‘The Left Edge of the Possible’

How The American Prospect became the magazine of the moment

At the end of the eighties, the left wing of the Democratic Party was in bad shape. Democrats had lost five of the six previous presidential elections. Four of those, including the three most recent, had been landslide defeats, with Republicans winning more than four hundred votes in the Electoral College. The 1984 election was a complete wipeout—Walter Mondale lost in forty-nine states—but 1988 had been possibly even more painful. With Ronald Reagan’s B-movie charm off the ballot, and the Black Monday stock-market crash, in 1987, still a recent memory, Democrats had persuaded themselves that Michael Dukakis had a real chance to win. Dukakis had run as a sensible technocrat; just four months before the election he was leading George H.W. Bush in at least one poll by seventeen points. But that November, he lost the popular vote by nearly eight points, and carried only ten states, plus DC. It was clearly a crisis.

What to do about it was a different question. In 1989, William Galston—who had been the issues director for Mondale in 1984, and who had worked for Al Gore’s campaign in 1988—and Elaine Ciulla Kamarck, a political scientist, published an influential autopsy. “Too many Americans,” they wrote, “have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security.” Galston and Kamarck identified the Democrats’ problem as “liberal fundamentalism,” which meant for them roughly what “progressivism” means today. Convinced that “contemporary liberals have lost touch with the American people,” they insisted that Democrats needed to stop listening to the liberal wing of the party and start embracing the economic and social concerns of “average”—by which they meant middle-class, mostly white—voters. Galston and Kamarck’s report was intended as a manifesto for the “New Democrats” of the Democratic Leadership Council, which Bill Clinton would lead before he was elected president. It crystallized a growing sense, especially among young politicians, pundits, and journalists, that the time had come for Democrats to embrace the individualist, business-friendly, suburban spirit of the decade.

Not everyone was convinced. The same year that Galston and Kamarck published their attack on liberal fundamentalism, a group of writers who felt the wind was blowing in the wrong direction published their own manifesto, which took the form of a prospectus for a magazine. The problem, these writers insisted, was not liberalism but its lack of vigorous enunciation: “Liberals today often appear bereft of a public philosophy,” they argued. “As a result, they do not see their work—and cannot persuade others to see it—in the perspective of any larger world view or tradition of ideas.” What was needed, they suggested, was a voice, a publication that could supply that philosophy and that perspective.

One of the authors of the prospectus was Robert Kuttner, who, at the age of forty-five, was the economics editor of The New Republic, as well as a columnist for Businessweek and the Boston Globe. “At that point,” Kuttner recalled recently, “the conventional wisdom is that the only thing that’s wrong with the Democrats is that they’re too progressive and they need to become more centrist. This was a drumbeat. It was just in the air.” He and his coauthors—Paul Starr, a Pulitzer Prize–winning sociologist, and Robert Reich, a Rhodes scholar and a lawyer—felt that The New Republic and The Washington Monthly were too far to the right; The Nation didn’t seem relevant. In the open space between those magazines, Kuttner told me, “you had an expansive philosophical and ideological territory big enough to drive a whole New Deal through.” The three men went on, in 1990, to start a magazine called The American Prospect. It embarked on a crusade for what Kuttner—borrowing from Michael Harrington, a founder of what would eventually become the Democratic Socialists of America—liked to call “the left edge of the possible.”

Not long after the magazine debuted, two of its cofounders were drafted into high-profile roles in the Clinton administration: Starr helped formulate Clinton’s ill-fated healthcare proposal, while Reich was appointed secretary of labor and became one of Clinton’s closest advisers. In later years the Prospect ran a group blog, Tapped, which was an important node in the progressive blogosphere of the aughts and launched the careers of Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, Dana Goldstein, Adam Serwer, and Jamelle Bouie, among others. And in 2017, Kuttner made national news with an interview that helped get Steve Bannon fired from Donald Trump’s White House.

Despite these successes, for a long time it looked like the Prospect was losing the broader ideological fight. For thirty years, the centrist impulses of the New Democrats largely held sway within the party—thirty years that saw the evisceration of organized labor, a startling increase in income inequality, the consolidation of economic power in virtually every industry, and the failure of the Obama administration to manage the long-term fallout of the Great Recession.

