On “The New Republic”

David Bell, a contributing writer and editor at “The New Republic” for over 30 years, considers the implications of its unraveling in an increasingly atomized digital age.

By David A. BellDecember 29, 2014

On “The New Republic”

FOR A MAGAZINE with a print circulation of just 42,000 (the same as Victorian Homes and BioSupply Trends Quarterly), The New Republic set off a tremendous media storm in December. Owner Chris Hughes’s plans for restructuring led to the resignation of nearly all the top editors and writers. Prominent establishment commentators bemoaned the change as the tragic implosion of a great American institution — one that had just celebrated its 100th birthday with a gala celebration in Washington starring Bill Clinton. Critics on the left, meanwhile, said a gleeful “good riddance” to a magazine they called elitist, racist, and warmongering. The echoes of the debates are still rumbling across the web and social media.

Has all this attention been deserved? The post-mortems have attributed an extraordinary influence to “TNR,” claiming it shifted American political and cultural debates on almost every issue. Reading the critics, you might think the magazine had single-handedly killed Bill Clinton’s healthcare reform project (with Betsy McCaughey’s 1994 article “No Exit”), legitimated contemporary racism (by publishing excerpts from Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve, an attempt to demonstrate racial differences in IQ), and almost single-handedly pushed the country toward war in Iraq. Admirers, meanwhile, have pointed to its early championship of gay marriage, its role in calling attention to atrocities from Bosnia to Darfur, and the fact that for many years the White House had 20 copies delivered by messenger every week, leading TNR to advertise itself as “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One.”

For me, the debates over TNR’s legacy are personal. I sold my first article to the magazine in the spring of 1984, and spent a year there soon after as a “reporter-researcher” (translation: underpaid intern). When the year was up, I headed off to graduate school, ignoring warnings from the editors that journalism would prove a safer career choice. (In 1985, no one had heard of the internet.) From my perch in academia I continued to contribute several articles and book reviews each year, mostly on European history and politics. And I read almost every word in each issue. Like nearly every other Contributing Editor, I resigned after the December blow-up, in my case above all out of loyalty to the legendary departing literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, who had edited my articles for 30 years.

Like most friends of TNR, I worried about its survival long before Hughes took over in 2012. Despite the magazine’s supposedly enormous influence, it almost never made money, surviving instead on the generosity of a succession of wealthy owners. Martin Peretz, the owner for most of the past 40 years, joked that the one year he actually made a profit, he threw a pizza party for the staff to celebrate — and promptly drove the budget back into the red. But the internet made things worse, and I watched with resignation as the weekly became a biweekly, then cut back publication to just 20 issues a year. I joked to friends that we could look forward in due course to TNR Quarterly. The print circulation dropped by well over half from its peak. Slowly, the magazine built up a web presence, but the web-only content mostly consisted of short, snappy articles and blog posts rather than the serious longer essays that had made TNR’s reputation.

The old TNR did not end with a financial whimper, but a massive and unnecessary bang, courtesy of the new owner (and reported on in copious detail by former staffer Ryan Lizza, now working for The New Yorker). But even if a quiet slide into bankruptcy had precipitated TNR’s fall, the event would have posed the same questions: What did it really represent in American life? What future, if any, remains for institutions like it? To what extent can individual publications retain even their identity, to say nothing of their influence, in an age of social media?

To start answering these questions, a little history is in order.

Magazines like TNR are, fundamentally, creations of the 18th century. It was then that the basic format appeared: weekly or monthly periodicals that published various mixtures of news reports and analysis, opinion columns, book reviews, and the occasional poetry or fiction (not to mention, in a pre-phonograph age, sheet music). The Tatler and The Spectator, founded in Britain early in the century, quickly found imitators across the continent and then in the Americas. The point was to instruct and persuade, but to do so in an engaging, indeed entertaining manner: the essays were short enough to read in a single sitting, and full of witty anecdotes. Not coincidentally, it was in one of these magazines, the Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin Monthly) that the philosopher Immanuel Kant published his great 1784 essay “What Is Enlightenment,” in which he associated human progress with the ability of the public to make free use of its reason — i.e., for its members to argue rationally with each other. (The same issue included, among other things, articles on Jewish education, on a machine that supposedly spoke and played chess, and on a Berlin astrologer.) Kant understood that in a society where few people had the learning and leisure to engage in advanced philosophical discussions, printed periodicals were the level at which the public use of reason would mostly take place.

