The day that I had my job interview at The Washington Monthly a new issue had just come into the office. In huge type, the cover said, CRIMINALS BELONG IN JAIL. It’s a sign of how much the liberal world has changed that at the time, February 1976, this seemed shocking to me—it was the kind of thing that you just couldn’t say, even if it was true. In order to restore vitality and intellectual honesty to liberalism, much of the psychic energy of the magazine in those days was devoted to raising all the points that liberals felt shouldn’t be discussed because it would give the conservatives ammunition. But the assumption was always that liberalism would remain the reigning creed in America. We were not trying to move the Democratic Party to the right. We were not ourselves moving to the right. We were trying to make liberalism even better and stronger than it already was.

Even more than the urge to avoid issues like crime and defense, the aspect of conventional liberalism that the magazine most disliked was its elitism—its snobbery and its mistrust of politics, which seemed rooted in a belief that most people simply weren’t very bright. So it’s ironic, and sad, that The Washington Monthly’s greatest success over the 20 years of its existence has been in influencing the liberal elite—not about elitism, but about issues. On most public policy questions, the Eastern Establishment, such as it is these days, has come around to the positions this magazine has been advocating since its founding. You can bet the rent that the next Democratic presidential candidate will point out that criminals belong in jail.

The problem that nags the most right now is that the acceptance of The Washington Monthly’s positions is limited to a fairly small group. Neoliberalism, in essence if not by its unfortunate name, would win in a referendum taken among journalists and policy analysts. But it’s still death on election day because of what comes after the “neo.” The 1988 presidential election was especially depressing in this regard, because George Bush, unlike Ronald Reagan, is not a great political candidate, and seemed to draw his electoral strength mainly from tapping a reservoir of public distrust of liberalism. The unpopularity of liberalism is obviously rooted more in “populism” than in substantive disagreement; conservatives have been able to sell most people on the idea that liberals are powerful and contemptuous, the way bankers used to be in Thomas Nast cartoons. Liberal elitism and conservative presidential landslides are intimately connected. The Washington Monthly doesn’t really need an infusion of new ideas right now; its 20-year-old ideas are still the right ones. The next great task for the magazine is figuring out how to bring about the political triumph of neoliberalism—and doing this will require completing the great piece of unfinished business in the establishment, which is overcoming its suspicion of democracy.

There are three prevailing theories about how to revive the Democratic Party in presidential politics. One, which might be called the Sam Nunn theory, holds that the Democrats should become more conservative, especially on defense and foreign policy, and thus win back the South. Another, the Barney Frank theory, is that if the Democrats could rid themselves of a few exotic positions (such as the idea that criminals don’t belong in jail) they would get the middle class back. Finally, according to the Bob Kuttner theory, if the Democrats ditch the social issues and fully embrace class- and constituency-based economic politics, they could build a working-class majority. All these theories have crucial flaws. The Nunn theory assumes that the South is winnable for the Democrats, which last fall’s election results call into question. The Frank theory takes away the Democrats’ negatives without adding positives. The Kuttner theory seems to work only in hard times.

Neoliberals are frequently accused of lacking a political base—except for journalists, it’s often added with a snicker. Actually, there is an encouraging historical parallel for the position of neoliberals today, which is the Progressives. They too proceeded from an interest in government to a mastery of politics; Progressivism first flowered among journalists and reformers, and elected local and state officials before it was a force in national politics. In retrospect the key to the Progressives’ political success was not their clever stitching together of constituency groups, but their ability to convince the country that it had social and economic problems, ranging from child labor to rotten meat to the despoiling of nature, that had to be solved by government.

Neoliberalism should now focus on making two main points to voters, one specific and one general. The specific point is that the government is not delivering on its basic obligations. It doesn’t provide every child with a decent free education. It doesn’t adequately protect the environment. It doesn’t keep cities free of crime. It doesn’t maintain the roads and keep the military in a state of readiness. The chink in the conservatives’ armor is their idea that all problems can be solved simply by paring away layers of government. Nobody believes this any more. If the Democrats can convincingly present themselves as the efficient provider of government services that the country badly needs, they’ll instantly have made the case for themselves, and the constituencies will follow.

The larger point is that the government can be a unifying force in a nation that badly needs to be unified. A generation ago, it was widely predicted that the national life was in danger of becoming too uniform, too conformist, too homogeneous. Instead, what has happened is a splintering of the country by age, class, race, and economic activity, with each group looking out for its narrow interests and major national efforts nearly impossible to bring off. Neoliberals should make it clear that all of the specific tasks of government are undertaken in the cause of patriotism; thus every success of the government will have the effect of increasing Americans’ faith in their country and each other.

What is a magazine’s place in this largely political mission? It can report on how neoliberalism is doing in the political world, providing an ongoing local politics field test of the agenda. It can hammer away at the reserves of snobbery that keep its readers from devoting their time and attention to the political fortunes of neoliberalism. It can provide a stream of examples that show what makes government work well, or not work well, which will provide neoliberals with the information they need to establish themselves as reliable operators of governments. It can try constantly, by providing examples from real life, to give humanity and urgency to the national problems that government should solve—to take them out of the statistical table and the seminar room. All this requires the magazine to work constantly at marrying its body of theory to examples from around the country. If we can do this effectively for the next 20 years, we should be able to say that we’ve changed a lot more than people’s minds.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.