Political magazines in the English language have a history of about 300 years. The Spectator, produced by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele between 1711 and 1712, was one of the first and most influential—its name lives on today in the conservative-leaning Spectator published in London continuously since 1828. That slightly junior Spectator is the lineal ancestor of many American periodicals, including on the right Albert Jay Nock’s Freeman of the 1920s; National Review, modeled after the 1950s iteration of the Freeman; and indeed The American Conservative today. The general pattern of the Spectator-inspired magazine has been short items and editorial matter in the front, longer articles in the middle, and reviews at the back.
It’s an enduring format, but more important than the organization inspired by The Spectator has been a public mission dating back to Addison and Steele. Magazines of the sort they founded not only played an indispensible role in fostering a culture of political and literary civility in the century following the English Civil War, they also cried out for civil liberties, fought to establish precedents for free speech, and promoted an intellectual ferment that spilled over to colonial America—and led to revolution. Culture and polemics mingled in the pages of smart, passionate magazines and pamphlets engaged in ongoing argument with one another.
Inevitably, periodicals came to align with political factions. But the original ideal of The Spectator had been disinterestedness and a commitment to a broad public—Addison described his aim as bringing “Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.” And the best political magazines over the next three centuries were never entirely partisan affairs: even when their editorials railed against one party or enthused over another, their back pages and cultural essays appealed to the literate public at large—though, to be sure, literary brawls could be as bruising as political ones. Nevertheless, no good magazine was ever monolithic.
Magazines evolved a dual mission, to be part of the political fray while also representing life apart from politics. Yet lately the role long played by magazines has been displaced by other, more monotonous media—particularly television. Even the Internet, for all the diversity of views it makes available, has tended to lead politically minded readers to speak and listen only to their fellow combatants in the trenches of ideology. The tradition of independence from partisan fury is not dead, however: having survived three centuries, it will not soon surrender, beleaguered though it may be.
The American Conservative does all it can to resist the tide of expedience and fights for the spirit of the old republic of letters. In these early years of the 21st century this battle is as important as anything in politics per se. Will the tradition of a shared literary and civil culture thrive again, or at least weather the hurricane of modern partisanship? Or will America sink to the boredom, anger, and paranoia of thoroughly politicized media—of Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow reruns without end? The long tradition inaugurated by Addison and Steele is cause for confidence; time is on culture’s side, even if money and numbers are not.