Quick Thoughts on Little Magazines

Recently, Policy Review, a bimonthly journal of ideas published by the Hoover Institution, closed its doors. Coverage of this decision has been very strange. Jordan Smith, writing in Salon, eulogizes Policy Review by arguing that it failed to challenge its conservative readership:

When The Public Interest closed in 2005, conservatives wrote heart-rending obituaries. In the fall of 2009, National Affairs commenced, announcing that it followed in the line of its “intellectual and institutional predecessor, The Public Interest, a journal that for decades enriched our public life with its unparalleled clarity and wisdom.”

But what made The Public Interest and Commentary important (before the latter ossified into neoconservative dogma) was never their design but their editorial choices: They were willing to challenge their own readership and ideology. For all its sophistication and readability, Policy Review was never brave enough to meet that challenge.

Smith goes on to prove his point, or rather to attempt to prove his point, by discussing only one of the essays published in Policy Review’s long history, Robert Kagan’s “Power and Weakness.” But consider another essay that in my experience was more representative of Policy Review, Peter Berkowitz’s “The Courts, the Constitution, and the Culture of Freedom.” I have linked to and discussed Berkowitz’s article on a number of occasions since it was first published in 2005, most recently in a column that appeared late last year. Berkowitz’s basic argument is that the American constitutional tradition is very much in tension with the contemporary aims of social conservatism:

A distinct pattern has emerged. On the touchstone issues, the Court has given a substance to equality in freedom that has extended the protected sphere of individual choice and has expanded the privileged range of individuals who enjoy it. This in turn has prepared the way for further extension and expansion. The Court has done so in the face of respectable alternative interpretations of the substance of equality in freedom, which stress the social costs of expanding choice, particularly the damage done to the material and moral preconditions for maintaining a society of free individuals. Both interpretations of the substance of equality in freedom — that which focuses on releasing individuals from fetters and that which concentrates on the need to restrain individuals and prepare them for the responsibilities of freedom — belong to the liberal tradition. Yet in the contest between them, the liberal spirit naturally prefers measures that enlarge the realm of individual autonomy or promote a more egalitarian society over those that seek to contain the social costs of those measures and to conserve the background conditions that keep autonomy from deteriorating into anarchy.

And so Berkowitz anticipates that advocates of same-sex marriage will prevail, not just because of intervention by the courts but because a growing number of state legislatures will come to accept this argument from the liberal tradition. It is possible that Berkowitz’s argument doesn’t recommend a challenge to Policy Review’s (presumably conservative) readership and ideology, but I’m not sure that makes much sense. 

One could argue that this essay is an outlier, and that Kagan’s essay — which Smith mischaracterizes in important respects, but we’ll put that to the side — is more representative. The trouble is that Berkowitz may well be the most influential conservative political theorist of his generation and he may well be Policy Review’s most prolific contributor, as evidenced by his very extensive archive.

Moreover, a cursory understanding of the history of The Public Interest and Commentary would remind us that both magazines were established not as organs of conservative opinion, but as, in the latter case, a journal of the left and in the former an avowedly heterodox journal established by three editors, one of whom was an avowed socialist and another of whom was a reluctant Nixonite at a time when the center-right establishment was firmly Keynesian. To say that The Public Interest challenged its readership and its ideology in its distinguished early years is to say that it had a unified readership and ideology, which of course is not true. The magazine was founded in an era of intellectual crisis, when it published thinkers like Charles Reich who eventually gravitated towards the counterculture and the libertarian left. It is hard to understand the extent of the cultural tumult of that era from the vantage point of our own, and comparing intellectual journals of our own time to the much smaller number of journals published back then — the cost of pulp and ink was a more significant barrier to entry than the cost of WordPress and pixels — makes very little sense.

If we’re going to understand the demise of Policy Review, it helps to have a better understanding of the context of American intellectual life, and in particular the universe of “little magazines” and, increasingly, “little blogs.” Recent years have seen the emergence of a handful of left-of-center journals like The New Inquiry and Jacobin and n + 1, the last of which was explicitly modeled on the Partisan Review and other midcentury publications that aimed to build communities around literary and political engagement, and also to promote the careers of like-minded coteries. These institutions have been somewhat successful as intellectual and publishing ventures, but arguably more successful as social institutions that have given new life and shape to literary New York. They’ve also facilitated the circulation of talent, as friendships formed via these informal networks become professional ties.

