The Corner

The Pragmatic New Republic

Anyone familiar with my writing over the last decade or so knows that I have considerable contempt for the liberal pose of pure empiricism. Liberals routinely insist they don’t care about ideology. They’re just pragmatists and fact-finders who want to do “what works.” The Tyranny of Clichés has an extended discussion of this very point. 

For a more recent example, consider that a few weeks before Obama gave the most ideologically left-wing inaugural address in memory (which was recognized as undiluted agenda-driven liberalism by even the agenda-driven liberal press), Obama was telling David Gregory on Meet the Press:

Generally if you look at how I’ve tried to govern over the last four years and how I’ll continue to try to govern, I’m not driven by some ideological agenda. I’m a pretty practical guy and I just want to make sure that things work.

So was Obama lying to David Gregory or to himself?

Now consider this letter from Chris Hughes, the new publisher and editor-in-chief of The New Republic

The journalism in these pages will strive to be free of party ideology or partisan bias, although it will showcase passionate writing and will continue to wrestle with the primary questions about our society. Our purpose is not simply to tell interesting stories, but to always ask why these stories matter and tie their reporting back to our readers. We hope to discern the hidden patterns, to connect the disparate facts, and to find the deeper meaning, a layer of understanding beyond the daily headlines.

Uh huh. I wish the new New Republic long life and prosperity (as I do for all print opinion magazines). But if the above were true, TNR’s hiring of obviously ideologically liberal editors and writers is a bit contradictory. I’ve been reading The New Republic for a quarter century (though less than I used to, maybe that will change with all of the revamping). One of the things that has always made it stand out is its determination to advance a liberal perspective while being as clear-eyed and cant-free as possible (National Review has a similar mission on the right). Maybe that’s what Hughes means here. But I’m not so sure. Nowhere in his letter does he mention the words “liberal” or “progressive” — odd for what amounts to the mission statement of America’s most venerable liberal (or progressive) opinion magazine. 

And there’s nothing to be ashamed of in being an opinion magazine. Good opinion journalism, I’ve long argued, is superior to most “objective” journalism, precisely because it makes an honest argument. An author of a long essay in National Review or The New Republic says “I believe in X. Here are my reasons why I support X. And here are the best arguments for those who say X is wrong and support Y instead.” Everything is out in the open, as in a court of law. Indeed, in a courtroom the prosecution is “biased” toward conviction, the defense towards acquittal. But both sides understand that they must address the opposing side’s best arguments or they will lose. And both sides understand they cannot take liberties with the facts. Supposedly objective journalism is very often far less honest about such things.

The new New Republic claims it will be free of party ideology or partisan bias. I honestly don’t know exactly what Hughes means by this, but it strikes me as a very bad start. A New Republic that is liberalism-free has no reason to exist (much as a National Review that is conservatism-free is pointless). A liberal New Republic that pretends it’s free of liberalism while it attempts to advance liberalism is a huge step backwards. After all, why should the reader trust a bunch of committed liberal opinion journalists if they can’t even be honest about what they are or what they are trying to do?

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