It has only been recently that the political philosophy espoused by the Prospect has found a wider constituency. Democratic politicians no longer assume that DLC-style neoliberalism is the only politically viable answer for America’s ills. Basic questions about whom the government and the broader economy ought to serve, and how, are being newly reconsidered. Under David Dayen—the Prospect’s executive editor since 2019, a forty-nine-year-old former stand-up comic who spent much of his career making his living as a freelance television editor, mainly on reality shows—the magazine has managed to seize this moment. Readership is up nearly 50 percent. Chris Hayes has called it “indispensable.” The sorts of ideas the Prospect has long advocated are now getting a mainstream hearing—and the magazine has, at last, found itself in step with the times.

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“Neoliberalism,” as a term, was skunked from the start. Nearly from the start, anyway: Charles Peters, the jowly, temperamental founding editor of The Washington Monthly, claimed that he had coined the word one night in 1979, “after more than a few glasses of wine,” to describe the political platform that he had started his magazine to advance and defend. He did not appear to realize that the term had already been put to use decades earlier, by Milton Friedman and others, to describe a related but distinct set of principles and policies. Nevertheless, when people talked about neoliberalism in DC from the eighties on, it was generally Peters’s version they had in mind.

In a manifesto he published in 1982, Peters laid out the tenets of his philosophy. Neoliberals were and wanted to remain Democrats, he insisted. But they were Democrats who would “no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business.” Convinced that economic prosperity was “essential to almost everything else we want to achieve,” they were skeptical of government bureaucracies and regulations, and took for their hero “the risk-taking entrepreneur who creates new jobs and better products.” They disliked credentialism and single-issue politics, they thought that Social Security and other aid programs ought to be means-tested, and they deplored “fat, sloppy, and smug” bureaucracies. (“Far too many public school teachers are simply incompetent,” Peters wrote.) Crucially, they believed that Democratic moderation would encourage Republican moderation as well.

The Prospect wasted no time attacking Peters and his creed. Before the magazine was a year old, Kuttner accused him—and Galston and the DLC, for good measure—of ideological confusion and political naïveté. “Neoliberals often profess allegiance to core liberal principles,” he wrote. “But in the course of separating themselves from the now familiar set of alleged liberal excesses, they often seem to endorse the conservative reaction.” Early issues of the Prospect included more than a few pick-me-up broadsides in this vein, assuring readers that traditional Democratic liberalism was not dead, or dying, or even all that poor off. There were also considered defenses of organized labor, as well as dense discussions of specific policy interventions that, in the aggregate, were meant to demonstrate that “functioning government” need not be an oxymoron, despite what the prevailing mood in the country might suggest. In the same issue as Kuttner’s attack on neoliberalism, alongside an essay by Starr called “Can Government Work?,” were articles that advocated legally mandated parental leave, a government-directed labor market program, and an “education equity program” that would reconfigure Social Security to help pay for college.

In its style, too, the magazine differed sharply from its rivals, which delighted in skewering the pieties of conventional wisdom. The Prospect took a more sober approach. Harold Meyerson, who has been on staff in various roles for twenty years, said that “the magazine’s initial core base was what you might call liberal university faculty.” The prose of the articles sometimes fell back into the statistics-heavy language of academic papers and bureaucratic reports.

For their subscription-request line, the Prospect’s founders managed to snag the telephone number 1-800-MUST-READ. Starr said that the founders’ ambition was to make the Prospect “one of those little magazines that have a big influence.” (In the words of the prospectus, “Our aim is to produce an important public voice, not a popular one.”) Starr told me about a meeting in the White House in the early nineties, when the magazine had a low-five-figure circulation; he and a dozen people met with Hillary Clinton. “There was a reference somebody made that among the people in that room there was the New Democrat faction and the American Prospect faction,” he said.

The Prospect also found readers during the earliest days of the Web. In 1994, Starr taught himself HTML with the idea of publishing the Prospect online and creating a portal for like-minded publications and think tanks. In 2002, Chris Mooney (now at the Washington Post) and Nick Confessore (now at the New York Times) started Tapped. Originally unbylined, it was, like other early blogs, succinct and conversational. Over time, posts got longer and more frequent, and the number of contributors grew. Eventually, the Prospect spun off single-author blogs for writers such as Klein and Serwer. The visibility of Tapped in the aughts turned the Prospect into the rough equivalent, for young, left-leaning wonks, of what Gawker was for culture writers, or what the Harper’s internship was for magazine editors. It helped that the Prospect had a fellowship program for which the only responsibility was to write. Alumni of the Prospect fellowship include Jedediah Purdy, the author and legal scholar; Josh Marshall, the founder of Talking Points Memo; Mark Greif, a cofounder of n+1; and Tara Zahra, a history professor who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2014. “I’ve occasionally described us as the ultimate triple-A ball club of American journalism,” Meyerson told me. Garance Franke-Ruta, who was hired as a senior editor in 2002, and who wrote regularly for Tapped, said that the Prospect was notable for giving its writers and editors the freedom to write long and write short and write everything in between. “It was a very dynamic period,” she said. “One of the great things that I got to experience was having weeks or months to really deeply report an article, and not having to incrementally digest everything that I’d seen.”

