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The New Republic dug its own grave

The magazine’s centrist-neoliberal politics embraced forces that eventually destroyed it

December 14, 2014 2:00AM ET

“When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine,” socialist critic Irving Howe, an erstwhile contributor to The New Republic, said. If he’s right, what does it mean when that magazine dies? That intellectuals have something else to do? Or that it’s no longer an intellectual magazine?

In the last week, The New Republic has seen a wave of resignations — two-thirds of the names on the masthead, at last count — in response to the decision of owner Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, to push out editor Franklin Foer and, with the help of new CEO Guy Vidra, transform the magazine into a “vertically integrated digital media company.” What that transformation amounts to, no one can say, but many observers have declared the publication dead. And though the magazine’s ex-staffers insist they are not averse to the imperatives of the market or demands of new media, they have labeled the overhaul a victory of click-bait over content, commerce over culture.

Their hauteur is understandable. The New Republic was founded by intellectuals whose main aspiration was to represent the moral authority of the state and its culture over and against the self-interest of capital. Not by aligning with the labor movement or a socialist party but by bringing to bear the force of reason itself, as represented by the state, upon the small men of money. In its self-understanding, The New Republic has stood apart by standing above, a platonic republic of mind taming the passion of the market. 

An ironic ending

But the oft-observed irony that the magazine has been buried by the very class it was meant to contain is no irony at all. For The New Republic had a hand in its undoing. One of the forces that gave the magazine ballast was the left’s messy social movements and collective struggles, which its editors so often tried to hold at bay. Though the magazine claimed to “believe in a capitalism that is democratically regulated,” as its editors opined in 2011, it frequently sought to exorcise the very voices — such as the Occupy movement — that brought the democracy to that regulated capitalism:

Just because liberals are frustrated with Wall Street does not mean that we should automatically find common cause with a group of people who are protesting Wall Street …

One of the core differences between liberals and radicals is that liberals are capitalists …

We will not make this case stronger by allying with a movement that is out of sync with our values.

Tellingly, it was Occupy’s commitment to popular democracy that made the magazine most nervous: “All their talk of ‘general assemblies’ and ‘communiqués’ and ‘consensus’ has an air of group-think about it that is, or should be, troubling to liberals.”

But with the rout of that left, like so many lefts before it, the republic of reason has proved vulnerable to the empire of money, as the editors and staffers at The New Republic will now be the first to tell you.

The New Republic dug its own grave in another way. The very moment that marks the magazine’s last golden age — the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Michael Kinsley took the helm — helped set in motion the forces of capital that would undo it. Though the magazine worried about those forces, it also cheered them on. What Kinsley and his cohort brought to the magazine was skepticism of Big Government and a preference for market-based mechanisms, even at the level of the state, for solving social problems. They wanted to make government more efficient and liberalism more intelligent. The style of the magazine mirrored the market of its imagination: sleek, supple, nimble and lithe. Capitalism for smart people.

The New Republic had become a magazine about a magazine, its contrarianism contributing less to the world of ideas than to the brand (and scandals) of its writers and editors.

But capitalists, it turns out, are smart people, too. Not only do they have a taste for magazines of opinion but they also have a passion for turning those magazines into engines of capital. Not simply for the sake of personal profit but also because they believe that nothing — not even magazines — should stand outside of the market. As Hughes has insisted:

At the heart of the conflict of the past few days is a divergent view on how The New Republic — and journalism more broadly — will survive. In one view, it is a “public trust” and not a business. It is something greater than a commercial enterprise, ineffable, an ideal that cannot be touched. … At the New Republic, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to this institution to aim to become a sustainable business.

Kinsley and company may have thought they were introducing a new kind of liberalism but by ideologically defanging what little resistance there was to the market’s march, they helped inaugurate the neoliberal orthodoxy we know today. Where everything is owned by capital and owners like Chris Hughes have the final say. As none other than Michael Kinsley recently reminded his former colleagues:

We live in a capitalistic society, and that’s something that The New Republic has historically stood for…It’s [Hughes’] magazine, and if he wants to wreck it, he can.

This was The New Republic’s attitude to capitalism: an acknowledgment of its dictates and a finger-wag at those unwilling to accommodate themselves to its necessity. 

