The Little Magazine That Incubated Team Biden


It has only 500 subscribers. And yet Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, a 15-year-old quarterly run by a three-person staff out of a small office blocks from the White House, may be one of the most influential publications of the post-Trump era.

Six of President Biden’s 25 Cabinet-level officials and appointees, including the secretary of state and the chief of staff, as well as many other high-level administration members, have published essays in its pages, floating theories that may now be translated into policy.

Democracy’s print edition has no photos or illustrations, and its website is bare-bones. It has no podcast, and the titles of its articles — “Meritocracy and Its Discontents”; “How to End Wage Stagnation”; “Defend Multilateralism: It’s What People Want” — are not exactly the stuff of clickbait.

It is also not one of those publications with a big social presence, hosting public policy discussions at the Hyatt rather than cocktail parties for the Georgetown set.

“There’s not much pizazz,” said Michael Tomasky, the journal’s editor since 2009.

But if The New Republic of the 1990s was “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One” during the Bill Clinton years, as it was described in the film “Shattered Glass,” then Democracy could play a similar role in the Biden era.

In a 2016 essay for Democracy, “Confronting the Pandemic Threat,” Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, sounded a warning that now seems prescient. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, argued in a 2018 Democracy essay that, despite the anti-Washington rhetoric that had energized many voters in recent years, most Americans would welcome ambitious federal programs.

Cabinet-level officials from the administration of President Barack Obama have lately used Democracy as a medium for sending advice to their successors. The economist Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Mr. Obama, directly addressed Mr. Biden’s team members in an essay that adopted an older-sibling tone.

“No one needs to check anything with you or listen to you, let alone do what you say,” he wrote. “You do have one power: the opportunity to persuade. If people think you have some useful insights or inputs, might be right in what you say, and are generally a helpful member of the team, then you just might be able to shape some of the most important decisions the president will make and help to make positive policy happen.”

Under the last Democratic president, the journal helped make political careers. Elizabeth Warren, then a Harvard Law School professor, published an essay in the Summer 2007 issue arguing for the creation of a federal agency to regulate mortgages and credit cards. She later helped advise Mr. Obama as the idea was realized as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Nicole Hemmer, an associate research scholar at Columbia University who studies conservative media, said that when the writer and firebrand William F. Buckley Jr. started National Review in 1955, he envisioned a right-wing media ecosystem that could shepherd conservative ideas into the mainstream. His work helped move ideas that were considered fringe to President Ronald Reagan’s platform some 25 years later.

“Small circulation is not a problem,” she said.

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