At the same time, many mainstream magazines have become more consistently left-of-center and partisan, possibly because the erosion of print audiences (in relative but also in absolute terms) has left them with audiences that are more monolithically left-of-center as more right-of-center readers have migrated to new media. For-profit gossip blogs, like those published by Gawker Media, and younger online media brands have a synergistic relationship with this left-of-center ecology, with some younger writers “graduating” to the relative stability of established media brands — and the existence of these writers serves to discipline other less established writers from making bigger compensation demands, etc., as labor is defined as a kind of apprenticeship. So this universe is very much a buyer’s market for writing.

As the “mainstream” magazines have become more explicitly partisan, the right-of-center ecology has become more partisan as well. Idiosyncratic journals like The Public Interest of the late 1960s and 1970s are far less common, as their audience has hived off. Smith’s article mentions National Affairs, which really did become a competitor to Policy Review that challenged Policy Review’s relevance in the domain of domestic policy. But of course many other publications have been established since Policy Review first opened its doors, including The New Atlantis, with its focus on science and society; The National Interest, which has gone through many iterations since it was first established in 1985 as an offshoot of The Public Interest, most recently as an organ critical of the conservative foreign policy consensus; The American Interest, itself an offshoot of The National Interest that makes an effort to reflect the eclectic mix of content that defined Encounter and other (big-tent anti-communist) midcentury journals and that comfortably mixes thinkers drawn from the center-left and center-right in a manner that is no longer found in the mainstream; and of course there are others, including The American Conservative, which is often singled out for praise by center-left observers, in part because, like The Public Interest, it employs a wide range of interesting non-conservative voices. (Smith is a contributor at TAC.) One might even throw Breakthrough Journal, a center-left journal published by the quirky Breakthrough Institute, into the mix, as it publishes a number of right-of-center thinkers and promotes the work of left-of-center thinkers who tend to favor decentralization, markets, and institutional churn over more traditional social-democratic approaches. 

The American Interest is particularly important to keep in mind as it reflects the selection bias implicit in the kind of broad-brush ideological analysis offered by Smith — if The American Interest publishes liberals as well as conservatives, it no longer counts as a conservative organ, and so there are no conservative magazines that challenge their readership and ideology. If one magazine folds yet several others are established, we ignore those that are established, including those that push in very different directions. Consider Cato Unbound, a libertarian web journal that regularly and enthusiastically challenges libertarian premises, or The Umlaut, a new blog that focuses on culture and commerce as well as public policy from an idiosyncratic libertarian perspective. Perhaps we can dismiss these efforts because they are electronic and because they are libertarian. So apart from hiving off The American Interest for publishing non-conservatives, we will hive off libertarian publications that don’t conceive of themselves as aligned with movement conservatism as such. Then we will be left with institutions that are explicitly aligned with movement conservatism and then criticize them for not being sufficiently hostile to movement conservatism. But even in that case, we’d have to acknowledge the fact that many movement conservative publications give a prominent place to heterodox voices — or rather we’d have to acknowledge this fact if we had more than a passing familiarity with these publications. 

There is always more to say, but: the death of Policy Review has much more to do with the institutional politics of Hoover, where the leadership has presumably seen the proliferation of opinion journals and decided that its resources were best spent elsewhere, than broader currents on the right. Smith ends on the following note:

And so, it was left to editor Tod Lindberg in the final issue to bewail conservatism’s failures. The left, he writes, has “come into its own at a time, not coincidentally, when its political rival, the GOP electoral coalition, already under strain because of shifting demographics, is deeply divided over vexing social issues.” He adds, “Its opponents do not seem to have found an effective way to counter it politically.” But formulating a strain of conservatism that offers solutions to modern challenges was exactly the reason for Policy Review’s existence. It is of little value to keep offering the same answers when the question has changed. With the exception of The American Conservative (where, I should disclose, I’m a contributing writer), reckoning with the triumphs and failures of conservatism is not happening among right-wing intellectuals. Thirty-six years of Policy Review illustrated that.

Smith might disagree with what he reads in various right-of-center magazines, but to suggest that there has been no “reckoning with the triumphs and failures of conservatism” on the right strains credulity. Movement conservatives haven’t embraced the politics of The American Conservative, nor will they (and nor should they, in my view). But we’re in the middle of a conversation about the shape of America’s political economy and identity that will never actually be resolved. This conversation isn’t necessarily going to take the form of self-flagellation in manifesto form, which is frankly boring and done to death, and I say this as a guilty party. Rather, it is and will continue to take the form of actually tackling new subjects.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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