U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Drift and Mastery: The New Republic, 1914-2014?

The New RepublicNews came abruptly yesterday that two of The New Republic’s mainstay editors, Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier, were stepping down from their roles at the magazine due to irreconcilable differences with the magazine’s new ownership. The new ownership wants TNR to become a “digital media company.” Foer and Wieseltier don’t.

A sizable number of journalists affiliated at one time or another with TNR expressed their shock, anger, and sorrow over Twitter (handily though partisanly rounded up by Gawker—the man replacing Foer is a former Gawker editor, Gabriel Snyder, and guess whose side they’re on), while others had a more favorable reaction.

Particularly pointed was a Twitter exchange between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait and Coates’s further reflections on the reasons why he lacks much empathy for what is obviously a period on the magazine’s run as a Serious Journal of Opinion:

Chait obviously read Coates’s initial tweet as gloating—although I cannot tell if his reference to a “beef” is his name for Coates’s attitude toward TNR’s racial politics over the years or a more specific reference to the flare-up between these two men earlier this year—but gloating is the wrong term here. Coates’s remarks show no pleasure at the magazine’s reorganization—which so many people are treating as a death—because that reorganization has absolutely nothing to do with the magazine’s racial politics over the years. There’s no justice to be found for the magazine’s critics, especially its African-American critics, in seeing TNR succumb to Silicon Valley visions rather than to an erosion of its credibility after a history of terrible editorial decisions, from “The Bell Curve” to Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit to its shrill hawkishness over Iraq.

Many people—including many people I respect—feel very differently about this development in TNR’s history. But it is difficult for me to look at the table of contents of Insurrections of the Mind, its recent centenary-anthology and feel overwhelmed by the loss when counterbalanced by those articles it has left out, and of which Coates and others remind us. (The analogous anthology from The Atlantic MonthlyThe American Idea—is either more honest or less ashamed: it reprints both “Broken Windows” and “The Roots of Muslim Rage.”)

There are obviously much better cuts from the archives of The New Republic which Foer left out of this anthology, and perhaps commenters could offer their own selections here, and maybe we could assemble a better anthology of our own. Or commenters can reflect on their experience with the magazine: I know it has been instrumental in many people’s intellectual development, for good and/or ill. I would love to hear from anyone and everyone about their relationship to the magazine over the years.

23 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I once had a subscription to TNR that, finally, I allowed to lapse a few weeks ago. I admit that, while my politics are a bit different from the magazine’s, I always found it to be an interesting read. Was I aware of its long history on race? Sure. In fact I mentioned some of that in my USIH conference paper/blog post about Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.

    Yet I find some of the Left’s responses to what’s going on at TNR to be a bit dismissive of the long legacy of the magazine. By no means is it entirely a glorious legacy, but I do worry what the demise of TNR says about the field of print opinion journalism. Let’s not forget the troubles The American Prospect (another of my favorite periodicals) has suffered this year. As intellectual historians, we have to consider that the era we’re living in is one of transition for *where* and *how* intellectual debates are being formed and discussed. I’m not saying things are getting better or worse–but that they are changing.

    • Oh one last thing: I do also think, however, that the tone some of The New Republic folks rubs people the wrong way–especially with so much else going on. I think much of the backlash is to this being another inside the Beltway tragedy that most folks really don’t care much about.

  2. Timely post, Andrew. I’m still mucking around in the 1970s today.

    I read with great interest the “Twitter Essay” that Jeet Heer wrote today on this. I was favoriting his tweets as he was posting them. I think it’s a very perceptive take. He has now storified it for easy reading. You can find it here:

    The New Republic in the Era of Facebook

    It’s definitely quick analysis — certainly not a long read — but I *love* how it begins.

  3. Andy and Robert have opened a way to have a parallel discussion about TNR’s apparent (evident) demise–that it is a source for those of us who want to have a sense of the intellectual temper of…what to call it…the post-70s ‘tough’ liberals. Like Robert, I have read TNR and can pick out essays that seemed significant at the time but I mostly used it to get a sense of the kind of moral equivocation that helps explain the embrace by many American intellectuals of wars, military actions, and defense spending, and their general avoidance of most substantive social issues. The magazine’s line struck me as a kind of extension of JFK’s view of American politics, summed up by something he reportedly said to Nixon that he couldn’t give a damn whether the minimum wage was $1.25 of $1.50 when faced with issues like Cuba. I am discouraged by the thought of TNR becoming something like the Huffington Post, when it could it have remained a specific window into the thinking of a certain kind of American intellectual. I will miss the research I have done through it.

