The unstilled voices of the left Press: Two venerable journals keep a lonely watch, proud to be liberal in an age of centrism.


MADISON, Wis. -- Is there a place left in the world for the left-leaning press? Here, in this university town and state capital, liberal intellectuals are still keeping the faith at the Progressive, a monthly magazine nearing its 90th birthday.

The candles are still burning, too, at the Nation, the New York weekly that finds itself at the last stop on the left side of the political spectrum now that the New Republic, once a champion of liberal causes, has shifted dramatically to the right.

Proud of label

So somebody's home, but is anybody listening to the voices of the left?

The Nation and the Progressive, two magazines proud to accept the "liberal media" label, have grappled with problems of remaining relevant in the redrawn political map of the 1990s. Both have been unswervingly critical of the Clinton presidency almost from the beginning, leaving them lonely -- and without a power base -- as "New Democrat" party politics have turned toward the center. What's more, the competition for reader attention from the right is far fiercer than it used to be: The Weekly Standard and the American Spectator magazines are snappy, glossy publications that have cut a swath through Republican circles in the 1990s.

"The left press does not demand your attention and attractively represent their views," says Marvin Kalb, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy. "The whole country has turned to the center and slightly to the right since the end of the Cold War demonstrated the political failure of the left to settle social problems."

Making some changes

Editors of each publication say they have done some reinventing lately to keep up with the times: doing more TV commentary, for example, in what passes for the national political debate. And they have moved on from certain aging causes; the Nation kept fighting the battles of the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss long after they had disappeared into the vapor of history.

"In my view, it's a more interesting time to edit, without having to refight tired old battles," says the Princeton-educated editor of the Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel. "The end of the Cold War freed people from stereotypes."

Founded in 1909 by U.S. Sen. Robert M. LaFollette Sr., the Progressive is rooted in the Progressive Party, a Midwestern populist movement at the beginning of the century that questioned the distribution of wealth and labor conditions in the Gilded Age.

Nine decades later, LaFollette would find its pages full of familiar themes. The August issue of the Progressive features an article about the United Auto Workers strike in Flint, Mich.; an interview with Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and a commentary by Texas writer Molly Ivins that concludes: "The message from this Congress is pretty clear: let y'all eat cake."

While Ivins is a humorist, the rest of the magazine is earnest. In the first issue of LaFollette's Weekly (the name was later changed), LaFollette laid out a credo: "We shall hit as hard as we can, giving and taking blows for the cause with joy in our hearts."

"We're a lifeline for people whose only political friend is the Progressive," says editor Matthew Rothschild, 40, who joined the magazine on Madison's Main Street a few years after graduating from Harvard.

Holding steady

Circulation is holding steady at about 30,000 (including 500 Marylanders) since the 1994 death of Erwin Knoll, the former editor who was a familiar face on the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour. To spice up the pages, Rothschild has added poetry.

The original Progressive position still holds up as a coherent left-wing critique of society, Rothschild insists. "There's a positive role for government," he says, "especially in reining in runaway corporations. We think today that corporations have way too much power."

The Progressive's editor took the Clinton administration to task for abolishing the federal welfare entitlement: "It's been a disaster in that regard," Rothschild says. He adds that his writers and readers have also been disenchanted by the Clinton administration's stand on civil liberties and crime: "The death penalty is just what we don't need," he says.

Yet, he has not given up hope of influencing the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. "The White House gets a subscription," says Rothschild.

Two big events

In the long history of the Progressive, two events stand out. A 1979 issue caused a national controversy when it published the scientific recipe for a hydrogen bomb. And in 1954, then-editor Morris Rubin devoted every page of a special issue to documents exposing the deeds of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It sold 185,000 copies and was considered a catalyst in McCarthy's downfall.

The Nation also fought furiously against McCarthyism in the 1950s, publishing playwright Arthur Miller's protests and those of writers blacklisted in that era.

Since its debut in 1865, the Nation has published many important American social thinkers and literary lights: Henry James, W.E.B. Dubois, Mary McCarthy, Sinclair Lewis, James Thurber, Hannah Arendt, I. F. Stone, Martin Luther King -- and Baltimore's own H. L. Mencken.

A new course

Recently moved to new offices, the Nation has tried to chart a new course as radical dissent has dried up with the death of communism and the end of the Cold War. "To begin with, we should stop obsessing about our disappointment with Bill Clinton," proposed a "First Principles" series last year dedicated to the task of reinventing the magazine.

"It's a confused time," acknowledges vanden Heuvel, a dynamic woman in her late 30s. She said she sees the weekly's role as offering an analytical framework and fresh solutions in the changed real world. Answering critics who call the magazine hopelessly ideological, she offers an occasional "what works" series that examines practical successes, such as a neighborhood initiative in Boston to build affordable housing and revive an "urban village."

Vanden Heuvel and her predecessor, Victor Navasky (whom writer Calvin Trillin calls "wily and parsimonious" because of his tendency to pay writers in the high two figures), argue that Marxism is not dead as a way to diagnose what ails capitalism.

No profits

Navasky is now publisher of the Nation and actor Paul Newman is one of the lead investors. It does not break even as a business and depends on donations from some of its 100,000 readers to stay afloat.

"We're here to challenge the assumptions of the national political conversation and the mainstream media," said Navasky. For example, he said, the magazine is mad at Clinton -- but for reasons other than the salacious sex scandal. "We've never had a good word to say about Ken Starr," he says.

Nor is Navasky willing to concede that ideology is at an end. "There isn't this grand consensus about liberal democracy holding sway over the globe," he said. "The Cold War may be over, but there is a cultural legacy."

Kalb, the media critic, says the content in both magazines may be as much to blame as the political climate for their small audience.

But he expresses the hope that they will not disappear from the opinion world: "In the final analysis, it may be a terrible loss, because political wisdom does not reside just in the middle or in the right."

Jamie Stiehm, a Sun staff writer, has written two articles for the Nation.

Pub Date: 9/01/98

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