"The Atlantic" and the Limits of ReasonablenessBreaking News
tags: liberalism, journalism, magazines, Donald Trump, 2020 Election, The Atlantic Monthly
The Atlantic is perhaps the quintessential American magazine. Founded by Boston abolitionists in 1857, its role in the media ecosystem stands in contrast to that of The New Yorker, which, despite regularly featuring excellent reporting, is first and foremost a literary magazine. Among political magazines, it is neither overtly right-wing like the National Review nor overtly left-wing like The Nation (or, for that matter, The New Republic). The Atlantic is a magazine not precisely of the center but rather of a set of liberal civic ideals; more than any other publication, its purpose seems to be the continual renewal of educated Americans’ commitment to high-mindedness.
The past four years have severely tested those ideals, and under the leadership of Jeffrey Goldberg, who became editor in chief the month before Donald Trump’s election, The Atlantic has dedicated itself to the defense of American liberalism in the face of Trump’s clownish barbarism. Now, with the publication of The American Crisis: What Went Wrong. How We Recover.—a 500-page collection of 40 articles published in print or online between 2016 and mid-2020—the editors have curated a kind of museum of their efforts.
I have a lot to say about Jeffrey Goldberg, but his haughty, insidery voice has only partially defined the Trump-era magazine’s—mainly by establishing an editorial line that is anti-Trump without indulging “the Resistance” or veering anywhere near the revived socialist left. The Atlantic’s current voice is no less shaped by, for instance, Executive Editor Adrienne LaFrance (who has an article in The American Crisis on QAnon) or Ideas Editor Yoni Appelbaum (on “How America Ends”). Appelbaum is a former lecturer on history at Harvard who joined The Atlantic after drawing its attention as a regular participant in the comments section of Coates’s then-active blog, where he helped Coates develop his interest in the Civil War, which would come to define Coates’s most influential subsequent work. The tendency of so many of the articles in this volume to harken back to nineteenth-century American history—to Frederick Douglass and Seneca Falls—points to Appelbaum’s influence.
There is, to be sure, much to be learned from the nineteenth century that directly informs the present. But the danger of leaning so heavily on the long arc of history is that it obscures how at key moments, history is propelled forward with radical force. For all their gifts of oratory, and for all their political acumen, Lincoln and Douglass participated in a transformation of America that was fundamentally violent: the Confederacy was suppressed by armed force on a continental scale; the constitutional amendments that ended slavery and guaranteed Black citizenship were passed without the rebelling states’ initial consent; and the enslaved people of the South themselves actively resisted, fled captivity, and fought their would-be masters in defiance of the law. These are lessons of history that many Atlantic readers would be extremely hesitant to apply in our own time.
Instead, we have Anne Applebaum’s conclusion to this volume, in which she calls for “evolutionary rather than revolutionary” change, citing Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive era, Britain’s Victorian-era reforms, and Japan’s Meiji Restoration as appealing models. “We have found the ability to make deep changes without destroying those elements of our system that are useful and good,” she writes. “And if we did it once, we can do it again.” It’s an encapsulation of the tradition of reasonableness that the magazine has traded on for so long. But after reading about the many existential crises rigorously detailed by the staff of The Atlantic over the past few years, it’s not at all clear that high-minded argument will be enough.
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