  4. Thanks for the post, Andy, and the comments, Robert and L.D. As well as Jeet’s twitter essay.

    I think what’s missing in this discussion — esp. on the left, with the focus on the politics of TNR, and that’s where a lot of Jeet’s essay is focused — has to do with political and cultural energy. This is a tricky concept, hard to get your hands on. But it’s safe to say that there was a time when TNR was a bearer of cultural and political energy. I don’t mean buzz or clickbait or pseudo-controversy like a lot of what Sullivan promoted. I mean where you could see the cultural plates shifting, the political tectonics in motion. I’d say the last time that happened with TNR was in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The moment when neoliberalism — not the term as we understand now, but as it was used when I was in high school; to mean the politicians like Robert Reich, Paul Tsongas, Gary Hart, and brainy journalists like Michael Kinsley, Charles Peters at The Washington Monthly. A style was born then, as was a politics. I shouldn’t overstate it: its roots lay in the breakdown of the 1960s and the end of the New Deal coalition; it was spearheaded in policy circles by folks like Stephen Breyer, even Ralph Nader, in the mid 1970s. But it was the whole liberal skepticism of big government moment. And it was interesting. And it had energy.

    I think a lot of that had disappeared by the end of the 1980s. For a variety of reasons. But I don’t think the magazine has had it since then. I don’t think it’s driven the conversation in the same way.

    And so we come today, and I ask myself: if I wanted to read something interesting, if I wanted to find that energy, today, where would I turn? Often to blogs. In the magazine world to the LA Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the back pages of The Nation, increasingly and surprisingly to Dissent (except on certain topics), to Jacobin, to Aaron Bady’s Twitter feed (for links to other articles), to The American Conservative or Reason (for complicated reasons), and so on.

    The one place I would not turn to is The New Republic. Why? It’s not the center of energy. It’s not a bearer of energy. It has no energy. It might have some good articles now and again (I’m a huge fan of William Deresciewicz, or however you spell his name). But it has no energy.

    • I respectfully offer that your use of the term “energy” conflates two different concepts. The first is a quality of the actual writing, research, agenda, etc. that’s, colloquially speaking, “inside” the magazine. But when you write that in TNR’s heyday one could “see the cultural plates shifting, the political tectonics in motion,” it seems like you’re talking more about the magazine having been an important forum, a place of influence, or something along those lines. A lot of stars have to align for this to take place, and many of the necessary factors are out of the magazine’s control. The energy of the writing is only one variable, even if it’s arguably the most important one.

      These two concepts are intimately related, but they are not the same. I am willing to stipulate the point that the magazine lacked “energy” in the first sense, thought I don’t necessarily agree with it. (I’ve read a lot of people who offhandedly say “sure, it had some great pieces,” as thought that isn’t the main purpose of a magazine.) More important to me, though, is the *other* part of “energy.” This I might also agree the magazine lacked in its later days, but I do take issue with the implicit claim that this failure says something about the magazine itself. The “New Republic” might have lost a cente-of-gravity status it once had, but I don’t see that any of the outlets you mentioned have the power to move the tectonic plates in the way that you mentioned.

      To me, the “New Republic’s” decline in influence is a result rather than a cause. The originating factor, as I see it, is that it’s terribly unclear what or who the magazine would have been trying to influence, and equally hard to design the ends to which it would have put any influence that it might have had. We live in a conservative era, and liberals still–still!–don’t know how to respond to that forty-year old development. Do they want to constitute a remnant, sealing themselves off? a counterweight, hoping to minimize conservative damage? an incubator, hatching ideas for the future? an insurrection, challenging the very legitimacy of the current situation? Each of these are legitimate and defensible, but they are different and they would each require their own intellectual and political projects.

      I don’t know of any place today where one would go to either see one of these visions consistently developed, or to watch them battle amongst each other. Instead, the two most prominent rallying cries among liberals today are that a) in a generation or so demographics will push the country in a more Democratic direction, and that b) Republicans are idiotic, bigoted, hypocritical Neanderthals. The first is favored by professional political and journalistic types, while the second animates the likes of Jon Stewart and much of the blogosphere. Neither promises to move tectonic plates.

