In the Wilderness, Progressives Need a Campfire

It’s not the role we wanted, but it’s one we know how to play.

Like all of you, no doubt, I didn’t get much sleep last night. I’m still stunned at the election results, still struggling to comprehend the likely consequences. Those potential consequences are so complex that they’re literally humanly impossible for any of us, certainly me, to get a grip on immediately. The variables at this point are so many and so unknowable — What are Trump’s views on policy issue X? Who will he appoint  to carry out that policy? Will an ideologically riven GOP majority in Congress support him? If not, will the Democrats? Should they? — that I pretty quickly get overwhelmed by all the possible permutations.

There will be time in the days and weeks ahead to grapple with all this. For now, I want to make just a simple point, one that involves the Washington Monthly and our readers. For at least the next couple of years, the progressive half of America (a slightly larger half given the way the popular vote count seems to be going) will have less formal political power than at any time in modern history. Even in the 2003-2007 period when the GOP held the White House and both houses of Congress, Democrats controlled considerably more state governments than they do now. This is frightening to contemplate in all sorts of ways. But what it means is that the Fourth Estate is just about the only check the public has on Trump and GOP power.

This is not exactly comforting to those who think the media shares a big chunk of the blame for what happened. But the press is big place, and not every outlet or every reporter or pundit is equally blame-worthy. I know I made mistakes. Not only did I call the outcome of the race wrong — in that I had a lot of company — but I did so insistently, to the point of dismissing others who had doubts.

I’d like to think, though, that the Washington Monthly has, on balance, been a source for good during this electoral contest. At least we tried to be — for instance, by not giving Trump a lot of free, uncritical attention, and by repeatedly warning that the root cause of the economic populism he was tapping into is regional inequality brought on by decades of faulty competition policy in Washington that progressives politicians ought to be addressing. We have been able to do that because we are not some click-and-eyeball-driven media behemoth dependent on juicing up ratings to stay alive. Instead we’re a modest-sized non-profit outlet focused on the deeper, not-yet-in-the-news subjects and policies that are often the real drivers of economic and political change. And we are blessed with a highly informed, engaged and influential audience of readers who share our values and sense of what’s really important.

With progressives now shut out of power, the importance of independent left-of-center media outlets like this one has just grown enormously — far more than would have been the case if the election had gone the other way. Bill Moyers once told me, during the Bush years, that his long-running PBS show was like “a campfire in the wilderness” where wandering progressives could “gather and warm their hands.” I loved that metaphor. But longtime readers will remember that the Washington Monthly did more than just provide a place to warm one’s hands during those years. We helped figure out the right’s new game and the strategies and new ideas that could beat it.

As of last night, we’re in the same position. It’s not the role we wanted to be in, believe me. But it’s the one we’ve been given, and we know how to play it.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.