Tapped and the writing fellowship were, on the Prospect’s terms, indisputable successes. But former staffers also told me that the magazine tended to attract, and to nurture, a limited demographic. One person from the Tapped era said that for much of its early history the Prospect, like most magazines of the time, was “way too white—it was appalling,” and noted that there had never been a woman at the top of the masthead. (Between 1997, when Purdy was hired as the magazine’s first official writing fellow, and 2011, when the Prospect shuttered Tapped, fewer than a third of the fellows were women.) Franke-Ruta said that “the Prospect was not the same launching pad for women in the political-journalism space that it was for men.”

Ann Friedman, who was hired as an associate Web editor in 2006, said that while women at the magazine were deeply involved in editing articles, it was the men in the office who were “shaping the dominant culture of the place.” She described that culture as a hothouse in which “there were all these young and hungry people with a similar skill set and a similar way they liked interacting.” “Many nights a week,” she said, “everyone would go to a nasty pub across the street from the office and drink beer and eat chicken fingers and argue. It was sort of assumed that this is what you would do if you were a person under thirty who worked for this magazine.” Over the course of her four years at the Prospect, Friedman was eventually promoted to deputy editor. But she sometimes has flashbacks to fifteen years ago: “If I’m surrounded by men drinking beer and arguing about something, I’m snapped back to that time. And I’m just like: No. A full-body no.”

 

Around the time the Prospect was getting off the ground, David Dayen was writing for a humor magazine at the University of Michigan. While there, he helped out on a parody of Jonathan Chait, who was an undergraduate columnist for the Michigan Daily—and would soon go on to be an assistant editor at the Prospect. (Chait quickly moved to The New Republic, where he became a frequent sparring partner for Prospect authors; he now writes for New York magazine.) “At that time,” Dayen said, “what Chait was doing was really a rip-off of Dave Barry, and so we did a column where it was Jonathan Chait and the little picture was Dave Barry.” (Reached for comment, Chait copped to imitating Barry. “That parody was hilarious,” he said. “I found it very flattering.”)

Dayen grew up in and around Philadelphia, the son of an elementary school teacher and a textile salesman. His father, he said, was “making sweaters in our basement when I was a kid, making leg warmers and selling them out of the back of his car,” but once the textile mills moved abroad he became “a casualty of globalization.” Dayen traces his early interest in comedy to the fact that he had to change schools five times in five years. He discovered that playing the class clown could help him make friends and “figure out ways not to blend in to the woodwork.” When he was eleven, he challenged himself to write a new joke every day. His bar mitzvah theme was Saturday Night Live. He did his first stand-up show as a freshman in college, and kept performing well into his thirties. (On YouTube you can watch a 2006 set at the Comedy District, in Culver City, that opens with a joke about preregistering as a sex offender that would probably not make the cut in a post-#MeToo world.) Dayen’s career as a comic never quite achieved liftoff. “There’s like two frames of Last Comic Standing where you can see me,” he said. “I made it through round one, and then it didn’t happen.”

Dayen learned to edit video at NFL Films after college, just as the digital-editing era was getting underway. Over time, he said, his specialty became reality programs and documentaries for “pretty much any station at the top of the digital dial,” shows like Bridget’s Sexiest Beaches and Truck Hunters and the original imported version of Ninja Warrior. The major appeal of the work was financial—it was a way to pay the bills to support his comedy—but it was not entirely irrelevant to his later career as a writer and magazine editor. “The things I write about and edit are pretty complex sometimes, and being able to make it understandable to the reader is a series of choices that are not unlike how you arrange something in television.”

Dayen discovered blogs around 2002, when he moved to Southern California, where he still lives. He’d been a fan of This Modern World, the spiky left-leaning comic strip by Dan Perkins, a/k/a Tom Tomorrow, and started reading him online. “He kept talking about these people named Kos and Atrios,” Dayen recalled. “I was like, ‘Who the hell are they?’” (Atrios was Duncan Black, the economist who still writes the Eschaton blog; Kos was Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos.) In the spring of 2004, while rendering cuts of shows like Games Across America, Dayen set up his own blog. He cross-posted to Daily Kos, and began to play an increasingly visible role in the movement known as the Netroots. The Netroots was often described as a collection of progressive Democrats, and in some ways this was accurate. But the Netroots was also defined, more generally, by its demand for a Democratic Party that was not afraid to fight for its convictions: “The issue of whether you’re liberal or conservative is not relevant to us,” Moulitsas told Newsweek. “The issue is: Are you proud to be a Democrat? Are you partisan?” During his run for the presidential nomination in 2004, Howard Dean liked to say, “I’m from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Dayen said, “That was the animating spirit that all of us were coming from.”