In TNR’s first issue, published in the fall of 1914, the magazine embraced this tradition, pledging itself to a version of Kant’s ideal. The very first article promised that the editors would “bring sufficient enlightenment to the problems of the nation” through “sound and disinterested thinking,” while insisting that they did not need to choose between serious instruction and entertainment. In the same issue, the British writer Rebecca West brilliantly illustrated the latter point, while setting forth a credo for TNR’s cultural pages, which Leon Wieseltier, in particular, would live up to brilliantly: “the duty of harsh criticism.” “Now,” West wrote,

when every day the souls of men go up from France like smoke […] [w]e must lash down humanity to the world with thongs of wisdom. […] And that will never be done while affairs of art and learning are decided without passion, and individual dullnesses allowed to dim the brightness of the collective mind.

Over the last century, TNR did not always live up to this original promise. In the 1930s, under editors who admired central economic planning, it sometimes veered toward an unthinking defense of Joseph Stalin. A decade later, publisher Michael Straight, son of the original owners and briefly a member of the famous Cambridge University ring of Soviet spies, turned it over to former Vice President Henry Wallace to serve as the organ of his left-wing third party presidential campaign. By the early 1970s, under owner Gil Harrison, it had relapsed into a boringly reliable liberalism. “If I had wanted a New Republic editorial,” I heard the philosopher Robert Nozick remark in 1973, after a particularly predictable Rosh Hashanah sermon, “I would have bought a copy.”

Under Peretz, a Harvard lecturer who bought TNR in 1974, the magazine moved away from conventional postwar liberalism. Contrary to what the critics have charged however, it did not simply move to the right. Peretz and most of his editors indeed believed that conventional liberalism had grown stale and ineffective. But few of them had any real sympathy for Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party — the most prominent of those who did, Charles Krauthammer, soon left to become a fixture of the conservative commentariat. Mostly, they longed for a new, regenerated liberalism that could compete more effectively with Reagan. In the spring of 1983, the magazine ran a cover story by Henry Fairlie (a brilliant and famously hard-drinking British journalist who periodically took up residence in TNR’s Washington offices) declaring that the Democratic Party needed to lose the 1984 election. Longtime liberal subscribers recoiled with horror. But Fairlie wanted a defeat that would shock a sclerotic party into reform and recovery, not a Republican triumph. In fact, the essay did a good job laying out the path that Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council would follow on the way to the election of 1992.

While much has been written about the magazine’s commitment to Israel under Peretz, and about its heavily Jewish staff, a different feature of TNR in these years has gone largely unremarked: its affinity for British journalism and academia. But this affinity arguably had just as much importance as the ethnic factor. Michael Kinsley, Andrew Sullivan, and Peter Beinart, who collectively edited TNR for 18 years, all spent time at Oxford, as did Wieseltier, the literary editor. (Sullivan, of course, is himself British.) From Oxford, and from the culture of British journalism, these writers acquired a taste for the sort of provocative wit that traced its lineage back to Jonathan Swift and the 18th-century Spectator, along with a willingness to try out provocative arguments just to see where they would lead. Furthermore, they believed, in good Enlightenment spirit, that a magazine should never, ever be boring.

