Jacob Heilbrunn’s “The Myth of the Liberal New Republic” is a welcome corrective to the thundering herd of independent progressives lamenting new owner Chris Hughes’s stewardship of the magazine. It is hardly surprising that present and former editors would disdain Hughes’s plans to digitize the magazine, reduce its frequency of issues, and try to transform TNR into a vertical digital platform (whatever that is, adds Heilbrunn). The retreat of the masters of old media—the long-form essay, the important little magazine—is, if perhaps not on the par with the demise of the yeoman small farmer, something genuinely to be regretted. The gutting of major daily newspapers, the loss of hundreds of capable journalists is probably a more serious loss to the the country’s public discourse than the end of the weekly magazine as an essay platform—but still. Everyone who grew up reading magazines has a spot in their heart for their favorite one; nothing on the web will ever be quite the same.
Still, there is widespread misreading of what made the The New Republic important, and this letter signed by many of its former editors and writers exemplifies it. They write:
From its founding in 1914, The New Republic has been the flagship and forum of American liberalism… . It is a sad irony that at this perilous moment, with a reactionary variant of conservatism in the ascendancy, liberalism’s central journal should be scuttled with flagrant and frivolous abandon.
First the letter implies a kind of continuity in The New Republic‘s ideological mission which simply didn’t exist. TNR in the thirties was Stalin apologetic; in the fifties it was edited by Michael Straight, later found to have been a Soviet agent. It had become more respectably liberal before Peretz bought it in 1974, after which he subsequently purged the editor and his top staffers.
Once I began to read The New Republic regularly, in the early 1980s, it became my favorite magazine. This was a time when I was a more or less a card-carrying neoconservative, writing regularly for Commentary, eventually joining the New York Post editorial page. TNR represented a unique blend: it had the outer sheen of a liberal magazine, critical of Reagan and Republicans generally, supportive of Democrats. But its core, the core I was most interested in, concerned foreign policy, and here TNR was generally neoconservative. It hemmed and hawed but ultimately supported the contras, the Reagan sponsored anti-communist guerillas in Nicaragua. It backed, like I did, the invasion of Grenada. (Charles Krauthammer memorably quipped that we were in danger of losing “MOHGROland” that is, moral high ground land.) It opposed the nuclear-freeze movement and the general campaign to end the upgrading of American nuclear forces. TNR was, as has been widely remarked, very pro-Israel, but in the ’80s this was hardly exceptional. Experts in the area recognized by then that the PLO had embraced the idea of a two-state solution, but this guerilla/national movement’s politics were still murky, and it was possible—reasonably—to believe that the PLO was simply waiting for the chance to destroy Israel.
TNR thus positioned itself as a kind of ideological cop within the Democratic Party. It was thoroughly liberal and Democratic, especially on social issues like abortion, but promoted core parts of Reagan’s agenda. Liberals who went too far—either wanting to live and let live with the Sandinistas or find an accommodation with the Russians—would be red-baited. Supporters of American pressure on Israel to accommodate legitimate Palestinian aspirations could be marginalized as anti-Semites. All this would done by a self-proclaimed “liberal” magazine, dutifully policing the boundaries of responsible liberalism. They were boundaries that I, and other neoconservatives, very much approved.
My close friend and eventual New York Post colleague Eric Breindel was also a big New Republic fan. He was personally close to Peretz (whose tri-city life seemed to provide endless fodder for delicious gossip). On many of the issues of the day—Russia, communism, the Cold War—Peretz was as right-wing as we (Breindel, myself, Commentary) were. So one major test of whether a conservative argument could fly in the mainstream was whether it could be packaged for TNR. Of course, liberals edited the magazine, and they usually didn’t reach out to neocons like us. But Marty did. There would always be a kind of back channel—you didn’t send your piece over to Hendrik Hertzberg, but instead faxed it to Marty’s private fax number. (Josh Muravchik, who wrote a few such pieces, once joked that our pieces had to be delivered to the TNR offices in a “plain brown wrapper,” at a certain time of day, with no identifying marks from the sender, presumably so that liberal TNR staffers wouldn’t mislay them.)
I wrote one such piece—countering a dominant narrative about a racial incident at Columbia University, where after much delay I was finally putting my dissertation to bed. Breindel wrote a lengthy piece examining the sudden proliferation of accusations of police brutality in New York City—we were then at the early part of the wave which would make Al Sharpton famous. Later Breindel and I collaborated on another one, critiquing multiculturalist changes in the New York State school curriculum. (TNR‘s liberal editors engaged in what I assumed to be a gesture of disdainful protest by not bothering to write a headline for it. “Head to Come” read the title as printed in the magazine.) And in a way, TNR‘s standards were higher than elsewhere: as I recall, these were well-reported pieces bringing fresh information to bear on a broader national issue. To be published in Commentary was good, but this was better.
As Heilbrunn points out, the usefulness of this role (liberal mostly but not always on domestic policy, essentially neoconservative on foreign policy but never calling yourself that) began to wear thin after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Heilbrunn notes that the magazine became increasingly right-wing on foreign policy. I’ve noted previously the disdain TNR showered on TAC when we first started: the idea of opposing the Iraq War was considered too stupid even to argue with for the bien pensants who ran TNR. But of course, one might ask—of the many signers of the anti-Hughes letter—wasn’t raising questions about the wisdom of invading Iraq something that “liberalism’s central journal” should have been doing, instead of trying to present war skepticism as beneath contempt?
Peter Beinart, who edited the magazine at the time, has performed upon himself a sincere and searching self-criticism. But Franklin Foer, who penned the dismissal, certainly has not. So, no, don’t count me among those who mourn TNR‘s demise as a neocon journal in liberal disguise. It was terribly effective in that role: Peretz was a great judge of talent and for a while at least had the magazine thumping away on all cylinders. But America’s foreign-policy debate will be improved without “even the liberal New Republic” holding Democrats’ feet to the fire to support hawkish or neoconservative foreign policies.
One more thing, on another subject. I wouldn’t write anything about the Eric Garner case if I hadn’t written previously about Michael Brown. But I want put on the record how different they seem. I don’t think a reasonable person can look at the Garner “I can’t breathe video” and not conclude the cops committed a horrific transgression, indeed probably some kind of crime. Garner was clearly non-threatening and not particularly belligerent—anyone who has spent any time in New York can recognize that. If he needed to be arrested, then another way had to be found to do it. I’m not a lawyer or legal expert, but there surely is a sort of “general will” in which regular people who generally appreciate the police can look at an event and somehow judge whether cops are maintaining order in a reasonable fashion.
This doesn’t come close.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.