What We Lost With the Loss of the New Republic

tags: The New Republic

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, worked at the New Republic in the early 1990s as an intern, as managing editor, and as acting editor.

The bloodletting this week at the New Republic—the journal of opinion regarded for a century as the flagship of American liberalism—has been rightly taken to herald the end of a great magazine. With the news that its two top editors, Frank Foer and Leon Wieseltier, resigned, that much of the staff subsequently quit, and that the magazine will halve its yearly output and move its headquarters from Washington to New York, the political and intellectual worlds are thrumming with outrage toward the short-sightedness of the magazine’s new leadership and elegies for an august institution.

As a former staffer and (until Friday) contributing editor, I share the sadness. But 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. The New Republic is being seen as a casualty of the crisis of print journalism that has felled many other newspapers and magazines during the past decade—the drying up of advertising revenue amid free and cheap online commentary. The problem with this line of argument is that “little magazines” have always lost money, relying instead on the largesse of rich owners, whose combination of public-spiritedness and vanity has led them to sponsor high-quality journalism. The New Republic was hurt by something more specific: the polarization of a media environment that leaves little room for a strain of liberal thought that not only attacks the right and the far left but also prods and questions liberalism itself.

Founded in 1914 by some of the leading minds of the Progressive Era—Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and Walter Weyl—the New Republic from the beginning sought to challenge conventional thinking, including among its own readership. These editors recognized that while liberalism (like all political creeds) needs foundational principles, one of those principles specific to liberalism is openness to debate, experiment, and reconsideration. Dogmatism, even more than conservatism, was its bête noire.

Over the years the magazine sometimes wavered in that mission. During the editorial tenure of former Vice President Henry Wallace in the 1940s, it descended into high-minded cliché, and for spells in the postwar years, it lapsed into sleepy predictability. But with its purchase by Harvard professor Martin Peretz in the mid-1970s, the New Republic regained its stature as the most provocative magazine on the left. Peretz hired a bevy of brilliant young minds. Three in particular became the three finest editors of their generation: Michael Kinsley, Hendrik Hertzberg, and Wieseltier. The twentysomethings who cut their teeth at the magazine in these decades include some of the most accomplished nonfiction writers working today.

As important, the magazine played a key role in revitalizing American liberalism. When Peretz bought the New Republic, the left was on the ropes. The 1960s had been great years of progressive achievement, but in the 1970s, voters were growing disaffected from the Democratic Party, which failed to develop new ideas to meet the challenges of a changing economy and a turbulent world. Liberal thinking ossified. When I was growing up, the adjective that most often preceded “liberal” was “knee-jerk.” ...

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