Kinsley, who edited TNR for much of the 1980s, exemplified this tendency. No one’s idea of an ideologue, he had a passion for skewering pomposity, hypocrisy, and hysteria — qualities that Washington, then as now, offered up in endless supply. But while he had previously worked for Ralph Nader, Kinsley had none of Nader’s humorless puritanism, and took a wicked amusement in the follies and foibles he saw around him in the capital. At TNR, he sponsored a “most boring headline” contest. (Winner: The New York Times’ columnist Flora Lewis, for “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.”) His deputy Jefferson Morley composed parodies of the Washington conventional wisdom so absolutely pitch-perfect that an unwitting newspaper took them seriously and tried to acquire their syndication. Kinsley famously defined a “gaffe” as a moment when a politician inadvertently utters the truth, for instance when Gary Hart, during the spring 1984 presidential primaries, lamented that he was stuck campaigning in New Jersey while his wife got to address voters in California. Who, asked Kinsley, would not prefer to spend a few beautiful spring days in California as opposed to New Jersey? But of course outraged New Jerseyans forced Hart to engage in ritual self-flagellation. A year later, Kinsley decided to test a theory that no one in Washington actually read the books they talked about. He had me, then an intern, visit several popular Washington bookstores, and slip notes into copies of the best-selling books of the moment, hard against the spine, close to the end, promising a $10 reward if the readers who found them called TNR. Only a handful of the 100 notes I concealed ever produced a phone call, and Kinsley wrote a gleeful column about the experiment. Above all, and more seriously, Kinsley worked to expose and ridicule the growing phenomenon of Washington “influence peddling,” and the inherent corruption of powerful interests using campaign contributions to purchase “access” to high-placed officials — usually through the medium of former officials turned lobbyists. The real scandal in Washington, Kinsley repeated many times, was not what was illegal, but what was legal.

In foreign policy, a subject in which Kinsley took relatively little interest, the magazine adopted a more recognizably ideological line, driven by long-standing liberal anti-communism and Peretz’s strong pro-Israel stance (which indeed sometimes degenerated, in his last years owning the magazine, into anti-Muslim and anti-Arab tirades). But here, too, TNR was anything but predictably Reaganite. In 1982, as a renewed Cold War was reviving fears of nuclear conflict, it devoted an entire issue to a single essay by Leon Wieseltier, which later came out as a short book entitled Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace. The essay demolished the arguments of both the Reaganite officials who wanted to develop nuclear superiority over the Soviets, and peace campaigners who preached unilateral Western disarmament. Faced with an impossible strategic situation, Wieseltier argued brilliantly, the policy that offered the greatest chance of safety for both sides was in fact one of cautious, balanced deterrence.

The 1980s and early 1990s were the period of TNR’s greatest influence. Even then, the weekly circulation rarely soared much above 100,000. But as Peretz liked to say, they were “the right 100,000.” If Republicans famously read the magazine so as to crow that “even the liberal New Republic” now supported their positions, Democrats read it to challenge their own pieties and presuppositions, and to develop new, more pragmatic policy goals. Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 brought into office a cadre of officials who read the magazine regularly and had close ties to the editors — including Vice President Al Gore, whom Peretz had taught at Harvard. In one of the clearest illustrations of the magazine’s reach, legal affairs columnist Jeffrey Rosen’s early advocacy for Ruth Bader Ginsburg did as much as any other factor to bring about her nomination to the Supreme Court, as she herself acknowledged. Meanwhile, under Wieseltier, the cultural pages blossomed into one of the most respected venues for serious — and often harsh — criticism anywhere in the English-speaking world.

The magazine’s influence did not just come from what got published in its own pages. It attracted some of the most ambitious younger writers in the country, shaped their outlook and style, and then sent them on to influential positions elsewhere. Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, Jacob Weisberg of Slate, Jonathan Chait of New York, Terry Moran of ABC News, and prominent cultural critics like James Wood and Luke Menand all spent time at TNR, along with others far too numerous to mention. Among former editors (of whom there were many, thanks to Peretz’s mercurial temperament), Kinsley went on to CNN and Slate, Hendrik Hertzberg to The New Yorker, Charles Lane to The Washington Post, and Peter Beinart to The Atlantic, while Andrew Sullivan founded one of the most influential blogs in the world. This list, not surprisingly to anyone who has read the recent attacks on TNR, is almost entirely male, not to mention white and Ivy League–educated. (As a white male Harvard graduate, I certainly fit the bill.) True, the magazine’s style and politics tended to excite a disproportionate degree of interest from this small, elite demographic, but for a long time TNR did not seem capable of expanding beyond it, or of seriously confronting how this recruitment pattern affected what it published.