The Netroots made no effort to hide the fact that they were political outsiders; though here and there you could find among them someone who had worked professionally in politics or media, for the most part they were self-acknowledged amateurs. Nor did they have any hesitation in describing themselves as activists: they were intensely opposed to the war in Iraq, and generally hostile to the George W. Bush administration. Long before Donald Trump started talking about “fake news,” Netroots bloggers were convinced that the “mainstream media” was a fundamentally untrustworthy enterprise. For many, this antagonism had developed after watching the self-styled objective press close ranks after 9/11 to enforce a bellicose patriotism, and particularly after the media proved itself insufficiently skeptical about Bush’s justifications for war. Bloggers like Dayen believed, as he put it to me, that American media amounted to not much more than “a politics show that a certain group of people were stage-managing”; the Netroots insisted that “there’s another story to be told.” This open, often bracingly explicit, antipathy won the blogosphere few friends within the mainstream press. Tapped, however, was an exception: the Prospect’s writers, who shared many of the same views, gave the Netroots bloggers careful consideration.

For Dayen personally, the Netroots proved to be life-changing. “When I started, if you were part of the community of writers that were writing about politics online, you were part of a very small community,” he said. He built friendships, met future colleagues, and developed a network he could later draw on as a journalist. David Atkins, a market researcher who also became a writer through blogging, got to know Dayen through the Netroots. He remembered him being more analytical and “sophisticated” than other bloggers. When they met in person for the first time, Atkins found Dayen to be “kind of shy, but extremely smart and compassionate. You could tell that he thinks a lot before he talks, whereas a lot of the rest of us were very passionate and tended to do the opposite.” Though Dayen continued to do stand-up throughout the late aughts, he found himself more and more drawn to blogging. “Eventually it kind of hit me: I’m going out to these open mics and doing ten minutes in front of seven comics who are trying to figure out their own act and not listening. I could just blog the same thing that I was going to say, and if twenty people click on it that’s probably more than were listening to me at the crappy open night.”

 

Like many publications of its ilk, the Prospect was almost constantly running out of money. For most of its history it has depended on the goodwill of wealthy patrons to survive. Some of these were individuals, such as J. Kenneth Galbraith, the economist who gave Kuttner, Starr, and Reich their first check, for a thousand dollars, and Max Palevsky, the computer entrepreneur who had helped save Rolling Stone from financial ruin, who contributed a hundred thousand dollars. Others were institutions, such as the Joyce Foundation, in Chicago, whose one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar donation gave the founders the confidence to publish the first issue. Still others were ideological allies, including the unions and philanthropic organizations whose contributions make regular appearances on the Prospect’s IRS forms. The magazine was especially fond of running “special reports” that were underwritten by outside organizations. Kuttner said the Prospect always maintained editorial independence, but a former staffer described the arrangement to me as “very gentle sponcon.”

For several years, the Prospect’s most significant benefactor was an organization then known as the Florence and John Schumann Foundation. Bill Moyers, the broadcast journalist and former presidential press secretary, became the president of Schumann in 1990, and two years later, he called Kuttner and said that he wanted to give the Prospect four hundred and fifty thousand dollars. (Not long after, Schumann also gave two million dollars to the Columbia Journalism Review. More recently, the Schumann Media Center provided a million dollars in startup funds for Covering Climate Now, a collaborative cofounded by CJR.) In the late nineties, when the Prospect’s circulation was still below twenty thousand, Moyers told Kuttner that he wanted to transform what had been a quasi–academic journal into a proper political magazine. To do this, he insisted, the Prospect would need to become a weekly, and would need to move out of its small office—in those years it was in Cambridge, Massachusetts—to Washington, DC. After arguing that a weekly would be too expensive even for Schumann’s vast resources, Kuttner persuaded Moyers to settle for a biweekly. Still, a jump from ten issues a year to twenty-six demanded a massive increase in staff and expenses. Moyers and the Schumann Center would eventually supply fifteen million dollars over five years to fund the transition. The goal was to match the readership of The Nation and The New Republic, which hovered around a hundred thousand. “I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t sure it was sustainable,” Kuttner told me. “But when you have somebody like Bill Moyers dangling that kind of money, it’s awfully hard to say no.”

