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Standing Athwart The New Republic, Yelling ‘Stop’

The New Republic was once a vital magazine, but the clash between its self-important staff and insecure owner are making it hard to care about its fate.

The New Republic imploded late last week, after its young tech millionaire owner Chris Hughes sacked editor Frank Foer, replaced him with a guy who used to work for Gawker, and announced plans to reinvent the magazine and turn it into a BuzzFeed-esque “vertically integrated digital media company.” This prompted a mass resignation of the staff.

Though I don’t agree with much the magazine has published in recent years, I’m inclined to see this as bad news. This is primarily for two reasons. The first is somewhat personal — I once worked at a magazine where word came down from on high and everyone was laid off en masse. I still remember the awful feeling of being in that situation where an entire publication is crumbling around you and I don’t wish it on anyone. The second is that looking at the journalistic wasteland before us, it seems obvious that we need more extended discussion of issues and policy, and less of the reactive, steaming-hot takes about whatever happened 45 minutes ago. There’s no real substitute for the kind of in-depth engagement that comes from reading magazines.

But there’s already been more than enough encomiums to the glory that was The New Republic. If I’m being truthful — and speaking as a journalist, that’s a hell of a buy-in to ask of readers after last week — I’m also wallowing in schadenfreude. In the span of about 48 hours, my feelings have gone from “well, that’s a shame” to “get over it.” I can confidently say the statement the resigning staff released over the weekend was one of the most self-important things I have ever read. When Sidney Blumenthal signs a letter telling me “the promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow,” as a general rule I assume the exact opposite has happened. And the departing staffers declared, against all logic, that the magazine was “a kind of public trust. That is something all its previous owners and publishers understood and respected. The legacy has now been trashed, the trust violated.” (Note the clever play on the dual meaning of the word “trust” there. Where will the new New Republic be able to find replacement editors and writers this droll?)

It goes without saying Hughes is not obligated to keep hemorrhaging his money, and his recent defense of revamping the magazine is understandably anchored in making it a “sustainable business so that our journalism, values and voice — the things that make us singular — could survive.” This is a fair point, and the former employees protesting Hughes’ changes have probably never considered the phrase “sustainable New Republic” outside of offsetting the magazine’s carbon footprint. (See what I did there? Note the clever play on the dual meaning of the word “sustainable.”) It would be nice if the departing staff and writers of The New Republic saw themselves as more grateful for the opportunity they had at The New Republic, rather than entitled. The fact is, the shuttering of a magazine for a small number of influential liberal elites is not something that’s going to be widely lamented. As Clive Crook put it, “How will I ever break it to my neighbors in West Virginia? I’m concerned the news has not yet reached them.”

Suffice to say, the hoi polloi is probably feeling a bit puzzled about the barrels of ink being spilled chronicling the backbiting. Apparently, Hughes got revenge on dissenting employees by rearranging the seating chart at the magazine’s 100th anniversary gala, which is the most passive aggressive and waspy form of revenge imaginable. Then there was the snarking by Hughes’ opponents about the New York Times’ lame attempt to manufacturer an intellectual pedigree for him by noting the young Harvard grad “reads Honoré de Balzac in the original French.” For clarity’s sake, I’m so glad the Times supplied that qualifier. When I’m reading in French, I prefer it to be clichéd.

So where does this leave us? If I have to pick sides between liberal policy journalists insisting they are immune to the reality of business economics and a Silicon Valley enfant terrible who tried to buy his hapless husband a Congressional seat, I’m afraid I’m left rooting for injuries.

I will, however, note a grand irony in the fact that the fate of The New Republic hangs on this false choice. The New Republic’s demise appears to be a direct consequence of the liberal ideology it espoused. And to the extent the magazine had the reputation it did, it was a result of pivotal moments when the magazine challenged the liberal orthodoxy. When you look at it in those terms, the magazine has been the beneficiary of so much goodwill it’s amazing it lasted a century in something resembling its current incarnation.

Consider that there’s a reason it’s called “The New Republic.” As an outgrowth of the progressive movement, the magazine has done a lot to perpetuate the myth that new cultural and political conventions represent progress regardless of how destructive they are or whether they have any intrinsic merit. If you go back and read the first few decades of the magazine, Herbert Croly proposed to do to America’s constitutional system of government roughly what the departing staff is accusing Chris Hughes doing to The New Republic: Throw out everything that’s good about it as it currently exists, and rebuild it to comport with his own myopic views of what the future should look like.

More recently, The New Republic took on a genuinely interesting role of being a magazine for liberals that had the guts to regularly question their assumptions. “One reason for the New Republic’s demise has not been fully appreciated, and that has to do with its unique tradition of heterodox liberalism,” observes former New Republic editor David Greenberg. Indeed, it’s not really appreciated at all. While the magazine was so heterodox that “Even the liberal New Republic [insert the magazine espousing conservative/contrarian policy here]” is an actual Beltway banality, people only pretended to see this as a virtue. Lip service is given to its diversity of opinion, but a great many on the left are using recent events to hammer the magazine for betraying the progressive cause. Even sympathetic obituaries for the magazine have gone out of their way to disdain the pivotal moments in recent decades where the magazine expressed genuine intellectual courage, including publishing Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, killing Hillary Clinton’s likely-to-have-been disastrous attempt at a overhauling health care, endorsing the Iraq war, and being a strong voice in support of Israel. Once upon a time, The New Republic was so good at being a heterodox publication that a few former New Republic editors and writers went on to help start another, better magazine that consciously aped and improved upon that heterodoxy. Of course, that newer magazine happens to be neoconservative.

That was then, however, and these days liberalism is such an incoherent mess that staking out nearly any policy position is a minefield. Given that Hughes was fabulously gay in addition to fabulously wealthy, it seems he was concerned about his staff putting the hetero in heterodoxy. According to the Washington Post, Hughes “lashed out” after senior editor “Alec MacGillis had dared to propose writing a piece about Apple avoiding taxes just after Apple’s Tim Cook had come out of the closet.” Should gay politics trump progressive concerns about tax avoidance, or vice versa? I sure as hell can’t sort it out, and I’m certainly uninterested in a magazine that would have been consumed by such ridiculous debates.

So what is the argument for preserving The New Republic as it exists now? Let’s go back to that self-important statement from the departing staff. “From its founding in 1914, The New Republic has been the flagship and forum of American liberalism. Its reporting and commentary on politics, society, and arts and letters have nurtured a broad liberal spirit in our national life,” they wrote. “The magazine’s present owner and managers claim they are giving it new relevance while remaining true to its century-old mission. Instead, they seem determined to strip it of the intellectual, literary, and political commitments that have been its essence and meaning. Their pronouncements suggest that they hold those commitments in contempt.”

The sole remaining appeal here is to preserve The New Republic as a historical institution, out of respect for the role it has played in our “national life.” Not only is this not progressive, it’s a deeply, fundamentally conservative rationale. Let this sink in for a moment. Just days after the America’s premier liberal journal of opinion celebrated its 100th anniversary, the publication is facing an existential crisis, and the only defense the current staff can muster is to stand athwart history, yelling “stop!”

Of course, that quote is yet another reminder that if The New Republic doesn’t survive the current mess it’s in — and schadenfreude aside, I hope it does! — you can take comfort in the fact it will be survived by better political magazines. Yes, those magazines happen to be conservative, and at this moment there’s a lot of momentum and energy among longstanding and new publications on the right. The contrast makes it pretty clear — the failure of The New Republic is a failure of liberalism writ large.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Follow him on Twitter.

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