The Washington Monthly’s Liberal Imagination

How I learned to recognize when the left had veered off course.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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I was seventeen when I showed up at Columbia University in the fall of 1980. One of my first assignments for the campus radio station was to cover election night. It was a bit like the Martin Scorsese movie After Hours, a dark comedy in which a normal guy encounters ever-weirder moments during an all-nighter in New York City. My version involved a party at the 21 Club where cheering Hasidic Jews, who seemed out of place in that famed old-money, WASPy restaurant, were dancing en masse celebrating Ronald Reagan’s election. Later I wound up at a party for Alfonse D’Amato, the newly elected Republican senator from New York, who had knocked off the liberal incumbent Republican, Jacob Javits, in the GOP primary. Cheers went up from the ballroom each time another liberal icon, like George McGovern or Frank Church, went down.

If you were a liberal that night, you had to be deeply shaken. It was clear that Reagan hadn’t won purely because of his communication skills. Something wasn’t working with American liberalism. 

In my effort to understand what that something was over the ensuing years, I found myself turning often to the Washington Monthly, a magazine that offered a sleeves-rolled-up approach to reforming liberalism itself. I fell in love with the magazine’s wisdom, its humor, its capacity to find a way forward that wasn’t just about mealymouthed moderation or corporatism.

In some ways, the Monthly reminded me of another influence that greatly shaped my thinking: the work of Diana and Lionel Trilling, the prominent New York intellectuals whose careers largely tracked the fortunes of American liberalism throughout the mid-twentieth century. From their perch on Morningside Heights—Lionel was the first Jewish tenured professor of English at Columbia—they were an “it” couple on the social and literary landscape. As it happens, Lionel was a professor of Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters, who was an undergraduate at Columbia in the 1940s. While Charlie was turned off by Trilling’s intellectual snobbery, he admired the professor’s insistence on rigorous, critical thought, and his willingness to critique aspects of the American left without jumping ship as so many of his contemporaries did in forming the neoconservative movement. 

In fact, the august professor’s 1950 collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, foreshadowed much of what the Monthly would stand for at its founding nineteen years later. “Trilling argued that liberalism, though born of laudable motives, often becomes rigid and ossified,” I wrote for the Monthly in 1993, in a review of Diana Trilling’s memoir of her early life with Lionel. Much of the Monthly’s defining work over the previous two decades had been marked precisely by its tendency to challenge the rigidities setting in among American liberalism—whether that meant criticizing the leadership of labor unions or urging Democrats to get over their squeamishness toward business and economic growth—without dismissing the underlying values that make liberalism worth defending.

I wrote that review during the early days of the Clinton administration’s attempt to reinvent Washington and the Democratic Party, when I was a White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report trying to make sense of the era. The Trillings’ ethos seemed resonant then. Today, it’s even more so. During times that were arguably more turbulent than today’s, they managed to stay admirably level-headed; they rarely let anger and resentments steer their politics. They weren’t perfect. They could be snobs, as Charlie says. But they got most of the big questions right. The Trillings were liberal anti-communists. They opposed Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Stalin. They were clear-eyed about the guilt of the accused spy and convicted perjurer Alger Hiss. (Lionel had been friendly with Hiss’s main accuser, Whittaker Chambers, but never followed him to the far right.) 

These things seem obvious today, but then, as now, there were mass delusions and insane polarization. The coolly intellectual Trillings kept their heads. When protestors took over campus buildings in 1968, signs appeared on campus saying “Wanted, Dead or Alive, for Crimes Against Humanity” beneath a photo of Lionel. Still, he served on the committee that negotiated with the occupiers and conceded that some of the more moderate among them had more compelling points than he’d expected.

Diana has never gotten the attention that Lionel has, but she, too, was wise and accomplished. In 1968, she famously squared off against the novelist Mary McCarthy, who was besotted with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. In the New York Review of Books, Diana agreed that the U.S. needed to withdraw, but predicted, correctly, the bloodbath and reeducation camps that would follow. 

So today, in an age threatened foremost by Donald Trump and a Republican Party that appeases him, when illiberal leftists take their pugilism to Twitter, and when the best-seller lists are dominated by hyperpartisan blather, the lessons of the Trillings seem wise to remember: Be principled but also reasonable. Be willing to change your mind. Recognize the nobility of liberalism, but be willing to criticize it. 

Those are also the lessons of the Washington Monthly.

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Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper is a contributing editor at Washingtonian. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1987 to 1989.