The “Moyers money,” as Kuttner calls it, enabled a significant expansion of the Prospect’s staff and editorial reach. By 2001, the magazine was running reported features as well as a back-of-the-book culture section, with film, music, fiction, and TV reviews. It also moved into an office on L Street, about a fifteen-minute walk from the White House, and hired enough staff to allow Starr and Kuttner to step back from direct editorial responsibility. (Kuttner at the time had a reputation as a difficult boss; in 2001, articles in the Washington Post and the Village Voice suggested that staffers had left the magazine because of personal and ideological conflicts with him.) It was during this period that Meyerson joined the magazine, serving first as executive editor and later as editor at large, as did two future editors of The New Republic, Richard Just and Michael Tomasky.

Yet Kuttner’s initial concerns proved justified. As the Moyers money wound down, it became clear that the magazine was facing peril. The Prospect cut back to a monthly production schedule, and agreed in 2010 to a financial partnership with Demos, a progressive think tank. “It was great for the first year or two,” Kuttner said, “but then Demos ended up subsidizing more and more of the Prospect. They said, ‘We’re sorry, this is costing us too much money, we’re going to have to cut you loose.’”

The funding crisis coincided with the editorship of Kit Rachlis, who had been hired in 2011 with the aim of making the Prospect’s narrative nonfiction competitive with magazines like The Atlantic. Clare Malone, formerly Rachlis’s assistant, and now a New Yorker writer, said, “There was space to do something different with the magazine that didn’t just have to be Kuttner and Starr writing columns that thirty people read.” Miles Rapoport—the president of Demos and the Prospect during that time, and still on the board of the Prospect today—said of Rachlis: “He was a good editor, and committed to the magazine, but the things he wanted to do to change the magazine were more expensive than the magazine could bear.” (Rachlis declined to comment.) Rachlis left in 2014, for California Sunday. At that point, Kuttner said, he knew that they would not be able to hire a new editor until the magazine’s finances improved: “Nobody would’ve taken the job.” He and Starr decided to cut back to a quarterly schedule, and to take a more active hand in the magazine’s management while they got their financial house in order. “We were very lucky to survive,” Starr told me. “If Bob and I had not come back, I think it is fair to say that the Prospect would’ve folded. There was nobody else who was going to run it at that point.”

 

While the Prospect was nearly dying, Dayen was learning how to be a journalist. In 2009, he took a job with FireDogLake, the progressive blog started by Jane Hamsher, one of the producers of Natural Born Killers. Hamsher anointed him news director. “I took that seriously, probably way too seriously,” Dayen said. “I had this crazy schedule that I talked myself into, just thinking ‘I’m the news, so I’ve got to do the news.’” His days became a puzzle of how to fit his blogging around his TV editing—and, eventually, his TV editing around his blogging. “I’d have to wake up on East Coast time, which I still do today, because journalism runs on DC time. I would try to write three or four posts and schedule them so that I could go take a shower. Then I would write posts that would cover my commute.”

He maintained the schedule for three years—only once did he manage to get himself fired for blogging while on the clock at a TV gig—but eventually the stress of two jobs proved to be too difficult. Still, he said, his time at FireDogLake taught him the crucial lesson of how to search for stories everyone else was ignoring. One of those stories, about Obama’s failed mortgage modification program, became the subject of Dayen’s first book, Chain of Title. And while blogging involved plenty of aggregation, he also learned how to report firsthand. “This is what people don’t understand: blogging at that time was taken quite a bit more seriously than you would think. I had a three-hour call on Super Bowl Sunday with the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, who was berating me about trying to foul up his great mortgage modification program. This was in 2012. I was sitting in my shorts on Super Bowl Sunday having this huge conversation with a cabinet official.”

Dayen left FireDogLake in late 2012. In the years that followed, he freelanced for The New Republic, Salon, The Intercept, and the Prospect. His reporting focused ever more intently on the effects of the increasing concentration of corporate power; his second book, Monopolized, tracked the deleterious real-world consequences of business mergers and monopolies.

