I was seventeen when I showed up at Columbia University in the fall of 1980. One of my first assignments for the campus radio station was to cover election night. It was a bit like the Martin Scorsese movie After Hours, a dark comedy in which a normal guy encounters ever-weirder moments during an all-nighter in New York City. My version involved a party at the 21 Club where cheering Hasidic Jews, who seemed out of place in that famed old-money, WASPy restaurant, were dancing en masse celebrating Ronald Reagan's election. Later I wound up at a party for Alfonse D'Amato, the newly elected Republican senator from New York, who had knocked off the liberal incumbent Republican, Jacob Javits, in the GOP primary. Cheers went up from the ballroom each time another liberal icon, like George McGovern or Frank Church, went down.
If you were a liberal that night, you had to be deeply shaken. It was clear that Reagan hadn't won purely because of his communication skills. Something wasn't working with American liberalism.
In my effort to understand what that something was over the ensuing years, I found myself turning often to the Washington Monthly, a magazine that offered a sleeves-rolled-up approach to reforming liberalism itself. I fell in love with the magazine's wisdom, its humor, its capacity to find a way forward that wasn't just about mealymouthed moderation or corporatism.
In some ways, the Monthly reminded me of another influence that greatly shaped my thinking: the work of Diana and Lionel Trilling, the prominent New York intellectuals whose careers largely tracked the fortunes of American liberalism throughout the mid-twentieth century. From their perch on Morningside Heights--Lionel was the first Jewish tenured professor of English at Columbia--they were an "it" couple on the social and literary landscape. As it happens, Lionel was a professor of Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters, who was an undergraduate at Columbia in the 1940s. While Charlie was turned off by Trilling's intellectual snobbery, he admired the professor's insistence on rigorous, critical thought, and his willingness to critique aspects of the American left without jumping ship as so many of his contemporaries did in forming the neoconservative movement.
In fact, the august professor's 1950 collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination, foreshadowed much of what the Monthly would stand for at its founding nineteen years later. "Trilling argued that liberalism, though...