If you have been perusing the new issue of the Washington Monthly—and if you haven’t you should because it’s full of great reads, like this and this and this and this and this—you may have noticed an important change. Our esteemed founding editor Charlie Peters has handed in the keys to his signature Tilting at Windmills column. Charlie, who is 87, will still contribute occasionally to the magazine—and when he calls the office we will, as always, snap to attention and dutifully and gratefully take his dictation—but Tilting will now be written by a rotating cast of Washington Monthly contributing editors, beginning, in this issue, with New Yorker staff writer and dean emeritus at Columbia Journalism School Nicholas Lemann.
It’s fitting that Nick is the first to try his hand at Tilting because, as he explains, he’s the one who came up with the idea for the column in the first place:
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.
Nick’s version of Tilting is less a collection of blog-like nuggets and more of a loose essay on what one might call the decline of institutionalism in American politics and civic life. And in the course of making his argument he offers a rather striking reassessment of the “neoliberal” political philosophy that Charlie advocated and he (and all of us who worked for him) imbibed:
The prospect of replacing interest group liberalism with something that was better targeted at the needs of the country, and also more effective, was deeply alluring. In those days we were about as distant from the heyday of the New Deal as the 1970s are from us today; you’d still see white-haired former aides to FDR (Joseph Rauh, Thomas Corcoran) wandering around the streets of downtown Washington. They had come to town to do good and had stayed to do well, and now it was time to sweep their old corrupted structures away and create new, purer ones. This was also the long-forgotten heyday of Ralph Nader as a super-respectable figure, who had an initiative staffed by bright young people aimed at reforming just about every department and agency of the government. Deregulating industries, using the power of markets to make government work better, embracing technology, targeting government social programs on people who really needed them, helping consumers rather than politically connected businesses, taking down trade barriers, reducing the power of the Democratic Party establishment and the labor unions, orienting government toward the public interest rather than toward interest groups—all of this was our dream.
I don’t mean to renounce these ideas entirely, but in retrospect they present a couple of problems. First, we had too much faith in the ability of people like us, smart and well-intentioned upper-middle-class (defined by family background, not by what the Monthly paid) Washington liberals, to determine what was and wasn’t a genuine social need. Our scorn for interest group liberalism led us to undervalue the process of people organizing themselves and pushing the political system to give them what they wanted from it. Second, we failed to anticipate the way that eliminating all those structures that struck us as outdated—the government bureaucracies, the seniority system in Congress, the old-line interest groups—would almost inevitably wind up working to the advantage of elites more than of the ordinary people on whose behalf we imagined ourselves to be advocating. The frictionless, disintermediated, networked world in which we live today is great for people with money and high-demand skills, not so great for everybody else. It’s a cruel irony of the Monthly’s history that our preferred label for ourselves, neoliberal, has come to denote political regimes maximally friendly to the financial markets. I’ve come to see the merits of the liberal structures I scorned in my younger days.
Nick’s column covers a lot of ground brilliantly and I urge you to read the whole thing. My own take on neoliberalism and the magazine’s impact on politics and government in America is a little different and rather more sanguine. But getting more viewpoints into the magazine is one of the things I’m looking forward to with the new Tilting regime.
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