      What passes for self-critical liberalism today is still that of the “third way” variety: urging liberals to move further to the right. This is political calculation masked as principled self-examination, and the reinvigoration of modern liberalism would require much more. To me, a truly “energetic” left-liberalism would have to begin with challenging the *fear* that motivates so many of the movement’s adherents. At the most basic level, liberals are motivated by their desperate panic at the idea that liberal advances will be rolled back because mainstream political thinking has turned conservative in a fundamental rather than a cyclical way. But the most typical responses to those fears–capitulation and the hope for a new electorate–have not worked. This failure puts the onus on liberals to do better in two ways: developing new approaches and ideas, and making the effort to *convert* others to them.

      It’s true that the “New Republic” did not do these things. Perhaps it’s just my reticence to speak ill of the dead, but I think it’s important to note that no one else did either. It’s hard to be an energetic mouthpiece or forum for a movement that is so unclear as to what it believes in, and so unwilling to acknowledge that this lack of clarity is a serious problem.

  5. Corey, you may well be right about a decline in the vibe/energy/feel/sensibility of TNR.

    For me, the problem with this and similar “disruptions” (e.g. NYTimes offering buyouts to senior journalists/editors to put more $ behind online stuff) is this: while some of that same feeling of energy/intellectual purpose/vision (whatever you want to call it) — that same sort of interestingness and liveliness — may have migrated to other outlets, it’s probably the case that it has mostly migrated from “outlets that pay” to “outlets that don’t pay.” You’ve written before about the vitality of public intellectual life on the blogosphere. But, as I think you noted, bloggers — most of them/us anyhow — are writing for free. The same structural changes — those wonderful Silicon-Valley-guided disruptions — that allow us all to publish/be published with almost zero overhead costs also disrupt the relationship between writing and earning a living.

    I’m thinking less about TNR as a particular employer of individual writers than as a publication that, politics and/or vibe aside, occupies a certain space in public discourse — structurally, physically, financially, personally in the collective count of its payroll/editors/contributors. Even if the TNR is just a placeholder, it has been holding a place. Just like pushing old profs into retirement isn’t going to free up tenure lines, but rather allow for further adjunctification, so cutting the presence of that bland and boring (or even vicious/pernicious) TNR by 50% isn’t going to make room for some other publication to come and keep holding that space open in the same way — holding that space open discursively but also financially, economically.

    You see I am dangerously venturing into forbidden territory for historians — offering a guess about the future. And in this I’m much more of a pessimist than Heer Jeet. He has a wait-and-see approach, which is probably wise, especially with the specifics of TNR. But in general, this move looks to me like it fits with the same major structural shifts that Schiffrin had noted in the book publishing industry.

    This structural change (to TNR, to publishing more generally) is historic, in the sense that it’s a continuation of a trend set in motion some time ago. It’s a trend that may result in a further increase of smart-people-writing-interesting-stuff-online-for-free (“free” meaning either it was written for no pay or was available at no cost to the reader, whose clicks and eyeballs — and personal data! — are the real get). But I don’t think the end result is a greater range of options for sustaining public discourse and debate in different registers. There may be a dispersion of “talent” or nodes of thought, but that competition for a niche in a niche-poor market results in a collective structural narrowing, not a corresponding broadening, in the options available to all of us as readers and writers. What happens to that space? The Facebook wunderkind and his epigones seem well positioned to extract and pocket the difference.

  6. This has been cathartic.

    I have to say (as someone who had a piece in TNR on that terrible Thursday) that all this makes me wish we could just consolidate some of the disparate “energy” online in blogs into a new political singularity, so that LD’s “dispersion of talent” can be reversed, and gain new mass and gravity. This, I suppose, is how “little magazines” get made.

  7. I was never a regular reader of TNR, but I write at length about Herbert Croly in my book, so my interest is in the magazine’s early history. I see TNR in its original iteration as a flawed but inspiring mouthpiece of Progressive sentiment — perhaps the best of the magazines of the muckraking era, though one can always make a case for McClure’s (as a very different sort of publication). I appreciate Croly’s TNR for the formidable cast of characters it assembled — Croly, Lippmann, Bourne — and for its commitment to charismatic political leadership and to transformative reforms.

    That said, there’s no denying that even under Croly, TNR was dismissive of dissenting voices (consider the fate of Bourne in 1917), easily caught up in militarism, and subtly contemptuous of popular rule. It’s easy to say that the center-right monstrosity the magazine became in later years was a completely different entity from Croly’s version, but in truth the magazine’s later history simply exacerbated traits already present at TNR’s founding. As such, I’m not convinced the new approach to the publication won’t be an improvement. Perhaps a clean break with such a tradition really is the best approach.

  8. Thanks Matthew. Your TNR piece was great, by the way. (Here’s a link, folks: Police Cameras Won’t Cure Our National Disease.)