With the end of the Cold War and the rise of the Clintons, TNR’s influence began to wane — in part because the old arguments seemed to have been won, or to have lost their relevance. Under Sullivan, who became editor in 1991, the magazine pushed its provocative style into new areas. Sometimes it did so with brilliant prescience, as with the advocacy of gay marriage, which Sullivan first developed in a cover story in 1989 — a time when the cause barely registered on the national radar screen. At other times the move backfired, especially with the publication of McCaughey’s mendacious healthcare story, and the excerpts from Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve. Despite what some critics have charged, Sullivan hardly had the intention of legitimating racism when he published these excerpts. While provocation obviously played into his decision, he also had a genuine Enlightenment belief that the public sphere should open itself to ideas of all sorts, and that the unsustainable ideas would naturally wither when exposed to the oxygen of reasoned public debate. Along with the excerpts, in the same issue, he published strong critiques of Murray and Herrnstein, including many by TNR staff. He underestimated, however, what it might mean to The Bell Curve’s theses to have the apparent imprimatur of TNR, and how the whole affair might strike people with different backgrounds and experiences from those which dominated at the magazine.

In the present century, TNR has had its greatest influence in foreign policy. It strongly advocated the Iraq War; Wieseltier, in weekly “Washington Diarist” columns, emerged as a leading liberal interventionist, calling for the use of American force in Libya and Syria, demanding a harder American line on Russia, and treating Barack Obama with pungent scorn for his hesitations and caution. Especially after the Iraq debacle, I would argue these articles reflected an unwarranted faith in what American force could actually accomplish in the world, while badly underestimating the possible horrific repercussions. At times, Wieseltier and the other editors clearly longed to find a cause equivalent to the liberal anti-communism of the Cold War, even if the analogy didn’t really fit — Wieseltier himself spoke of “my somewhat facile but nonetheless sincere regret at having been born too late to participate in the struggle of Western intellectuals […] against the Stalinist assault on democracy in Europe.” But the articles nonetheless reflected a deep moral seriousness, an anguish that the most powerful country in world history was sitting on the sidelines while innocents were being slaughtered. Meanwhile TNR, again to its credit, changed its collective mind on Iraq and engaged in considerable self-criticism, unlike most conservative publications.

Do magazines like The New Republic still have a place for themselves in American life? The circumstances of its implosion have suggested, almost irresistibly, that the economics of the digital age is now rendering them extinct. As just about every commentator has pointed out, new owner Chris Hughes, whose great luck in landing Mark Zuckerberg as a Harvard roommate translated into a $700 million Facebook fortune by age 27, was a creature of Silicon Valley. Accounts of what led up to December’s events have dwelt on the culture clash between the old-guard editors and Hughes’s handpicked “chief executive,” Guy Vidra, who promised to turn the TNR “brand” into a “vertically integrated digital media company” publishing “snackable” content. (He allegedly confessed that he could not keep his eyes open beyond the first 500 words of most TNR articles.) The internet, by this account, destroyed TNR the way it destroyed Newsweek and many other print publications.

Yet this story is too simple. If print magazines like The New Republic are now less profitable than ever, our present age of inequality has also created fortunes capable of absorbing losses on a larger scale. Hughes, a good example of the new breed of moguls, has far deeper pockets than Peretz ever did. Admittedly, after Hughes bought TNR in 2012, the red ink rose higher than ever, helping to prompt December’s brutal restructuring. But it did so less because of the economics of the digital age than because of swelling staff numbers, an ambitious redesign, and expensive new office space in Washington and New York. (By some accounts, Hughes dreamed of turning TNR into something more closely resembling The New Yorker.) Hughes could have trimmed the staff back toward the smaller number of writers and editors TNR had in its glory days, used the sort of cramped, nondescript Washington office space the magazine then occupied, and even, if necessary, eliminated the print edition entirely. He could then still have published a superb opinion magazine, for losses a more than demi-billionaire could easily have managed. Despite the often-severe financial pressures, other magazines with similar formulas to TNR have so far managed to survive, including its longtime rival The Nation, and the right-wing Weekly Standard, both of which still come out nearly every week, not to mention the New Statesman and The Spectator in Great Britain. All of these still publish long, serious, demanding essays. Meanwhile, a host of new all-digital publications are flourishing, including the venerable (by internet standards) Slate, founded by Michael Kinsley with help from Microsoft, and the publication glowing before your eyes, dear reader, at this very moment. While in a physical form that would have bewildered Kant, or the editors of the original Spectator, the content of much new media would still have pleased them.

