'The American Prospect' Turns 25 and Has a Very Strong New Issue

The strange and striking resonance between the politics of the post-Reagan era and what the first post-Obama president will confront

Then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan (right) during her confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court five years ago. An article argues that her appointment may be one of Barack Obama's most significant legacies. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

The American Prospect announces its 25th birthday with its new issue. The issue is available here, but of course as with any good magazine you should subscribe!

I've read and respected the magazine from the start and for a while in the 1990s wrote tech columns for it, and I am very glad to see it reach this milestone. The easily scrollable list of Prospect stories from its founding in 1990 onward is a fascinating guide to the changes and continuities in the progressive sensibility. When the magazine started the Democratic party was in the wilderness politically, having suffered three straight landslide presidential defeats. (Those were in 1980, 1984, and 1988; for comparison, today's Republicans have not lost three in a row since the FDR-Truman era. On the other hand, the Democrats held both the House and the Senate in 1990.)

Via the respective electoral talents of, first, Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama, plus the steady shift in U.S. demographics, plus the forces now pushing GOP candidates to the right, the presidential picture now looks much better for Democrats. They've won the popular vote in five of the six presidential elections since 1990, the exception being Bush-Kerry in 2004. The other exceptional-in-all-ways election, of course, was Bush-Gore in 2000.

But as political dynamics have changed, the substantive issues the magazine was originally wrestling with, back in the days of the first President Bush and the toppled Berlin Wall, are virtually all still with us now. Inequality; growth; absorbing immigrants; protecting the environment; dealing with a politicized judiciary; the right ways to improve and assess schools; and sane ways of thinking about national defense.

This is all by way of congratulating all involved with the magazine (including The Atlantic's own editor, Scott Stossel, who spent five years as a writer and editor there); of encouraging you to support it; and of recommending the current issue. In particular, let me point you toward two parts of it.

1) Economics. The most obvious thing that has gotten worse about America during the Prospect's existence is the relentless polarizing push toward inequality on all fronts. Income, wealth, education, economic mobility, political influence and involvement, you name it.

The three editors who were there at the creation of the Prospect—Robert Kuttner, Robert Reich, and Paul Starr—have three essays on what Second-Gilded-Age America can do in response. "How Gilded Ages End," by Starr; "The Wealth Problem," by Kuttner; and "The Political Roots of Rising Inequality." I recommend them all. In my live-streamed interview last night with Martin O'Malley, which I'll say more about when the archived version is available, he went at length into the implications of Gilded Age-ism. These eras end one way or another, he said: With reform, or "with pitchforks."

2) Law and political economics. As these articles, and any other sensible account, make clear, the forces now polarizing America are speeded along by technological and geo-strategic shifts. For instance, the rise of China. But the big decisions about how countries will do in response are always political. Germany responds in one way, America in another. And, perhaps more important, the America of 1955 responds in one way, the America of 1985 another.

In a wonderful article called "The Junior Justice," (my long-time friend) Lincoln Caplan explains how Elena Kagan, as the Supreme Court's newest member and thus its "junior justice," is using her intellectual and backroom-politics influence, and why this matters when it comes to America's response to these large historic forces.

Kagan is the only member of the current court who had not served previously as a judge. Some others for whom the Supreme Court was their first judicial job: Earl Warren, Felix Frankfurter, Louis Brandeis. Caplan says that for this reason or some other, Elena Kagan has been skillful in writing opinions whose audience is the citizenry at large rather than a narrow specialist coterie (though of course she reckons with the specialist issues). Caplan says:

Alone among the current justices and different from any before, Kagan in her major opinions addresses the American public as her readers, as if being a justice obliges her to say simply and directly why what the Court has decided matters for us.

And he gives examples of those opinions. The article itself nicely embodies the same virtue it identifies in Kagan's writings. That is, it uses close examination of the law to explain to non-lawyer readers how the rightward drive of the Roberts court is progressing and why it matters.

If you needed any more reason to stew about the bottomless cynicism of nominee-John Roberts's "I'm just an umpire, just calling the balls and strikes!" self-presentation during his confirmation hearings, this article will provide it. Similarly, the article could give you reason to stew further about the following chain of events: Five justices on the Rehnquist court give us Bush v. Gore  and thus George W. Bush —>George W. Bush gives us John Roberts and Samuel Alito —> Roberts, Alito, and the three other Republican appointees on the Roberts court give us Citizens United —>Citizens United gives us the current zenith of money politics.

This description might make the article sound as if it is a downer, which it is not. Like the others in the issue it's an engrossing look at the public challenges of the age. Congrats to the Prospect for publishing material like this for a quarter-century, and may it continue.

(And by the way, I can't help thinking that it increased its longevity odds by having me contribute in its early years! Most magazines for which I wrote during their startup phases are still going strong: The Washington Monthly from the early 1970s, Rolling Stone around the same time, Texas Monthly when it was starting in the mid-1970s, and now the Prospect. One sad exception is The Industry Standard, which rose and crashed in memorable glory during the 1999-2000 tech bubble. Although it sometimes seems otherwise, alas I was not around to write for The Atlantic during its startup phase in the 1850s, but I am very glad that this magazine is still strong as it nears its 158th birthday.)