I shall admit it freely. I am a huge fan of The New Republic.
Of course, we’re talking about a publication that at one time had it’s editor charged with being a spy for the KGB during the Red Scare — a charge that proved to be unassailable when the editor himself admitted as such. Yet TNR has been a stanchion for American liberalism it its modern form: populist, intellectual, and confident enough to converse about the future of liberalism without resorting to orthodoxy. TNR was in every respect reaching for what William F. Buckley created at National Review.
Much has been made of this week’s exodus of TNR’s editors in the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. What has captured me in all of this is the focus on TNR owner Chris Hughes, a $700 million owner of Facebook who is an Obama booster from the word go. From the NYT article:
He described the magazine he envisioned to prospective writers as The New York Review of Books crossed with The Economist, disparaging click-obsessed websites like The Daily Beast and saying that in the war for readers, quality would prevail. “Buzz is not what I am looking for,” he said soon after his purchase.
. . .
Mr. Hughes began setting aggressive targets for web traffic, and calling for more “snackable content.” He told employees not to use the popular abbreviation “TNR” to refer to the magazine, explaining that “The New Republic” was a more recognizable brand. He started talking about turning The New Republic into a technology company, and proposed new mobile phone applications and notifications for breaking news events.
That’s where the wheels effectively came off, as TNR was floated in large part by philanthropists who believed the publication’s voice was worth having in the public square. Snackable content? I mean, that’s the kind of crap you find on Gawker, right?
Hughes ousted his intellectual partner Foer without even the courtesy of telling him; Foer found out when his replacement, a man who previously had been fired as editor of the gossip website Gawker, began announcing himself as the new editor and offering people jobs. Most of the staff quit in protest, and the Hughes management team suspended publication until February. They needn’t bother resuming at all. The New Republic is dead; Chris Hughes killed it.
Dana Milbank over at the WaPo certainly isn’t pleased… and of course hails from another publication recently bought out by a successful online business, Mr. Jeff Bezos with Amazon. Whether Milbank is firing the first salvo in the war for job security or truly believes TNR is dead, I’ll leave more jaded observers to decide.
But what truly interested me in l’affaire Hughes was Peter Beinart’s piece in The Atlantic — a firm that seems to have figured out the bridge between “snackable content” and quality journalism in the way POLITICO did in the late naughties. Amazingly enough, Beinart chooses to believe that TNR was killed, not by a difference in vision, but because of America’s — wait for it — rightward lurch:
By the time Marty sold the magazine, the kind of contrarian liberalism it had espoused in previous decades was out of date. Frank responded by eliminating unsigned editorials and trying to turn TNR into “The New Yorker of Washington”—a magazine defined less by the singularity of its political vision than by the quality of its reporting and writing. He executed that transition well. But the interesting question is why he had to. What is it about today’s political climate that has made TNR’s brand of left-baiting liberalism obsolete?
The key factor, I think, has been the shift of American public-policy discourse to the right. As mainstream Democrats have grown more centrist and mainstream Republicans have grown more radical, it has become virtually impossible to craft a provocative, credible form of liberalism that lies somewhere between the two.
This is the sort of rockabye that many in American journalism have lulled themselves to sleep with. The problem isn’t with the intellectual straightjacket or the leftward-leaning everything churned out by American journalists and editors in the post-Watergate era. Rather, the problem is that we consumers as Americans simply don’t have the palette for good, leftist weltanschauung anymore.
Yet even Beinart can’t resist from throwing punches at TNR for breaking faith with the leftist line, especially for their early support for the Iraq War:
TNR never recovered from Iraq, which is a good thing. Unlike the Bill Kristol and John McCain types who pretended that the “success” of the Iraq surge vindicated the initial decision to invade, TNR was genuinely changed by the war. It stopped defining itself as the liberal magazine that urged other liberals to be more pro-war. But since jettisoning that foreign-policy identity, TNR has not found a new one. On Russia, TNR—led by Julia Ioffe—took a strongly anti-Putin line. On Syria, Leon Wieseltier advocated humanitarian intervention, as he had in the Balkans. But on many of the key debates of the Obama era—troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone attacks, Iran—TNR took no clear position at all. Even the magazine’s traditional hawkishness on Israel receded.
Explain that “shift of American public-policy discourse to the right” line to us again?
Let’s be very honest about this. America is not experiencing this sudden lurch to the right, not in an era of Obamacare, broken tax codes, broken immigration policies, unaffordable entitlement programs, massive deficit spending, deep cuts to national defense, a stagnant economy, a reckless Fed policy, and $18 trillion in debt. America has experienced a 20-year lurch towards greater state control… and Americans are tired of it.
The problem for TNR is that the Democratic Party hasn’t just lurched off the cliff, but used it as a springboard to effectively fight against the very DNA of working class Americans.
No one believes the Democrats will deliver on entrepreneurship anymore, much less alleviating student debt. No one believes the Democrats are able to run the government without massive debt spending. No one believes the Democrats are concerned with fighting for families. No one believes the Democrats are serious about the problems facing small businesses. Even the classic redoubt of many on the left — social issues — have failed them in 2014, as the midterm elections painfully pointed out.
What killed the old TNR? The progressive wing of the Democratic Party — simple as that. The toxic brew of influence peddling that is the caricature of what progressives think Fox News is that seems to pass for “news” is killing off publications like The New Republic.
Now true, Republicans face similar problems, but seem to have better roots. Conservatism, after all, is an intellectual movement. William F. Buckley’s National Review remains a force. Publications both in print and online such as First Things, The American Conservative, National Interest, National Affairs, American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, the UK Economist and others continue to fuel the center-right in this country.
Progressives over the last decade have denuded themselves of intellectual rigor. Emotion trumps logic, so goes the strategy — and we see it play out with every protest and false outrage the American media cares to repeat for cheap traffic and easy clicks. The New Republic was simply one of the last bastions of what intellectual liberalism used to be.
Of course, all pendulums swing. TNR’s editors will more than likely re-emerge somewhere else and continue to offer their challenges to the progressives. I will more than likely read it with great interest, even if I find moments of disagreement. Who knows? At times, maybe they’ll find common cause with conservatives. But the real amusement here is that the American journalist class and their editors (and certainly, those editors who will replace the giants whose shoes they will now find embarrassingly difficult to fill) will simply convince themselves that the country has simply grown more conservative over these last 20 years. Nothing to see here. More snackable content, please.
The reality is even colder. TNR represented the last thread of common sense in modern American liberalism, and the progressives had no patience with that sort of freethinking intellectual dissent. The good news for the center-right is that such ideologies tend not to have much of a future. The better news for our newly-liberated TNR editors is that history tends to be very kind to those who display such intellectual substance — and for the future of the American experiment, I wish them the very best of luck.