About That American Idea

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Some home news—we sent the following email to our colleagues at The Atlantic today, and thought we should share it with you as well. We should probably make explicit one element of this memo that Atlantic folk implicitly understand: We’re undertaking this expansion of our coverage of politics and policy with the founding ambition of the magazine very much in mind. Back in 1857, the first editors of The Atlantic described its purpose, in part, this way: “In Politics, the Atlantic will be the organ of no party or clique, but will honestly endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.”


National Journal’s decision to return to its roots in subscriber-only publishing has created an opportunity for The Atlantic to bring its ideas-focused approach to journalism more fully to bear on politics and policy. We see formidable Washington coverage as foundational to our broader ambitions; no general-interest brand can hope to have impact globally without providing its readers with a sophisticated understanding of Washington’s view of itself and the world. We think The Atlantic is uniquely positioned to advance that understanding.

For years, The Atlantic has been read closely in Washington for the clearest thinking on the most consequential questions facing policymakers—from the future of energy to the needs of the military to the changing shape of the job market. It already has some of the most esteemed reporters and writers in their respective fields: Molly Ball on politics; Jeffrey Goldberg on foreign policy and national security; Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hanna Rosin on domestic policy; Garrett Epps on law and justice; Russell Berman on Congress; and James Fallows on all of the preceding. In Peter Beinart, David Frum, and Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic has three of the sharpest observers of American politics and policy, and its news desk is led by astute Washington reporters like David Graham, Marina Koren, and Krishnadev Calamur. Not only is The Atlantic’s chief editor a former White House correspondent—so is its chief operating officer. Matt Thompson, the site’s deputy editor, has already conceived several ambitious projects focused on the consequences for the country of decisions made here. And The Atlantic’s expertise in politics and policy is not merely broad, but deep. Yoni Appelbaum, its politics editor—and now first-ever Washington bureau chief—has a Ph.D. in American history; the editor who leads the site, John Gould, has his Ph.D. in political science.

This scope of expertise helps explain why The Atlantic already commands a monthly audience in D.C. of 800,000 unique visitors, and why our Washington events, like the annual Washington Ideas Forum, draw hundreds of attendees.

So now, for the first time in the magazine’s long history, The Atlantic is planning to dedicate reporters to covering the White House, Capitol Hill, the agencies, and lobbying. As we intensify our reporting on politics, we will also focus on policy as it evolves in those areas—including technology, energy, health, and national security—likely to have the greatest influence in shaping the life of the nation. We don’t plan to follow the traditional model of stationing reporters at buildings. Instead, we’ll equip each beat reporter with questions—how will the experience of privacy continue to change for Americans? What are the emerging threats to corporate and sovereign cybersecurity?—that will prompt them, and free them, to roam from K Street through the agencies to Capitol Hill and the embassies.  

We plan, of course, to also equip our Washington reporters with the values that The Atlantic brings to all its journalism. We will expect them to be conscious of the stakes in the decision-making they are covering and ambitious to gauge its consequences, even as they remain mindful that the true significance and ramifications of events in our own time can elude even the wisest experts. We mean, in other words, to take Washington seriously—if not, at all times, quite so seriously as Washington might take itself. We aspire to practice a journalism that never loses sight of the stakes but that also retains a sense of proportion and a sense of humor. We intend, for example, to bring an outsider’s eye to the very particular folkways of Washington—and an insider’s eye to their portrayal in the popular culture.

We believe that intelligent, aggressive coverage can serve both those shaping policy within Washington and those beyond who will be most affected by decisions made, or not made, here. So we will be covering the news on our beats; we will be identifying the people most influencing change or enforcing stasis; we will be mindful at all times of the interests driving national politics and policy. But a journalism that contented itself with those objectives would fall short of the ambitions of The Atlantic. In Washington, The Atlantic will distinguish itself by reaching past these more familiar obsessions to focus on the ideas animating policy choices—ideas about the nature of the American family, the role of technology in our lives, the sources and consequences of poverty, the foundations of global stability. American politics has always been a contest of interests. But it has also always been more than that. It has been and remains a contest of ideas, of convictions about the best ways to secure liberty, increase prosperity, and advance one very powerful idea in particular—the American one.


James and Bob