Commentary Magazine


Topic: New Republic

Liberalism’s Setbacks Aren’t Fatal

Last week was not a good week for the institutions of American liberalism. Which is not shocking, because last month was a terrible month for American liberalism. And that was mainly the result of the fact that the last year has not been a good one for American liberalism. But conservatives ought to remember the greatly exaggerated rumors of their own demise pushed by gleeful and historically ignorant liberals after the American right’s last such slump. Certainly liberalism is experiencing a crisis of sorts, but as Miracle Max could tell them, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

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Last week was not a good week for the institutions of American liberalism. Which is not shocking, because last month was a terrible month for American liberalism. And that was mainly the result of the fact that the last year has not been a good one for American liberalism. But conservatives ought to remember the greatly exaggerated rumors of their own demise pushed by gleeful and historically ignorant liberals after the American right’s last such slump. Certainly liberalism is experiencing a crisis of sorts, but as Miracle Max could tell them, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

The continuing ObamaCare disaster, the IRS corruption revelations, and the manifold foreign-policy failures of the Obama-led Democrats over the last year led to a cratering of the public’s faith in the left and produced a trouncing at the polls for Democrats in the midterms. With Saturday’s runoff defeat of Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu coupled with the GOP gains in states Obama won, it is the Democrats who appear at risk of being considered a regional party–an epithet they tossed at Republicans in 2012. How are the Democrats handling being washed out of the South almost entirely? Not well, if Michael Tomasky’s public breakdown is any indication:

Practically the whole region has rejected nearly everything that’s good about this country and has become just one big nuclear waste site of choleric, and extremely racialized, resentment. A fact made even sadder because on the whole they’re such nice people! (I truly mean that.)

With Landrieu’s departure, the Democrats will have no more senators from the Deep South, and I say good. Forget about it. Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise. The Democrats don’t need it anyway.

The funniest part is the headline: “Dems, It’s Time to Dump Dixie.” In fact, Dixie has clearly already dumped the Dems. If it were only the South, Tomasky’s neo-secessionism would at least be somewhat viable. But the Democrats have lost, at least for the time being, too much of the country to run away from.

The drubbing the Democrats have taken, sealed with Landrieu’s loss, has been so bad that you kind of want to put an arm around Tomasky, buy him a double bourbon (Kentucky isn’t technically part of the Deep South, right? He can still have bourbon?) and tell him it gets better. Because it always does.

Many obituaries were written for American conservatism by the concern-trolling left in the wake of President Obama’s two victories (the first supposedly heralding the death of conservatism, the second confirming it). They were all, without exception, deeply ahistoric and scandalously stupid items of triumphalist rubbish.

But for sheer symbolism, the crowning jewel of the group is without a doubt the essay, later expanded into a book, published in February 2009: “Conservatism Is Dead,” by Sam Tanenhaus. It ran in the New Republic.

Less than six years later, conservatism is alive and the New Republic is dead.

Not really dead, mind you. But to its writers and devotees, it is. I should say ex-writers and ex-devotees, because when last week news broke that Chris Hughes, the accidental Facebook billionaire (or almost-billionaire) and owner of TNR, shoved Frank Foer out the door and with him went Leon Wieseltier, a mass exodus ensued. That’s not only because Foer is beloved by his peers and Wieseltier is an institution. It’s also because Hughes has announced he doesn’t think magazines with lots of big words are worth keeping around anymore, bro, and the literary tradition should be replaced with whatever passing fad can be monetized at this very moment. Carpe diem, and all that jazz. (Well not jazz, I guess, which is a bit nuanced and old and has absolutely no cat gifs in it whatsoever; but you get the point.)

Critics of American liberalism have pointed out, however, that the Altneurepublic being mourned was not the Altneurepublic of popular imagination. There seems to be a general consensus, in fact, that the decline and fall of that TNR became undeniable with its infamous anti-intellectual anthem which began “I hate President George W. Bush,” published about a decade ago.

Not that there weren’t warning signs along the way. The best of these in recent years might be this 2013 Reason magazine piece by Matt Welch mourning “the death” not of liberalism, but “of contrarianism.” With the new New Republic, Welch lamented, the magazine’s modern incarnation as a constructive questioner of liberal received wisdom was gone:

An entire valuable if flawed era in American journalism and liberalism has indeed come to a close. The reformist urge to cross-examine Democratic policy ideas has fizzled out precisely at the time when those ideas are both ascendant and as questionable as ever. Progressivism has reverted to a form that would have been recognizable to Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann when they founded The New Republic a century ago: an intellectual collaborator in the “responsible” exercise of state power.