In 2018, Kuttner asked him to take over the magazine. “The sum total of my editing experience was zero,” Dayen recalled. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want me?’” Kuttner told me that despite Dayen’s unorthodox background, he’d long been impressed by his work: “We’re two of a kind in that we both do deeply reported explainer journalism, which is my favorite genre.” Dayen didn’t jump at the offer, but Kuttner was insistent. (“What I have eventually come to learn from Bob is that if he is going to call you once, he’s going to call you twenty times,” Dayen said.) At that point, the Prospect seemed to Dayen as though it was “kind of floating along”: “It wasn’t positioned at the center of the conversation. When you’re the ninth outlet on somebody’s list, it’s hard to stay there. I think for a lot of people, the Prospect was the ninth outlet,” he said.

Dayen needed persuading on two fronts. The first was whether the magazine was financially solvent. The second was whether the founders were truly ready to hand over control. This had been a recurring tension throughout the Prospect’s history. When previous executive editors had been hired, Rapoport told me, “one of the issues had been whether the new editor was really going to own the magazine lock, stock, and barrel, or whether it would be shared ownership with Bob and Paul and other people who had been at the magazine for a long period of time.” Kuttner especially had often been reluctant to yield autonomy. In the past he had been torn between wanting a strong executive editor and wanting to keep himself involved in the magazine that had been, as Meyerson put it, his “primary identity” for the past three decades. Nevertheless, Kuttner, now seventy-nine, told me that when Dayen arrived he’d realized that it was time “to kick myself upstairs and hand him the ball, and make it clear that he was totally in charge. Because if you don’t do that, you can’t get anybody with any self-respect. It took Dave probably six months to a year to realize that I meant that I wasn’t going to be trying to pull the strings behind the scenes or through the board.”

Dayen told me that he took the Prospect job because it offered an opportunity to do something that other progressive magazines weren’t. “There was this belief that, because of the changes in the media landscape, all of these liberal magazines were the same. They were interchangeable. What I was thinking, going into this, was that I was not going to get lulled into that. We would try to run things that wouldn’t be seen in those other outlets.” The New Republic, Mother Jones, and The Nation were all, he said, “very interested in politics. You know, block and tackle, fight the Republicans. Jacobin is more ‘fight the Democrats.’” By contrast, Dayen envisioned the Prospect as a publication that “talks about power in Washington, that talks about power in the corporate boardroom, and that gets to the bottom of it for our readers, so they can understand what’s happening, why it’s happening, who’s doing it, and how that power can be brought back to the people.”

 

Dayen lives in the beach town of Venice with his wife, Mary Jack, who until recently worked in ad sales for NPR. He has short black hair, black-rimmed glasses, and an expression that settles easily into muted irony. When we spoke recently on Zoom, he told me that he had always been “very oriented visually,” and it was clear that he’d put some thought into his on-screen tableau. Behind him was a beige couch, a midcentury-modern shelf unit, and a tall tree with wide, waxy leaves.

After he started at the Prospect, Dayen considered moving to Washington. Then covid hit. The Prospect’s office effectively shut down for two years. (This was a throwback, of sorts, to the magazine’s earliest days, when Kuttner and Starr traded edits at long distance, over phone and email.) There were downsides to not being in DC, Dayen said, but “the pluses way outweigh the minuses.” Besides, “having that distance is very important,” he said. “I never lived in DC, but my sense of it is that you end up having a very common conversation. I don’t think it’s poisonous, necessarily, but it’s a mindset that seeps in. It’s a way of looking at the world that you end up feeling when you’re there that I don’t have when I’m three thousand miles away.”

Once the office went remote, Dayen realized that he could open up the internships and writing-fellows program to applicants from all over the country. “For entry-level journalism, you’re only going to get a certain kind of person that’s going to be able to live in a big city, a very expensive city, like Washington. You’re swimming in a much shallower pool.” Now, he said, “the change in terms of talent is very noticeable to me. It’s not just the diversity of background, and all the other forms of diversity that you’re able to get. It’s that you can find people who aren’t necessarily even journalists, or thinking about being journalists.”

He made other changes as well. He added a new writing fellowship, named after John Lewis; he changed the magazine’s tagline, not without some internal controversy, from “Liberal Intelligence” to “Ideas, Politics, & Power”; and he increased the publication frequency to six times a year. During the pandemic, he started writing a daily column called Unsanitized, which won a Hillman Prize. Together with the Prospect’s publisher, Ellen Meany, and Jonathan Guyer, who was the managing editor at the time, he oversaw a redesign of the magazine’s website and launched a membership program to help ease the constant financial concerns. “There were some growing pains,” he said, “with Bob wanting to have the same thing where he brings the same people that he’s known forever to put stuff on the website. I didn’t want to do op-eds from organizations. We’re not The Hill. Our space is valuable.” Nevertheless, he said that Kuttner had been “incredibly generous” in handling the transition. These days, Kuttner sits on the Prospect’s board and writes copiously for the magazine and website. “We literally had a retirement party for him in 2019,” Dayen said. He laughed. “I hear from Bob three or four times a day. We’re in constant contact. He is still very much part of the shaping of this magazine.”