War is good

If “democratically regulated capitalism” at home was deflating, the magazine was able to find lift abroad, in the moral heavens of military intervention. Disenchanted with the welfare state, The New Republic worked hard to re-enchant the warfare state — in part by dismissing critics of hard power as soft or weak, in part by envisioning foreign policy as the space where the reason of state might inspire state elites to think big.

In 1992, President-elect Bill Clinton was rumored to be considering longtime Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton for secretary of state. This offered political journalist Jacob Weisberg, then a New Republic writer, the perfect opportunity to articulate the magazine’s sense that international politics was where ideas mattered.

“Hamilton is notably deficient in the forcefulness and vision that the chief American architect of the post-cold war world ought to possess,” Weisberg wrote. Hamilton’s “limpness as a thinker” was most evident in his votes against “military aid to anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua and Angola, and to the government of El Salvador.” Worse yet, “he never put forward an alternative to the Reagan Doctrine.”

With time, it became clear that anyone immune to the frisson of gunpoint ethics showed “limpness as a thinker” as well as a serious moral deficit. Almost as if the very thought of peace, or just caution, was a vice. With each engagement, it was the American soul, not other people’s bodies, that was at stake. The fact that some Americans resisted — or, worse, were indifferent to — these wars only solidified the magazine’s sense of itself as the nation’s ethical vanguard. The worst thing about anti-interventionists, wrote one contributor, was their rejection of “noble virtues” such as “courage, sacrifice, and generosity.” “Coming to the aid of individuals abroad may become critical to respecting ourselves at home,” he intoned. Better to be forceful and wrong than cautious and right.

Here, at least, The New Republic remained true to one of its original tendencies. The magazine’s founders cheered U.S. entry into World War I as an opportunity to transmute domestic differences into national unity. Troubled by his former editors’ militarism, Randolph Bourne formulated the epigram “War is the health of the State.” They rejected him as soft and unpatriotic. So began the magazine’s primitive accumulation of political influence, casting off its left wing like so many vestigial body parts of the past.

In “1919,” John Dos Passos described Bourne “hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets still left in New York, crying out in a shrill soundless giggle: War is the health of the State.” Reading The New Republic of the last three decades, it’s clear why. That manic mantra, repeated by Bourne three times in his essay on “The State,” reveals the mindlessness of the high-minded warrior. Whether it’s the Kaiser or the Commies, Noriega or the Sandinistas, the incantation is always the same: murderers are on the loose, appeasers are preparing their way, it’s time to march. 

In search of a project

In the end, the brittleness of that rhetoric, its freakish remove from any discernible reality, gave the game away: Since the 1980s, when the magazine managed to engineer a genuine shift in sensibility, The New Republic had lost its way. Subsisting on a diet of ginned-up controversy — The bell curve! Hack heaven! The cheapness of Muslim life, most notably to Muslims! — it had become a magazine about a magazine, its contrarianism contributing less to the world of ideas than to the brand (and scandals) of its writers and editors. What it lacked was a project: not a line but that metabolism of thesis and antithesis that marks the formation of any new way of thinking about power, privilege and prerogative.

“There is no discernible social ideal behind all the clever counterpunching,” former New Republic literary editor Alfred Kazin complained about the magazine in 1989. “I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond post-leftist crowing — beyond a certain parvenu smugness … I wish I could think of TNR as moving beyond the bristling, snappy, reactive common sense of the disenchanted liberal. There are worlds within worlds, even in Washington.” But in Washington they were, Kazin reminded his readers, “and no real ideas ever start here.” It was no longer an intellectuals’ magazine. Time to become a “sustainable business?”

Hughes has made much of the magazine’s return to New York. But there’s Kazin’s New York, an immigrant metropolis full of social friction, where new projects — and magazines, like The New Republic — are born. And there’s Hughes’ New York, the seat of capital. However much the magazine believes it belongs to Kazin’s New York, it has spent the better part of the past four decades preparing its return to Hughes’ New York. For all the intellectual highways and political byways its writers and editors were willing to traverse, the bridge too far was one they crossed long ago.

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University. He is the author of “From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.”

Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author, most recently, of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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