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You’ll Never Guess What Happened to This Magazine! Click Here for More!

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 Standardstill 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.

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7 Responses to “You’ll Never Guess What Happened to This Magazine! Click Here for More!”

  1. DAVID LEVAVI says:

    Gloating about the demise of TNR in the middle of a fundraising campaign is both ironic and unseemly, John. TNR’s failure has mainly to do with digitization and the death of print media in general. Its political and literary qualities are secondary.

    I say this as someone who stopped reading both the NYT and TNR religiously (at the newsstand price) some years ago mainly for political reasons as did many others. With fewer daily and weekly stops at the newsstand, I rarely picked up Commentary anymore. Much of my news and editorial reading shifted to electronic media.

    If you were wise, John, you would improve your internet site. I’m not talking graphics or politics or literary quality. Make it possible to print an individual post without the need to copy and paste. Also without wasting a ream of paper printing out headline and teaser copy for every post you have online. Some of us like to read self-printed and stapled hard copy from the internet on bus and subway rides the way we used to read magazines. Make it convenient to do so.

    Drop the annoying log-in. Encourage comments. It’s a new medium, John. If you want to reach the influential readership you value, you will to do it electronically where any drunken lout in pajamas can throw clods. Commentary as your daddy knew it will inevitably go the way the way of TNR. Meanwhile. I’ll tell the wife to send you a few dollars you shouldn’t starve G-d forbid.


      The tone of John’s post struck me as more of a lament than gloating. One of the problems of liberalism in recent years has been a lack of willingness to engage the right in any type of real discussion, as opposed to name calling. Both here and on Powerline blog over the past couple of days, they have been remembering how a once serious voice on the left is turning itself (apparently) into a Huffington Post wannabe.

      • DAVID LEVAVI says:

        Maybe so. It still sounds like whistling past the graveyard. Podhoretz has been reading TNR longer than I have. I dropped TNR cold turkey after an entire issue was devoted to trashing Herrnstein/Murray’s “The Bell Curve.”
        Felt to me like Peretz compelled every writer in his stable to sign a liberal loyalty oath by way of a negative article about the book, its findings and its authors. John Podhoretz should overlook Weiselteir’s silly hair and offer him a new home.

  2. ANDREW BRAGIN says:

    I shudder when I see a friend linking to an Atlantic article or a New Republic article. I never expect to see a patient and well-considered report in a sober tone. But liberals with aspirations to intellectual seriousness are not gone, they’ve moved to non-fiction books.

    • DAVID LEVAVI says:

      I dunno… Matti Friedman’s recent piece in Atlantic was pretty good.

      • ANDREW BRAGIN says:

        David- I’m sure that I miss some interesting pieces, but I don’t expect to find that at the Atlantic or New Republic anymore; the editors have lost my loyalty and trust as a reader. Too much agitprop. When I get curious to know what that crowd is giving a think to, I mostly look elsewhere. -Andrew

  3. JOSH FISHER says:

    I’ll second the thought on luring Mr. Weiseltieir to Commentary – very good idea.

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