Dayen writes for almost every print issue, and seems to have something new on the Web nearly every day. “David clearly has overperformed,” Meyerson said. “Readers just see his pieces up, nearly every day. What they don’t see is the amount of editing he does, and the long-term planning he does.” I asked Dayen if he found management difficult, given his lack of previous experience. It’s been his biggest challenge so far, he said: “I don’t think it happened a hundred percent smoothly. It was tough for me to balance my time and make sure I was giving enough attention to other people, and helping them along, and getting everybody swimming in the same direction.” Editing, he said, was easier: “I didn’t do a lot of editing prior to this job, but you learn how to edit by editing yourself and learning from the editors who edit you.”

Though the Prospect’s physical office is technically open, most of the magazine’s staffers still work remotely. Ryan Cooper, the managing editor, lives in Philadelphia. Lee Harris, a staff writer, lives in New York. Kuttner is in Massachusetts. Dayen runs an editorial meeting over Zoom every Monday morning. He does weekly check-ins with most staff members individually, and stays in contact with them throughout the day. “I’m annoying on chat and DM and email,” he said.

“He is just one of the most high-octane reporters I’ve ever met,” Guyer, who now writes for Vox, said. “He was filing a story for the site if we were short for the day. He would fill in on a newsletter if someone was out sick or on vacation. It was to the point where he was copyediting stories if our copy editor was out. He just wanted to be part of it.”

 

In August 2017, while Kuttner was on vacation in the Berkshires, he received an email from a White House staffer saying that Steve Bannon, a senior strategist for Trump, wanted to meet with him. For decades Kuttner had been warning that China was not a trustworthy trade partner for the United States. Bannon, too, was a China hawk, and he apparently believed that he would be able to assemble a cross-partisan coalition of people with similar views. “I said, ‘Look, I’m on vacation. I’m not going to come to the White House right now,’” Kuttner recalled. “‘But if Mr. Bannon would like to talk to me on the phone, I’d love to.’” Bannon called him ten minutes later. “Because he’s such a braggart and such a blowhard, he starts saying all kinds of incautious things about his boss, and he never bothered to put it on background.” (Among other things, Bannon contradicted Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea: “There’s no military solution, forget it.”) Kuttner published the interview, and within two days, Bannon was fired from the administration. For a brief time Kuttner became unmissable on TV. “It was the most famous I’ve ever been, for three days,” Kuttner said. “I had the time of my life.”

Despite this episode, Guyer told me that the magazine’s mission during the Trump administration, which was not exactly celebrated for its careful attention to policy matters, had been “a little ambiguous.” One of Dayen’s earliest projects, the Day One Agenda, focused instead on what the next Democratic president might be able to achieve. He could sense “a certain despair” about the 2020 election, a feeling that there would be a divided government and nothing would get done. “I said, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. There are all kinds of things that a president does on their own. We can identify them.’” The idea was not only to help a new Democratic administration, Dayen told me; it was also to take away excuses for Democratic inaction. What began as a twenty-seven-page section in print, in the Fall 2019 issue, eventually expanded to forty stories online. Individually and in aggregate the project made a case for unilateral presidential action: to cancel student debt, to lower drug prices, to create public banks, and to “effectively” legalize marijuana, among other things. The Prospect also built an Executive Action Tracker, which includes more than a hundred things that Joe Biden could do without congressional approval. (As of this writing, he’s taken at least partial action on more than a third of them.)

After the Day One Agenda appeared online, Eric Levitz, a writer at New York, tweeted that the Prospect had “just made policy journalism politically relevant again.” Dayen found that comment gratifying. “Relevance is hard for a little politics magazine,” he said. “You can be popular without being relevant. You can run a bunch of crowd-pleasing, ephemeral pieces and get people to notice them individually. What that comment spoke to, for me, is that this was a relevant line of inquiry, something lasting, a new way of looking at the presidency and what matters about it.” Bouie, now a columnist for the New York Times, told me that he looks at the Prospect every day. The magazine had always done a good job of thinking broadly about policy, he said, but he appreciated Dayen’s efforts to “show readers what are the steps you can take using existing law, existing levers” to accomplish political aims.

