In one of the lesser-known rituals of the literary world, every five years or so I interview for the position of book review editor of the Nation. Twice I’ve been a finalist, only to learn that the magazine had “decided to go in a different direction,” and once I withdrew before the magazine could get a chance to tell me about the excitingly different direction they had decided to go in.
But each time the experience has been worthwhile. I’ve had enjoyable conversations with Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the Nation; I’ve pondered the question of whether I should wear a tie to an interview like this (and thus look serious) or not wear a tie (and thus look hip); I have even used the occasion to think about what I would like to see more of, and less of, in the largest-circulation magazine on the left.
The first two times I was interviewed—roughly ten years ago, and then five years ago—my idea of what might improve the Nation‘s book section was simply that the Nation should use more of the writers you see in Dissent. (Maybe that’s why I never got the job.)
This last time, about a year ago, I still wanted to import Dissent people, but it occurred to me that there was a whole new crew of writers whom I thought would improve the Nation, and thinking about them, I realized how deeply the intellectual landscape on the left has changed over the last few years, and how deeply it has changed for the better.
I’m talking about a new breed of liberal writers who have emerged on the web—a network of writers who are bringing together reformism and idealism in a way we haven’t seen in many years. I’m thinking of people like Joshua Micah Marshall (the man behind Talking Points Memo); Eric Alterman, the Nation columnist, author of many books, and blogger for Media Matters for America; Ezra Klein (The American Prospect); Kevin Drum (the Washington Monthly); Glenn Greenwald (Salon); Matthew Yglesias (the Atlantic); Bob Somerby (the Daily Howler); Rick Perlstein (the Campaign for America’s Future); and the writer who goes by the name of Digby who blogs for her own website, digbysblog. I think of Paul Krugman and Harold Meyerson as two of the spiritual godfathers of this kind of politics. Meyerson has edited some of these writers at the American Prospect; and Krugman makes frequent reference to their work in his columns and on his New York Times blog.
These writers are exciting because they’re unapologetically, un-defensively liberal, and because their liberalism isn’t the cautious, hesitant, scared-of-its-own-shadow, skim-milk liberalism that we’ve all gotten used to. It’s a militant liberalism, of a kind we haven’t seen in decades.
Their liberalism is both practical and ambitious. By saying it’s practical, I mean it’s interested in results. None of these writers is tempted by Naderite fantasies. They get things done. Josh Marshall, for example, did more than anyone to expose the Karl Rove-orchestrated firings of U.S. attorneys who weren’t doing the administration’s bidding and to bring the details of Jack Abramoff’s “K Street Project” to light. In addition, although these writers can be scaldingly critical of the Democrats, all of them are working for a Democratic victory in 2008.
By saying they’re ambitious, I mean that most of these writers share a politics that is interested in deep-going social reform—you could say it’s a social-democratic politics, although few of them would use that term. (As far as I can tell, they have absolutely no interest in socialist thought, which, in my opinion, is a good thing. At any rate, I can’t see that any of them has been hobbled intellectually because of a lack of opinions about Bukharin.)
Because most of these writers came of political age after the end of the Cold War, they’re not afraid of being red-baited, and this fearlessness in some curious fashion makes them freer to mount radical critiques of U. S. policy than older generations of writers grouped around Dissent and schooled in the socialist tradition. It is odd, but refreshing, to see the emergence of young liberals who are blunter in their critiques of capitalist political and social arrangements than an older generation of democratic socialists could allow themselves to be.
All of the writers whom I’ve mentioned are also gifted stylists—eloquent in their outrage and often very funny. They are political writers whom one turns to not only because they are informative but because they’re fun to read.
For those of us who remember the bad old days, when it seemed that, with the exception of Anthony Lewis, there were no voices of liberalism in the day-to-day public discourse at all, the current flowering of liberal voices on the web is remarkable. For a very long time, people on the left have been hoping for the emergence of an intellectual A-Team, a group of writers whose example would reinvigorate the thinking of the Democratic party, in the same way that the neoconservatives helped to revive the Republican party in the 1970s.
It doesn’t look the way any of us anticipated, but the A-Team may have finally arrived.
Avishai Margalit on Sectarianism
Michael B. Katz and Michael J. Stern on African-American Inequality
Jo-Ann Mort on the Two-State Capitalists
Fawaz A. Gerges on How the Iraq War is Straining U.S. Soldiers
Michael Walzer on the Tibetan ‘Intifada’
Nicolaus Mills on Boycotting the Olympics
Brian Morton‘s novels include Starting Out in the Evening and Breakable You.