    On gathering what has been scattered…I can’t imagine how much time/money/effort it would take to turn back this tide. Not that I wouldn’t be willing to try. I am a big believer in Quixotic enterprises.

    Speaking of Quixotic enterprises, here’s a photo from today’s print edition of the New York Times, with a correction on the status of Franklin Foer:

  9. Let me offer my two cents. I think Marty Peretz saved the New Republic, and hired the three best editors of their generation — Michael Kinsley, Rick Hertzberg, and Leon Wieseltier. For more than three decades it was a necessary voice of contrarian liberalism, unafraid to question the bien pensant thinking of left-liberalism. One didn’t have to agree with it on everything to find it stimulating. In a small way, it contributed to the revitalization of liberalism and the sloughing off of the errors and excesses of 1960s liberalism.


    • I agree with my friend and colleague David Greenberg about those editors, and I’m glad John Judis found a home at TNR after his stint at In These Times, but I sure do want to know about those errors and excesses of 60s liberalism! Do tell, David. And LD, aren’t we here witness to the “dispersal of power” residing in the literary revolution of our time?

  10. People don’t seem to notice the irony and appropriateness of the apparent death of this racist rag at a time of general uprising against the ideas that the magazine stood for. It enabled people adopting right-wing ideas to think of themselves as “liberal” — and perhaps that’s where American liberalism has actually been in recent years. Certainly Wieseltier is indefensible, as was the Bell Curve and the open contempt for non-whites. Now the only chance for liberalism to remodel itself is to listen to voices from below. Just as the Obama era will be seen ironically as a period of thriving racism. historians will study the magazine as a locus for legitimization of a complex of vile ideas. That complex is a blatant failure as a description of reality. Terms like “contrarian liberalism” ennoble a cesspool.

  11. I would like to compile a list of essays/reflections written by women regarding this (probable) demise of TNR. As you come across any such links, would you kindly add them in the comments? Any thoughtful “takes” you have read on this, from whatever stance/angle, that have been written by women — please share.

    I’d be interested to see if there are any significant perspectival differences, or if such pieces — assuming they exist in significant numbers — fall in pretty much the same “camps” as the frequently-linked pieces now widely circulating.

  12. So, since many people (here and elsewhere–e.g.) are focusing on the end of Wieseltier’s editorship of the back of the magazine as the genuine loss, can S-USIHers put together a sort of greatest hits package from just that part and period of the magazine?

  13. Obviously, LD, Claire’s piece today is a great re-starting point. I’d be interested to know whether it is possible to foster a little magazine – even in the midst of this age of digital revolutions – that features the voices of those she (Claire) notes were so absent in TNR for so long. I’d hope so. Would that set of voices cling to liberalism, I wonder? Or to something else? And why not (as some of my friends have asked) just take over the hollowed- out shell of TNR?

  14. MPG, if I had the first idea how to take over TNR I would volunteer for the raiding party.

    I mean, I know you’re half-serious. But It sounds like a great caper/heist film, doesn’t it?

    Picture it:

    A rag-tag group of academics from various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences (and one or two theoretical physicists and/or mathematicians), a couple of autodidacts, some insomniac bloggers, poets, watercolorists, a pinball wizard who can hotwire anything, a professional surfer, an entomologist, and a paleographer hatch a plot to seize the editorial reins at TNR right from under Facebook wunderkind’s nose. (They trick him into signing a contract? He loses a bet and has to hand over TNR or face the enforcers?) But it’s provisional — they have to put out a blockbuster double-issue in time to hit that looming deadline.

    Well, Facebook wunderkind sabotages them by shutting down the Whole Internet, forcing these writers from across the country (because we all don’t have to be in the Beltway or the Big Apple, yo), traveling via various madcap conveyances, to hand-deliver our copy to the offices of…

    ..the Nation (!), whose editors — in a show of solidarity against the Forces of Disruption swarming out of Silicon Valley like orcs out of Mordor — have agreed to help TNR remain in the hands of people who still want books to be printed on paper. Indeed, against such a day, Katrina van den Heuvel has wisely, cleverly (but perfectly legally) diverted some of the proceeds from the Nation’s annual cruise/junket to purchase and squirrel away (in various warehouses on the Eastern seaboard) scores of manual Royal typewriters, mountains of stencil paper, flats and flats of bottled ink, and hundreds of…..

    mimeograph machines!.

