These are bleak days for progressives, but it’s always worth remembering that in adversity there is opportunity. And the opportunity that the current political situation affords us–demands of us–is to collect ourselves and think hard about first principles. Just how did conservatism win all these arguments in our civic discourse? Yes, with billions of dollars, and yes, with outright lies sometimes. But those factors shouldn’t blind us to the fact that conservatives have had a strategy, and it has worked for them politically, and liberals have usually not answered it adequately with a strategy or ideas of their own.
It was with thoughts like these in mind that we decided to launch a series that we are straightforwardly calling “First Principles.” In these packages of articles that will run over the next several issues, we will look at important areas of civic life in the United States and ask: What did conservatives do and say that led to their success in redefining the way the American people think about this subject? Where exactly did progressives make errors? And what new narratives, arguments, and metaphors might be useful to us today in reframing the debate? We cannot promise that we will produce definitive answers that will transform American politics quickly. But we do know that we need, especially right now, fresh perspectives on what to do, and that is what we will provide.
The first subject we take on in this issue is the role of government: the matter at the heart, really, of the election just behind us. The historian Rick Perlstein delivers an intellectual history of right-wing attacks on government going back to the 1920s. Alan Wolfe, the writer and social scientist, describes why modern conservatives not only cannot but will not govern. And Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, authors of The True Patriot, offer a highly provocative look forward into new ways progressives should think and talk about government.
We continue our “America 2021” series in this issue with a discussion of jobs and the economy, featuring five leading thinkers across the progressive spectrum–Robert Atkinson, Heather Boushey, Harry J. Holzer, Thea M. Lee, and Sherle R. Schwenninger–and moderated by our editorial board chairman, E.J. Dionne Jr. The value-added tax (VAT) is something of a hot topic right now. Though many progressives are leery of the idea, Andrea Louise Campbell of MIT makes a strong progressive case for a carefully structured VAT. And Michael Bérubé of Penn State considers the legacy of one of the great intellectual pranks in history–the Sokal Hoax, 15 years on. He demonstrates how the postmodern left helped plow the ground for the climate-change deniers and young-Earth creationists of the right.
David Kendall of Third Way responds to Jacob S. Hacker’s cover piece on health-care reform from the previous issue. The book reviews bring us Alan Brinkley on Barack Obama and political philosophy; Mary Jo Bane on Robert Putnam and religion; Yehudah Mirsky on the history and paradoxes of human rights; Jennifer Klein on two books taking stock of the 1970s; and Nina Hachigian on U.S. foreign policy in a less unipolar global future. And I lay out a few thoughts about the condition of Arabs in America.
It may be a difficult time. But difficult times are good for journals of thought, as we think this issue demonstrates.