Liberalism is in crisis for many reasons, but surely one of them is this: it has ceased to look at itself in the mirror. If it did, would it be horrified by what it saw? One hopes.

Whatever the answer, conservatives must also understand the difference between crisis and death. Liberals are still here. The president is a liberal, and the next one might be a liberal too. Democrats have less than half the Senate but not much less than half the Senate. And it was not all that long ago that the country found itself in the bizarre situation of having to pay attention to Nancy Pelosi.

It’s true that a genuinely intellectual liberalism is nowhere to be found at the moment. But it’ll wander back. Crises are good times for political movements to take stock and cease pretending everything is just fine. It is not a matter of if, but when the pendulum will swing back in the other direction. And conservatives should be aware and humble enough to see it coming.

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The New Republic’s Sinking Standards

Marc Tracy’s profile of my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin is unusually shallow, even by the standards of the “new” New Republic. I suppose that is something of an achievement.

Mr. Tracy’s piece doesn’t deny – it could not possibly deny – the intellectual influence of Levin on modern conservatism. So the next line of attack is that Levin, more operative than anything else, is simply toeing the (Republican) party line: 

Levin, however, doesn’t propose challenging GOP orthodoxy; he simply tries to make it sound less radical. That’s not the most high-minded project. But that’s the job of the state-of-the-art conservative intellectual, more operative than philosopher. … Indeed, it’s hard not to notice that Levin follows the Republican Party line on just about every issue of note—from taxes to education to abortion.

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Marc Tracy’s profile of my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin is unusually shallow, even by the standards of the “new” New Republic. I suppose that is something of an achievement.

Mr. Tracy’s piece doesn’t deny – it could not possibly deny – the intellectual influence of Levin on modern conservatism. So the next line of attack is that Levin, more operative than anything else, is simply toeing the (Republican) party line: 

Levin, however, doesn’t propose challenging GOP orthodoxy; he simply tries to make it sound less radical. That’s not the most high-minded project. But that’s the job of the state-of-the-art conservative intellectual, more operative than philosopher. … Indeed, it’s hard not to notice that Levin follows the Republican Party line on just about every issue of note—from taxes to education to abortion.

As David Frum points out in his artful takedown of Tracy’s piece, “What about the possibility that the Republican line is following Yuval? On Medicare, at least, that happens to be the case – for better or worse.”

I can testify on this matter firsthand. When Representative Paul Ryan was developing his first budget in the aftermath of the 2010 election, there was real concern among some members of the House leadership as to whether to include premium support as part of the reform of Medicare. I was in private meetings in early 2011 in which some prominent House members and some very intelligent conservatives argued that this would be a bridge too far, that whatever the substantive arguments in favor of premium support it would be politically catastrophic. That argument was in fact made by real political operatives – pollsters, to be precise – in the meeting.

Some of us, on the other hand, argued that Republicans had an obligation, given the fiscal crisis that is being driven primarily by Medicare, to fundamentally reform the program and that Republicans could not be taken seriously as a party that stood for limited government unless it tackled Medicare. The most articulate and persuasive advocate for that point of view was Yuval Levin.

The point is that the notion that premium support was “GOP orthodoxy” as recently as two years ago is silly and sloppy; and one big reason the idea has now carried the day is because of the intelligent, informed and, yes, high-minded advocacy of Levin. On a supremely important issue he has changed the Republican Party, not the other way around. 

Even using the frivolous Tracy standard that an idea is only meritorious if it runs counter to what the Republican orthodoxy is at any given moment in time, Levin has not followed the conventional GOP line. For example, he argued, to little avail, that Republicans should have been vocal advocates against raising the payroll tax. He has said that in our current situation cutting marginal tax rates is not key to economic growth, hardly a Grover Norquist-like position. And he has been arguing the cause of upward mobility and civil society for quite some time. Only now, post-2012 election, are some Republican lawmakers catching up to him.

It may very well be that Mr. Tracy was unaware of all this, which would make him a bad reporter; or perhaps he was aware of this but chose to ignore it, which would make him a dishonest one. Whatever the explanation, the piece by Tracy is both light and misleading. Which is why it was a perfect fit for The New Republic

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