Postmodern Conservative

The New Republic, 1914-2014

Alas, it looks like it’s over for The New Republic magazine. A once-great institution, killed by a pair of lofo-pandering facebook-enriched millennial jerks.  I here voice my gratitude to all of those who made the magazine central to my political education in the 1990s.  I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for TNR. 

I stopped my subscription sometime in 2008, and had stopped eagerly reading the magazine around 2005 or so.  And not too long ago, when I had thought about re-subscribing, I found myself dissuaded by articles like the one that stooped to smearing Scott Walker as a racist on the basis of no evidence related to the man himself.  But a couple weeks ago, when I saw the magazine’s 100th anniversary issue, well, I just had to pick it up.  It is worth getting, incidentally—there’s some interesting stuff about the early Herbert Croly years, an undoubtedly softened account of the conflicts between owner Marty Peretz and the more-regular liberals at TNR during the 80s through early aughts, and in any case, the issue’s now worth owning simply as a memento of a lost age. 

I don’t claim to know the whole TNR-in-the-aughts story, but to me it seemed that a major betrayal of a style of broad-minded intellectual liberalism occurred there in the 2003-2006 years, due to an overall Democratic turn against the “New Democrat” creed of the 1990s, due to a sense various liberals, especially under Peretz’s TNR, came to have of having been duped into initially supporting the invasion, and due most obviously to the diminishment and then end of Marty Peretz’s ownership and editorial control.  I don’t say Peretz was all sweetness and light, and I understand and accept things like resistance to his stance on the Middle East as well as the new editor Franklin Foer’s 2006 apology for Peretz allowing the Elizabeth McCaughey article “No Exit” that helped kill Hillary-Care, but I nonetheless say that during those 2003-2006 years many elite liberals broke important bridges with moderates, and made various deals with the devil, that were harbingers (and direct causes) of the broader acceptance of demonization and polarization that has afflicted the entire nation during the dismal Obama years. 

So I say the dominant TNR crew broke faith with robust liberalism, and have remained guilty of this by their coddling of the increasing numbers of Democrat leaders and Legacy Media types who have become disturbingly shameless about their dogmatism, Obama-defense, conservative-demonization, and propagandistic manipulation of lo-information voters, to the point that in 2014, it often seems that what it means to be progressive is to assiduously close one’s mind to basic facts about events like Ferguson.  Doubling-down on error and lies for the sake of narrative advancement is simply what it means, intellectually speaking, to be a liberal these days.  That’s too harsh, but it isn’t too harsh to say that the TNR of the last decade bears a good deal of responsibility for it becoming plausible to say such.  The TNR liberals were in a position to fight the poisonous trends, but as far as I can tell, they refused to. 

I assume Franklin Foer, editor through most of 2006-2014, bears a good share of responsibility for the break and betrayal I’m trying to sketch, and so I found it touching, and a cause of hope, to read these words of his at the conclusion of his 100th-anniversary mini-history of TNR

…liberalism…quibbles with capitalism and our constitutional system—views them as imperfect and in need of constant improvement—but it has ultimate faith in both.

On the surface, American liberals are an entirely different species than classical liberals. Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and the rest of the classical liberals, after all, hated the all-powerful state and made it their mission to curb it; they celebrated the market and trumpeted the virtues of self-interest. That American progressives chose to call themselves liberals seems a twisted and confusing misappropriation.

Old liberals and the new ones have very different methods; but at bottom, they have exactly the same convictions. They both believe in the transcendent importance of freedom and individual liberty. It’s just that the threats to those values have changed. There’s not a capricious monarch looming. In a constitutional democracy, the centralized state was no longer a grave danger to be contained, but an actual guardian of freedom—a protector against new menaces, like rapacious corporations and bigoted local tyrants. The state must create and enforce the rules that help ensure that the market economy remains productive and fair, despite its size and complexity.

This isn’t the stuff of sloganeering; it’s a complicated set of beliefs that even most liberals don’t fully appreciate. And when The New Republic has hashed out these debates, it has sometimes created the illusion of incoherence—a step to the left here, a step to the right there, then a nice long twirl in the center. Critics of the magazine shout, “But it doesn’t add up!” To which the proper response is: exactly. Aside from the works of John Rawls, American liberalism hasn’t yielded volumes of great philosophical clarity. It has flourished in a magazine, which has provided the perfect venue for liberalism to explore itself—to arrive at provisional judgments and to reverse those judgments, to engage in a never-ending act of ideological seeking, to revel in the vitality that comes with the hard task of intellectual invention.

Well, there’s a lot we could say about this, but that’s the kind of liberalism most Americans can live with.  

But alas, if TNR could have been a place for a return to a leftward liberalism that could still claim continuity with Enlightenment liberalism and a concomitant forthright support of American constitutionalism, and perhaps even a place for fresh attempt at a new “New Democrat” creed, these are no longer possibilities.  Maybe Foer and the others will, backed by a good investor, try to start a new magazine.  I hope they do, but one senses that this particular ship, and much of what it stood for, has been scuttled for good.

A few final thoughts.

1.) There’s a bigger story here, likely involving the end of Peretz’s involvement, behind all of this.  

2.) What I write above might suggest that TNR deserved this.  There is a kind of poetic justice, you might say, in TNR being killed by the kind of Yahoo-ish and Upworthy-like journalism that became so complacently accepted on the left, and if my account is right, too little attacked by TNR itself. 

3.) I honestly don’t know if that is correct or not, even if I guess I want it to be.  But either way, it does nothing to decrease my utter contempt for what Chris Hughes and Guy Vidra did here. They lied about their intentions, and tossed a revered symbol into the latrine-hole.  It’s the kind of thing that, emotionally speaking, makes me never want to use facebook again.   They are low-lifes and barbarians, and may their names ever be disgraced by this. 

4.) Inevitably some will make this out as more symbolic than it is.  They’ll say it stands for the Exhaustion of American Progressive Liberalism, which stepped into power in 1912 with the election of Wilson, was symbolized and intellectualized by TNR’s founding in 1914, and after a solid 100-year run that culminated in the years 1933-1980, faded out with the shocking disappointment of Obama and co., followed by TNR’s demise in 2014.  Given the ugly ascendancy of Upworthy-style “progressivism” in our time, and depending on how likely you think Democratic defeat in 2016 is, it’s not a totally implausible angle.  Nevertheless, I don’t see it that way.  

5.) It’s just that kind of year.  

UPDATE;  John Podhoretz is right to say the following:

The magazine foundered because liberals foundered, because Obamaism was a cult of personality that demanded fealty rather than a philosophy that demanded explication.  …what has befallen the New Republic is, in some ways, what has befallen liberalism writ large. It became unserious, and is about to become more unserious still, because that it what has happened to liberalism as a governing philosophy.

That doesn’t mean we should count liberalism out, however. Even the non-zombie “serious governing philosophy” kind remains in play.  

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