    Facebook wunderkind has never heard of such things! And because Facebook wunderkind didn’t stipulate anything in the contract/bet about how the issue should be printed, all the adventurers have to do is hand crank out 140,000 copies of their 64-page opus, saddle stapled (by hand!), with a card-stock cover, delivered to…

    …the Empire State Building in time to meet the deadline! With the help of all the friends they make along the way (including the beleaguered hordes who have been wandering through life without purpose or hope since the WiFi went dark at Starbucks) the rag-tag group pulls it off! The TNR masthead is saved! Wunderkind turns the Internet back on, and everybody lives happily ever after…until we have to plan the next issue.


    I hope you (and our readers) know that I’m not making fun of your suggestion, or of the dream of doing something together that would be so meaningful and so incredibly difficult and (I surmise) so fulfilling and probably often very fun. (Doing this blog is certainly so much of that.) What is actually going to happen to TNR — the masthead, the “brand,” the editorial vision and voice — remains to be seen. As many have pointed out, there’s much there that needed to change. And perhaps my pessimism isn’t (entirely) warranted.

    As to gathering a motley crew to put together a magazine of our own — well, I could think of worse things to think about while procrastinating. Meanwhile Jim Livingston has already made a start with Politics/Letters. A fine idea all around.

    Okay, back to this chapter…

    • Well, duh! Who knew P/L would inherit the earth scorched by TNR? But this is a new age of “little magazines”–symptom and attempted cure of a centrifugal politics (not a bipolar division, something more interesting and productive). In any event, let us remember the intellectual atrocities perpetrated by TNR regulars, but let’s also remember that in pitching the original, Lippmann sold the magazine as a publication that would be socialist in every way except party label. In view of that origin story, does the neoliberalism of the late 20th century and the elder TNR represent a reaction against the social-democratic trend of liberalism, ca. 1914-1980?

  15. It is such an interesting moment, right? Storm the barricades and take over old media as it becomes new media, filling its hollow core with new and interesting goodness. Or grow your own new media outlet. Or enjoy the fabulousness of blogs like this – generally free and open to anyone with a browser. I like the sweep of your proposed revolution. But I’m also just thrilled to be in the here and now, watching all this unfold, and benefitting from dozens of venues that are, as you and Claire and others note, far richer than what we used to get in the mail every week or month.

    • MPG: The problem with this exciting venue, and others like it, is that we don’t pay. And I think that’s part of the problem overall: the money. Money buys time, and all academics are pressed for time. There’s isn’t enough time in the world to grade papers, sit on committees, do scholarship, AND—most importantly and most often lastly—disseminate that scholarship and learning and thought. Blogs help us all do that quickie style, but the old journalism model at least offered a way to buy time. – TL

  16. Yes and no?

    Certainly, the decline of livable wages for high journalism (short form or long form) is a real challenge (to those who want an informed public), especially when coupled with the rise of lots of “quickie” venues that (however awesome they might be) can’t get deep into a topic or be “investigative” in the way we might wish. There are echoes here (as many have noticed) of the transformation of higher ed, and the consequences are parallel – and interconnected. As this wonderful blog, in a way, shows.

    I don’t do this sort of thing (blog posts, op-eds, essays for IHE or the CHE) for the cash, though, and I suspect most of y’all don’t either. (It doesn’t get me *anything* at my university). I don’t do it out of some high-minded purpose, either. Most of the time, I do it for the surplus value, for that intangible added weight that makes it possible for me to speak on behalf of this friend or that colleague, or that allows me to make a real difference in the way we talk about this issue or that. Issues that I care passionately about. It also helps to keep me writing and thinking (writers block!).

    I don’t have the time to do this, either (*right this very minute* I am supposed to be rushing around campus and hanging posters, and revising a 3 weeks overdue essay) so I cheat by stealing sleep, teaching differently, etc. Stealing sleep, mostly.

    Anyhow, that, I think, is why the TNR “brand” is (maybe) worth trying to re-capture. It does a certain kind of *work* that my lonely shingle (which denies me sleep and nets no-so-many views) doesn’t. And for those of us who care about certain kinds of questions (like many of the people on this site), one doesn’t just set aside a valuable tool because it has a strange, off-putting history without thinking about whether it can be constructively re-purposed to do the same work for different ends. With real pay for real smart people.

    Unless Larry Summers is cutting the checks. Because *then* I’d just walk away.


    Seriously, you guys are the pros – and this site is an inspiration. And there should be a way to take the energy of *this place* and turn it into a model that “buys time.”

    • Thanks for this thoughtful reply–and the compliments on the blog. Like you, I steal time for this writing—from sleep and other places.

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