So, upon its hundredth anniversary, the New Republic has announced its own self-destruction. Once the most important weekly publication in America, TNR had already devolved over the past decade into a 20-issue-a-year magazine until today’s announcement that it would reduce its production to 10 issues. (That’s one fewer than COMMENTARY, which is a monthly with a double issue spanning July and August.) This came after its relatively new owner, Chris Hughes, began saying he didn’t like the word “magazine” and preferred to think of TNR as a “digital media company.”
Hughes and his chief executive officer, Guy Vidra, lowered the boom today. The magazine’s editor and literary editor are out, the operation is moving to New York from Washington, and it will be transformed into some kind of analogue to the Atlantic, another once-storied American literary institution whose website clicks now appear more important to its leadership than its magazine offerings.
In one sense, this is not a big deal, because in truth, The New Republic has been a shadow of itself for at least a decade. It’s notable that, for all the praise being showered on its current leadership in the wake of their departure, the New Republic’s most successful offering in years was not an article its editors generated but rather an excerpt from William Deresiewicz’s book lambasting the intellectual thinness of the Ivy Leagues—a bit of inadvertent comedy for a magazine whose staff for decades seemed to arrive directly from the matriculation ceremonies at Harvard and Yale.
But what’s striking about the conscious uncoupling of the New Republic from its own tradition—its own “brand,” you might say—is the extent to which it mirrors a larger crisis within the liberal tradition for which it held high an intellectual banner for a century. (We’ll cast a beneficent eye away from the disgraceful years in which it was a Stalinist sheet.)
The election of Barack Obama in 2009 might have heralded a new dawn for the New Republic, given that it suggested a wholesale turn away from the more conservative ideas and politics that had seemed so dominant in the previous 15 years. When that conservative flowering occurred, in fact, a few of us got together and started the Weekly Standard specifically to try and give shape and guidance to the Right following the GOP landslide in 1994.
Our model was the New Republic, which had begun in 1915 to give voice to the Progressive era. And the New Republic was our target as well, given that it was the dominant intellectual publication in Washington. We went right at it, and the Standard—still a weekly and with at least double TNR’s circulation—will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, having become an American institution of significant note because it has always kept its focus.
The New Republic went through ownership spasms that may have distracted or hindered its editors. But still there’s no question 2009 was a potential hinge moment in American political-intellectual life, as the Gingrich Revolution was in 1994. But the fact is that TNR never found its voice in the Age of Obama, either as a sympathetic intellectual leader capable of offering honest and serious criticism to and for those in power (which the Standard has always done for the Right) or as an effectively aggressive intellectual foe against the serious arguments posed against Obamaism by the Right.
Why? I think the answer is that there never was any Obamaism to champion; there was no serious vision of America and the world being laid out by the administration that provided fertile ground out for intellectual cultivation, for voices on the outside to make sense of that serious vision and help it cohere into an argument. (In the 1980s, ironically, it was the New Republic‘s own Charles Krauthammer who did just that in explicating the “Reagan Doctrine,” though even more ironically, he did it in the pages of Time Magazine rather than in TNR.)
What there was, instead, was the increasing reliance on the cheap-shottery of the Internet era—in which TNR and others were driven more by a kind of grinding loathing of the Right than by an effort to create a more effective and serious Center-Left. The magazine foundered because liberals foundered, because Obamaism was a cult of personality that demanded fealty rather than a philosophy that demanded explication.
So I’d argue that 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.