Book Review: Democracy in Print

November 22, 2009

Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive Magazine, 1909-2009

Democracy_In_PrintEdited by Matthew Rothschild

Published May 1, 2009

University of Wisconsin Press

390 pp.

ISBN 0-299-23224-7

Reviewed November 22, 2009

Out of all the casualties the economic crisis has been wreaking on the world (your humble narrator’s well-paid publishing job among them) one of the most tragic has been the regular shuttering of newspapers and magazines. Print media has been in a bad position for the last few years with its base of readers and advertisers going to digital news, and newspapers from Seattle to Boston have shut their doors. Others have laid off staff, slashed their size and made the move to publish solely online – sad stories that don’t do much to reassure our descendants will remain well-educated.

But for all of these sad tales there are still a few inspiring moves out there, and fittingly one of the recent ones comes from The Progressive. In August, Editor-in-Chief Matthew Rothschild issued a personal appeal to all readers that the magazine needed $90,000 to keep publishing, saying that it was in more danger than it had been in the last 25 years. Readers responded by donating over $120,000 in two weeks, saving the publication Senator Robert La Follette founded as “a magazine of progress, social, intellectual, institutional.”

For the key examples of this tradition – and reasons why readers see The Progressive is worth defending – one need look no further than “Democracy in Print,” released to coincide with the magazine’s centennial. Collecting close to 200 essays, speeches, interviews and poems, the book is a keen collection of the left’s thoughts, as well as a valuable source for arguments that still remain relevant as of today.

Like most compilations of articles, this is definitely a book built for browsing rather than reading in one sitting, going to one particular issue for reflection or research. Wisely, “Democracy in Print” chooses not to split its content up chronologically but by issue, focused on several of the most hot-button issues of the last hundred years, ranging from the rights of women, African-Americans and gays, to serious reform for labor and environmental policies and an end to wars. Writers reflect the depth of the magazine’s contributors, with La Follette and his extended family, senators, union activists and media critics all expounding on their favorite topics.

The Progressive has always been a magazine with a mission – I see it as the polar opposite of the National Review, standing athwart the gates of history yelling ‘Go!’ – and unsurprisingly the content of the book rarely deviates from the far left: war is never the answer, equal rights for all, etc. It can’t boast variety, but what it can boast is undeniable passion. Its history and content boasts a willingness to fight for ideals, calling out our highest officials and even fighting a prior restraint judgment from the U.S. government to publish an article on the hydrogen bomb.

Several of the essays also come across as shockingly relevant to our current political climate, and (tragically) are far more articulate than the existing discourse. Witness Harold Ickes, FDR’s secretary of the interior, speaking on how the wealthiest families and companies led America into a “peacetime catastrophe,” it’s clear that the circumstances that put us in the recession are not new ones. Or La Follette, railing against how workingmen who lose limbs are paid per appendage – an argument that would probably come in handy as the Senate debates healthcare.

“Democracy” is not entirely speech-based however, as the book also explores the history of The Progressive‘s cultural ties by reprinting a selection of interviews with musicians and authors. Each of the figures being interviewed waxes on a particular topic tied to their work, and each one is uniquely enjoyable: Kurt Vonnegut on how politics has devolved into entertainment, Allen Ginsberg on sex and authority, Frank Zappa on the decline of art to name a few. The interviews give a sense of not just being experts, but also defenders of traditions that seem to be dying out.

The recent campaign for funds waged by The Progressive proves that defending its beliefs is never going to be easy, but the content they have generated proves that they have the energy and brainpower to keep going. “Democracy in Print” is a solid collection of liberal journalism and eloquent discourse on its most important fields, and a valuable tool in the arsenal of anyone writing about the issues of the time – ours, last decade’s or last century’s.