By E.J. Dionne Jr.
We know there are coffee lovers and tea lovers, as well as lovers of baseball, football, art, literature, music and cars. But many years ago, Father Richard John Neuhaus, a hero to conservatives who earlier was a guide to religious radicals, identified a category to which I proudly belong: He said there were lovers of opinions.
I do love opinions—those I agree with, certainly, but often enough, even some I disagree with. Having grown up in a politically diverse extended family that spent a great deal of time arguing (fiercely but mostly amiably) about the world, I have always been enchanted by the process through which people reach their conclusions. The factors at play in opinion-formation describe the full range of human capacities and feelings: reason, emotion, experience, interest, calculation, faith, love, hate and willfulness. This brief list is by no means exhaustive.
My love of opinions quickly transformed itself into an affection for the magazines that purvey them. I began at an early age reading National Review and Human Events on the right, and The New Republic and Commonweal on the left. And imagine my joy in discovering that this list only scratched the surface. Rather quickly, I learned about The Nation and the Public Interest, now sadly defunct, along with Dissent and Commentary. I laughed louder than most at Woody Allen’s joke that an unlikely merger of the last two would produce a journal called Dissentary.
Piles of other opinion magazines, from libertarian to socialist, have cluttered every place I’ve ever lived. Such publications are about more than brisk polemics. They can change the world. That’s what William F. Buckley Jr. did when he started National Review in 1955. He and his writers provided the arguments and ideas that revitalized American conservatism. Its work led, eventually, to Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. I mourn the result but still admire Buckley’s daring.
What prompts these thoughts is a possible death in this great family of opinionators that could be averted. The American Prospect, a center-left magazine (for which I have occasionally written) faces a financial crisis that could soon force it to shut its doors. My interest here is, in part, unabashedly political, since I think it’s important for our country to have a vibrant publication devoted to an egalitarian brand of liberalism that honors the social contributions of a strong labor movement and values good reporting and writing.
The maddening aspect of The Prospect’s crisis is that it has been innovative in dealing with the new online world that, as an opinion-lover, I also appreciate (even if I would insist that opinionated writing can never substitute for the relentless daily reporting of the traditional news outlets). The magazine gave a start or a big push to some of the best younger progressive online writers now gracing us with their views. They include Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Jonathan Cohn, Kate Sheppard, Dana Goldstein, Laura Secor and Jonathan Chait.
The Prospect was founded in 1990 by Robert Kuttner, Paul Starr and Robert Reich partly to provide intellectual competition from the other political shore to the neoconservative Public Interest. (I still have the first issues of both of them somewhere.) It blossomed into a magazine that honors and invests in long-form journalism, “the deeply reported piece that requires a huge amount of time and effort from a writer,” says Kit Rachlis, the magazine’s current editor. “There’s a strong need for this in the age of Twitter,” argues Rachlis, who had successful stints at Los Angeles magazine, the LA Weekly and the Village Voice, “since print venues for long form have been dwindling.” No kidding.
The progressive think tank Demos came in as a partner with the magazine in early 2010, but The Prospect is now threatened by debts it needs to pay off quickly. And there is some happy news here that marries the new tech world with an old-fashioned sense of community: Rachlis says that since word of the journal’s crisis got out, more than 700 people have contributed a total of $110,000. But it will need more to survive.
Yes, opinion magazines come and go and have their niches filled—National Affairs magazine, for example, now occupies conservative space left by The Public Interest. But at a moment when the political debate is excessively influenced by tens of millions of dollars spent by super PACs on short, nasty ads, you’d think we could spare a little for places like The Prospect that encourage us to think.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group