Magazines: Left-Wing Bananas


History will judge the "Reagan Revolution" of the 1980s an intellectual, not a political, triumph for the American right. The government grew at about the same rate it did during the Carter years; few programs were eliminated.

But in the war of ideas, the right steadily gained ground. I don't think books of the caliber of Charles Murray's Losing Ground or Paul Johnson's Modern Times would have had the impact they had if published in the 1970s: the statists of the era were less exhausted.

So the American left is on the defensive. In fact, there is a continuing debate among leftists about which journals are still politically correct. Many now consider The New Republic, for example, part of the conservative movement. ("The sorry state of The New Republic," Alexander Cockburn wrote in a February 20 column in The Nation, "arouses natural emotions of pleasure and relief.") Some even regard the Washington Post as a conservative publication. In the February 1989 Progressive, former Post reporter John Hanrahan quotes Ralph Nader as saying that the Post is now "a right-wing paper."

In the April Progressive, Matthew Rothschild, managing editor of that journal, lists seven publications he considers part of the American left—The Progressive, The Nation, In These Times, Dissent, Mother Jones, Socialist Review, and Social Policy. It's interesting what's not on the list. Both major American general magazines—The Atlantic and Harper's, are excluded. (The Atlantic is part of the old-line, Adlai Stevenson left; Harper's, part of the "progressive," Jesse Jackson left.) Both The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books are also, in Rothschild's eyes, outside the leftist mainstream. But his list is a manageable starting point.

I'd eliminate three of the journals on Rothschild's list. Social Policy is the left-wing equivalent of The Public Interest and as such is not primarily a political journal. Mother Jones, after extensive retrofitting, has emerged as a mixture of articles about Central America and profiles of politically acceptable celebrities. And I find Socialist Review unreadable. So what do The Nation, In These Times, The Progressive, and Dissent tell us about the American left?

Their major weakness is an inability to adequately critique opposing views. Most leftist writers respond to conservative and libertarian arguments either by name-calling or dismissal as "extreme" viewpoints unworthy of further consideration.

Consider "The Phony Case Against Rent Control," by John Atlas and Peter Dreier, in the April Progressive. Atlas, a lobbyist, and Dreier, a Boston public-housing official, decide to defend rent control largely by attacking William Tucker, who has charted rent control's devastating effects in National Review, The American Spectator, and REASON.

Tucker, we learn, "has sold himself as a housing expert…despite having no prior expertise in housing policy." What's more, he has received grants from the Cato Institute and the Manhattan Institute. Even more damning in Atlas and Dreier's eyes, "When Morton Downey, Jr. did a show on rent control, he invited Tucker, who dutifully bashed tenant activists."

What about Tucker's charge that rent control subsidizes the wealthy and promotes homelessness? "Most people, using common sense, recognize that rent control helps prevent homelessness," say Atlas and Dreier. Without rent control, landlords would scheme to raise prices as high as possible, they say, kicking poor people into the gutter. As for Tucker's observation that Mia Farrow, Ed Koch, and other wealthy New Yorkers live in rent-controlled apartments, Atlas and Dreier counter that most New Yorkers in rent-controlled apartments have annual incomes below $25,000.

Let's look at these charges. Yes, Tucker's research was initially funded by market-oriented think tanks. So what? Comparable left-wing groups (the Ford Foundation, Carnegie, etc.) are far larger. What matters is what Tucker says, not who paid for his work. And just because he appeared on "Morton Downey, Jr." does not mean he agrees with Morton Downey. Do Atlas and Dreier believe that everyone who appears on "Firing Line" agrees with all of William F. Buckley's views?

I'm most bothered by the charge that only people with "prior expertise" in housing policy can write on the subject. Like most of sociology, it isn't an arcane discipline; readers of intellectual magazines can follow debates on housing, welfare, and other social issues provided the authors write in clear, precise prose. (That's one of the reasons why Losing Ground was so successful.) We need more people writing about housing; it is too important to be left to mandarins.

What about Atlas and Dreier's defense of rent control? "Common sense" tells me that expanding the supply of a good results in its price falling. They claim that in the absence of rent control, "landlords operate as a monopoly," but they do not cite a single case where landlords successfully fixed prices. What's more, the authors present no statistical evidence that rent control works. It's as if they believed that Progressive readers are mystified by numbers.

I've discussed the Atlas-Dreier article at length because it illustrates the worst tendencies of left-wing journalism. Others commit the same errors. It is particularly irksome that leftists tend not to attack any government program unconnected with the military.

For example, Nancy Kleniewski, in the Winter 1989 Dissent, correctly limns Urban Development Action Grants as a developers' boondoggle. But, she argues, the program can be saved with lots of regulations, such as a requirement that cities mandate "a mix of incomes, ages and ethnic groups." There are so many corporate-welfare programs that can be taken on by both the left and the right—agricultural marketing boards, World Bank loans, gasohol programs. But coalitions can only be built if the left reexamines its belief about the inherent effectiveness of government.

When left-wing magazines are not attacking conservatives, they can be quite good, in some cases covering areas of American life that others miss. For example, most journals ignore unions, even though these organizations still have millions of members. Leftist publications, however, still critique unions regularly. I particularly liked "Union Blues," by Peter Downs in the January Progressive, a persuasive analysis of how the United Auto Workers suppresses dissent. Leftists are also sound critics of the War on Drugs. The best was Jefferson Morley and David Corn's "Drug Czars We Have Known," in the February 27 Nation, which examined the careers of the 11 previous drug czars. Did you know that Carlton Turner, drug czar from 1985 until 1988, resigned after spending tax dollars on "scientific" studies linking marijuana and homosexuality?

But most leftist publications are like decaying bananas; one has to cut away a lot to get to the tasty parts. There is one exception to this rule—In These Times.

Unlike others in this camp, which are mainly opinion magazines, In These Times is primarily devoted to news and information, ensuring that it covers important stories you won't get elsewhere. For example, the April 5 issue included a lengthy interview with American Economic Association president Robert Eisner, who has sensible insights on how the federal budget deficit is routinely exaggerated. Other informative pieces in recent issues include one on the rise of black talk-radio stations and a report on the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

In These Times also has some of the left's best political analysts. John Judis does the inside-the-Beltway beat as well as anyone; he's particularly good at placing events in historical context. (See the Winter 1989 Dissent, where he compares the battles between the Dukakis and Jackson wings of the Democratic party to the fight between William McAdoo and Al Smith in the 1920s.) In These Times carries Alexander Cockburn's syndicated L.A. Weekly column, which is more interesting than his efforts in The Nation because he stops ranting about Middle East politics and spends more time commenting on his mail. For example, he notes in his March 29 column a document about how "our borders are out of control" that included as signatories Notre Dame University's Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, teachers' union leader Albert Shanker, and machinists' union president William Winpisinger—gentlemen not previously known to be members of the "stop-those-Mexicans" mob.

In These Times is the best left-wing publication and the only one worth the subscription price. But I urge REASON readers to sit down with a stack of The Nation or The Progressive in the library and leaf through them. You will be frequently infuriated—and, more often than you might expect, pleased.

Martin Morse Wooster is president of Northfield Associates, a research and consulting firm based in Silver Springs, Maryland.