The Politics of Periodicals

Ezra has a quite helpful taxonomy of the left-of-center political magazine scene. Given its relative youth (its first issue was released a couple months after I was born), I’ve found myself having to explain The American Prospect‘s ideology pretty frequently to folks inquiring about my internship, namely other Harvard freshman during the inevitable “how did you spend your summer vacation?” conversation. I’ve settled on starting with, “left of The New Republic, right of The Nation“, following up with “a liberal monthly” if those references mean nothing to them. That said, a few notes:

  • Ezra treats as a group a bunch of magazines that really belong in three categories: center-left (The Washington Monthly, TNR), liberal (TAP), and leftist (The Nation, Mother Jones, In These Times). These overlap on occasion, of course, but they’re really three different political traditions, originating in the ’80s/’90s New Democrat movement, New Deal/Fair Deal/Great Society liberalism, and Debs/Thomas socialist activism, respectively. That’s what makes TAP so important – for readers interested in promoting the kind of politics that’s produced real progressive change in American history, it’s the only game in town. Lean too far in one direction and you either get Naomi Klein-style anticapitalism or Al From-style fiscal conservatism.
  • While they’re certainly playing a different game, literary outlets like the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and Harper’s deserve mention here, because they reach far bigger audiences than political magazines while simultaneously promoting progressive values. The Review, in particular, often uses its reviews as little more than pretense, with the actual articles turning into far broader, and more interesting, political ruminations. See Samantha Power’s review of Scoblic and Yglesias’ books for a great example of this.
  • While political magazines should certainly have their own milieus, they shouldn’t have their own ideology, or at least platform. A magazine where all the writers agree is very, very boring. TAP‘s done a good job on this front. Looking at the author archive, it’s hard to think of a name that isn’t present. Despite being founded by fair traders Robert Reich and Robert Kuttners, Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong, who are anything but temperate in their free-trade promotion, have contributed as well. While the vast majority of pieces in the magazine on Iraq have opposed the war, the executive editor at the time of the invasion, Mike Tomasky, supported it. Even among those listed as senior correspondents on the masthead, I highly doubt Robert Dreyfuss and James Fallows see eye-to-eye on foreign policy. Same goes with TNR. Sure, they endorsed Lieberman and were shameless war cheerleaders, but they still pay John Judis’ salary, and Peter Scoblic is decidedly left of center on foreign affairs. This is how it should be. Internal debate, while not the ideal from a strategic standpoint, is a sign of a healthy, growing movement.
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