Editor’s Note: A Usable Past for Liberal Government

Today’s progressives can learn from how previous generations dealt with familiar challenges.

Two thousand nineteen is the fiftieth-anniversary year of the Washington Monthly. That’s got me thinking about how to describe the role the magazine has played, and continues to play, in the life of the nation. It’s a complicated question, about which I’ll have more to say in the future. For now, one answer I can offer is that the Monthly has long been in the business of trying to create a “usable past” for liberal government.

That phrase comes from an influential 1918 essay, “On Creating a Usable Past,” by Van Wyck Brooks. The famed literary critic argued that American novelists and poets of his day lacked boldness, inspiration, and a shared sense of purpose because they too often emulated European writers, whose instincts and traditions were far different from their own. To find their voice, he maintained, American writers needed to rediscover the work of their own literary forebears, like Herman Melville, whose books at the time were largely forgotten (hard as that may be for later generations of high schoolers to believe). 

Those earlier writers, Brooks noted, had grappled with the same tensions as his contemporaries—in particular, trying to create art and find meaning in a country overwhelmingly devoted to commerce. Only by studying those earlier works and creatively articulating the qualities they shared (a task Brooks spent his professional life on) could his generation of writers find the language and vision to lead the country toward what he, a man of the political left, saw as an emerging progressive future:

Knowing that others have desired the things we desire and have encountered the same obstacles, and that in some degree time has begun to face those obstacles down and make the way straight for us, would not the creative forces of this country lose a little of the hectic individualism that keeps them from uniting against their common enemies?

The Washington Monthly is a politics and policy magazine, not a literary journal. Still, we hold the Brooksian view—shared by our founder, Charles Peters, most recently in his book We Do Our Part—that today’s liberals are surprisingly unaware of the policy solutions that their own predecessors devised for problems remarkably similar to those we face today, and that rediscovering those forgotten solutions is the key to building a contemporary liberalism that is in accord with the American spirit.

A good example is the rise of monopoly capitalism. For over a decade, as regular readers know, this magazine has been making the case that growing industry consolidation is suppressing entrepreneurship and wage growth, hollowing out the economy of the interior of the country, and corrupting the political process. This consolidation happened because Washington policymakers abandoned legal and regulatory regimes, such as strict antitrust enforcement, that previous generations of progressives put in place to create a capitalism that worked for average people. The good news, as Eric Cortellessa reports in this issue, is that several Democratic presidential candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar, have absorbed many of these antitrust arguments and are beginning to articulate them on the campaign trail. 

Elsewhere in this issue, you’ll find more policy treasures dug up by our writers. Phillip Longman—the Indiana Jones of this sort of journalism—reports that tech companies not only invade our privacy but also use the information to discriminate against us on prices, precisely the strategy that railroad and telegraph monopolies deployed a century ago, until progressive lawmakers outlawed it. New Jersey Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell shows how the United States Postal Service is being crippled by misguided congressional demands for it to “operate like a business,” demands that run counter to the Founding Fathers’ intent that it be a unifying national institution. Pascrell argues that today’s Postal Service could further fulfill its original mission by expanding into, among other areas, community banking. Beth Baltzan tells the story of the long-forgotten “Havana Charter,” a 1948 trade treaty negotiated by New Dealers which, had it not been rejected by Congress, might have kept the global trading system from subsequently screwing American workers. And Grace Gedye traces efforts by newly empowered House Democrats to revive an institution, the Office of Technology Assessment, that helped lawmakers make sense of emerging technologies, before Newt Gingrich killed it.

Many activists on the left today—or at least those who hang out on Twitter—are demanding Scandinavian-style socialism and a clean break with the Democratic Party’s compromised past. But while it’s true that America hasn’t cornered the market on good policy ideas, and Democrats have often been party to disastrous ones, such demands are unlikely to result in the solid and enduring new liberal majority we need. A more promising way to build such a majority is to study how previous generations of Americans did so—the language they used, the values they identified with, and the policies they forged from the peculiar alloys of American culture. “Only by the exercise of a little pragmatism of that kind,” wrote Brooks, “can the past experience of our people be placed at the service of the future.” 

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Paul Glastris

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