The growing appreciation for Dayen’s Prospect among elite pundits appears to be matched by an increase in its readership. Meany said that in 2020 the magazine saw more than twice as many visitors to its website, and nearly three times as many returning visitors, as it had in 2018. Traffic this year is lower than it was in the run-up to the last presidential election, but the Prospect is still seeing about 50 percent more returning visitors than it did before Dayen took over. The membership program, which was modeled on The Guardian’s, is apparently successful as well: it now brings in more than a quarter of a million dollars a year in revenue, which accounts for about 15 percent of the Prospect’s annual expense budget. What’s more, Meany told me, in 2018 the Prospect was losing money on every new print subscription; that’s no longer the case.

 

In the past, the Prospect paid serious attention to ideological labels. It mattered to the magazine whether someone identified as a liberal, or a neoliberal, or a social democrat, or a democratic socialist—mattered not just for taxonomic reasons but because each label carried with it a set of orbiting associations: political philosophies, canonical texts, theories of government, historical traditions. Perhaps that is why, last year, after a lifetime resisting the word, Kuttner wrote an essay explaining why he was ready to call himself a socialist.

Dayen, it seems clear, doesn’t tend to think in those terms. When I asked him whether he, too, considered himself a socialist, he suggested that if he had to choose a label, “populist” would be better. More to the point, he said, he thinks of himself as a journalist who believes “we need government mechanisms to remedy the unsustainable inequality in this country that threatens social unrest.” He acknowledged that there will always be something irreducibly ideological about the Prospect, but said “it’s not like, on a scale of one to ten on the left spectrum, we are an eight-point-six.” What interests him far more is figuring out, concretely, which forces, people, and policies are keeping the government and the economy from functioning the way he believes they should. He is particularly insistent that the implementation of policies—the unglamorous bureaucratic wrangling that happens after bills are signed into law—deserves as much attention as the legislative drama that leads to enactment. “A lot of what we do is about just sort of making things work better,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a left-right rubric. I don’t think you get to that point of Are you progressive enough? until you’re effective.”

The two best examples of this approach can be found in the Prospect’s February issue, on the supply-chain crisis, and in Dayen’s cover story for the October issue, on the prehistory of the Democrats’ $740 billion Inflation Reduction Act. Both projects were pointed, even polemical, but what made them interesting was the way they took aim at the abstract, first-principles arguments that had previously dominated discussion of their subjects. While op-ed columnists and economists bickered about whose curves best explained the recent rise in inflation, the Prospect stepped back in time to show how the rise in the price level was the end result of decades’ worth of specific policy decisions, cheered on by a bipartisan consensus, that had built a fragile global distribution system. Similarly, while there has been no lack of interest on the left in arguing about what sort of programs are theoretically best equipped to deal with climate change—green capitalism, ecosocialism, the Green New Deal—Dayen’s story was rare, maybe unique, in explaining how the climate policies in the IRA had more to do with path dependencies and personal relationships than they did with any intellectually coherent vision.

It’s this close attention to reality, a determination to see how things actually end up the way they are, that makes the Prospect so well suited to the strange moment we’re living in. Ours is not an era of big ideas or bold, clean narratives. The energizing days of the Women’s March and the George Floyd protests are behind us; the hyperbolic optimism that wanted to see in Joe Biden a new FDR is passé. What remains has the feel of an interregnum, one that is weighed down by a set of chronic, seemingly insurmountable emergencies—covid, climate change, inflation—that cannot be addressed, cannot even be understood, without a deep tolerance for complexity. American media have clearly struggled to make sense of it all. Without Obama or Trump to play the hero or play the heel, without a war or a major social movement to focus their audiences’ attentions, broadly liberal outlets like MSNBC and the New York Times have struggled to wring sweeping story lines out of the unremitting confusion.

Dayen’s Prospect is not without its limits. It does not claim to speak for the whole of the American left, or even most of it. Unlike Kuttner, Starr, and Reich thirty years ago—unlike himself, back when he was part of the Netroots—Dayen does not appear eager to enlist in some sort of grand battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. And while the magazine has hardly been inattentive to the radicalization of the American right, or to the sweeping demands of identity politics, it does not seem like the sort of outlet that is going to lead a rousing charge against a resurgence of fascism, or plant deep seeds for a nationwide commitment to multiracial democracy.

But what the Prospect has done, it has done very well. And for a country, and particularly for a left politics, that remains exhausted from the recent past, unsure about the present, and anxious over the future, there is something salutary about a magazine that has committed itself to figuring out how to make things work, one policy improvement at a time.

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Robert P. Baird has written for The New York Times, The London Review of Books, newyorker.com, Esquire, and Harper’s.

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