Yet if the sheer economics of the digital age is not necessarily dooming the larger project that began in the 18th century, other elements of digital publication and politics have already fundamentally changed its nature. Most importantly, with the coming of social media and news aggregators, an increasing number of readers no longer interact with entire publications, or even large chunks of them. From the early 18th century to the late 20th, readers had only one way to read a magazine: they held the entire issue in their hands. They might only read a few articles, but they had all the others literally at their fingertips. Even in the early days of the internet, most online reading started with a visit to a website that put some or all of a magazine’s current articles on the same page, with links helpfully underlined. But today, more and more, readers encounter only the disjecta membra of publications that social media and aggregators have broken up. They no longer even visit the front page of a website. Although a dedicated reader of TNR until December, in recent years I rarely visited its website, instead relying on Twitter, Facebook, and RSS readers to bring me the magazine’s individual articles as they went live. And I read these articles alongside a host of others from publications I didn’t subscribe to, whose websites I never visited, and which in some cases I had never even heard of. But friends would post pieces on social media, or other articles would link to them. (I presume the same is true of the way many of you are reading this essay, right now.) Back in the days of print, once I paid for a magazine, I had an obvious material incentive to read everything in it, rather than go out and purchase something else. Now, most of the articles I read cost me nothing to access. All in all, I pay far less attention than I once did to where a particular article originally appeared; I rarely pause, like many other readers presumably, to consider how editors might have shaped it, behind the scenes. When I read a magazine on paper, on the other hand, its overall editorial project still imposes itself strongly on my reading response.

In this new digital universe where words have broken free of their traditional covers — and reading so easily turns into skimming — arguments flow faster and fiercer than ever, but they are atomized, and hyper-accelerated. A group of authors may momentarily coalesce to argue a particular point — the way commentators from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Corey Robin came together to say “good riddance” to TNR. But then the molecules of argument break apart again in the constant flow. In this universe where unified magazines are dissolving, it is becoming far harder for a group of editors and writers to have the sort of durable influence that TNR acquired at moments in its past, notably in the 1980s. For all the excellent articles that the surviving weekly magazines still publish, their existence as distinct editorial projects jibes poorly with the way more and more of its readers actually read.

Worse, the structure of this new universe further reinforces the tendencies toward ideological polarization that began in America well before the age of social media, and that has led to what the sociologist Paul Starr calls the “ideological sorting out” of the major political parties, with conservatives flocking to the GOP and liberals to the Democrats. In the personalized info-feed that makes up more and more of my own daily reading, it has become rarer and rarer to encounter arguments that challenge me to think in a fundamentally different way about an important issue. Hardly surprising, since so much of it comes to me from like-minded friends. Being to the left of center, when a right-wing article or blog post pops up in my feed, it usually does so with some sort of mocking or outraged comment attached by a friend or editor, or from a self-appointed watchdog of the right like Media Matters, or, for that matter, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Many more articles that find their way to my screen simply confirm my ideological preconceptions. And thanks to the potentially infinite supply of reading material just a tap away, measured and careful arguments face more competition for reading time than ever from deliberately shrill, outrageous, and attention-grabbing ones. I could read a serious, thoughtful, measured discussion of the historian Timothy Snyder here in the Los Angeles Review of Books — but wait! Here’s a preposterous and offensive attack on him in Jacobin, a magazine for which I would never pay money. Perhaps I am an unusually lazy or easily swayed reader, but I do not think my experience is particularly untypical.

These continuing, high-speed changes in what was once called the “Republic of Letters” are hardly going to doom all thoughtful, measured, reasoned writing for a general public. Indeed, in many places it continues to flourish. If such writing has to compete with shrill, extreme, ideological voices, well, that is hardly a novelty of the digital age. But whether a distinct, collective editorial project can coalesce, and have the sort of steady cumulative influence that TNR did, not simply reinforcing ideological prejudices but changing minds in a particular direction over an extended period — that is a different question. Perhaps groups of writers will find ways to make it happen again, but it will not happen in the way it did with TNR. And in that sense, the magazine’s recent implosion is indeed symptomatic of a larger historical change — the end, in a way, of another chapter of the Enlightenment.


David A. Bell, who teaches History at Princeton, was a Contributing Editor of The New Republic from 2003 to 2014.

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David A. Bell, who teaches History at Princeton, was a Contributing Editor of The New Republic from 2003 to 2014.


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