unable to address the country’s real problems. Interest group liberalism had to go.

Nicholas Lemann a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is dean emeritus at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker.

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