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The New Republic lost the battle over American liberalism

Interracial politics and skepticism of sending troops overseas became essential to liberalism, leaving the magazine behind

Chris Hughes, current owner of the New Republic.
Chris Hughes, current owner of the New Republic.
SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The New Republic is in another period of turmoil. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who purchased the magazine in 2012 and provoked a mass staff exodus last year when he replaced its editor, is selling the magazine.

For those who pay close enough attention to have an opinion about the New Republic (admittedly a small unrepresentative minority of the population), Hughes's tenure was very controversial. Before Hughes announced he was selling, opinions about his ownership tended to depend on whether one thought the magazine should abandon its style under the 30-year reign of the previous owner, Martin Peretz, an eccentric with neoconservative foreign policy views.

Yet as Ezra Klein points out, the media landscape has changed since the heyday of Peretz's ownership in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. Then, policy magazines were one of the main places for journalists, academics, politicians, and other wonks to debate politics. Now the policy magazines of previous decades face diminishing relevance and worsening financial prospects. The New Republic is in especially dire straits. Whether it can survive in the future depends on it regaining a viable place in both the economic and ideological marketplaces.

The economic marketplace

Throughout most of American history, providing political information has been a money-losing proposition. As I discussed last year (and Jay Rosen addresses here), there are a variety of tactics that political news outlets use to subsidize informative content. These include:

  1. Providing popular and profitable light, entertaining media content to make up for the loses of the political side of the media organization
  2. Having a political party or interest group subsidize or own the organization
  3. Having the government subsidize or own the organization
  4. Having a wealthy individual or business owner cover the organization's losses

During the American Revolution and for several decades thereafter, many newspapers followed models 2 or 3. They were owned by (or received subsides from) either parties, party activists, or local or national governments controlled by their affiliated party. The large-circulation commercial broadsheet newspapers of the 1800s, such as the penny press and the newspaper chains owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer largely followed option 1 (although occasionally they also used option 4).

These newspapers featured coverage of business, crime, accidents, fires, celebrity divorce, suicide, labor, education, religion, sports, recent inventions, diseases, weather, books, theater, music, fashion, recipes, and serialized fiction to go along with whatever political content was included. While Peretz owned the New Republic, it followed model 4. Ownership covered losses, with the trade-off being that Peretz frequently fired the editors and the magazine overall catered to his ideological views. (More about the magazine's ideology below.)

When Hughes purchased the magazine, those who disliked the ideological stances it took under Peretz were hopeful that it would keep essentially its same business model, but now be a journal of conventional modern liberal thought (as the National Review remains a home for conventional modern conservative thought) because it was was now owned by a conventional modern liberal.

But it soon became clear that Hughes wasn't willing to play that role. In the modern media marketplace, the financial losses were larger than he was willing to cover for the sake of ideology. He wanted to make the magazine more profitable. He wanted to follow something more like strategy 1, which modern news organizations like BuzzFeed and, to some extent, Vox have used to subsidize their serious news content. It seems this is what motivated the series of changes (however clumsily implemented) that led to the mass resignations of journalists from the magazine in December 2014.

I think it is possible (though challenging) to provide entertaining content that drives traffic as well as more serious political news, and continue to be an influential home to liberal thought. But Hughes and the new CEO he selected, Guy Vidra, were unable to pull it off. Since their shift in business strategy in fall 2014, trying to increase and broaden the audience in order to lose less money (prompting mass resignations of the previous staff), their web traffic actually declined by more than 50 percent.

The marketplace of ideas

Klein points out that in the '60s through the '80s, policy magazines played important roles in elite ideological debates. He writes:

The American Prospect was labor-liberalism. The Washington Monthly was technocratic neoliberalism. The New Republic oscillated from editor to editor, but tended towards a hawkish, contrarian neoliberalism (hence the "Even the liberal New Republic" meme). The Nation, which is based in New York, and Mother Jones, which is based in San Francisco, were a bit less policy-oriented, but a lot more liberal.

On the right, you had (and still have) the National Review, which tended towards conservative fusionism. The Public Interest was the birthplace of neoconservatism, and that mantle was later taken on by the Weekly Standard.

Broad ideologies, like liberalism and conservatism, comprise a lot of policy positions on different issues. People could make a lot of different plausible logical connections between them. Should those who support income redistribution also support civil rights? Should they also support a big expensive military and overseas presence, or should they oppose military spending on moral grounds or to free up resources for social spending?

History suggests that the answers to these questions evolve over time. In his book, Parties and Ideologies in American Politics, Hans Noel found that the new connections between ideologies and policy positions that opinion writers make lead politicians to make those connections in future decades. Debates about ideologies among political writers eventually define what those ideologies mean in our political system. Over the 20th century and continuing into this one, modern liberalism and conservatism have slowly adopted their current the set of policy positions, at the same time that voters and politicians have sorted themselves so that the Democratic Party is synonymous with modern liberalism and the Republic Party with modern conservatism.

For a long time, the New Republic played a key role in the development of liberal ideology. From the colonial period through the 1800s, none of the dominant American parties or ideologies asserted that more federal government involvement in the economy was the best way to stick up for the interests of the less wealthy and balance the power of big business.

In 1909, Herbert Croly made just this argument in his book, Promise of American Life. In 1914, Croly, along with Walter Lippmann and Walter Weyl, founded the New Republic. The magazine was a primary intellectual force in disseminating this foundation of modern liberalism — that a larger central government could stick up for the little guy. The New Republic helped birth the modern notion of liberalism in the United States, and by the early 1970s it was still synonymous with liberalism and influential in shaping the future of the movement.

One way to see the period when Peretz was owner and editor in chief of the magazine, approximately 1974 to 2010, is that the magazine bet wrong on the future of liberalism. Through these years, the magazine largely kept its commitment to an expanded government with higher taxes and more services, but it deviated from other currents of liberal thought in two key ways.

First, it took an aggressive stance on foreign policy, consistent with Peretz's personal views. This included consistent and strident support for Israel and extended into a more aggressive military posture in all areas.

The magazine endorsed the first Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and the second Gulf War, continuing to support the later two after they had dragged on and on and public support (especially among liberals and Democrats) had eroded. However, after the Vietnam War era, liberal thinking in this area went in the opposite direction. Liberals increasingly believed that committing troops to large overseas wars was too costly and usually counterproductive.

The Peretz-era New Republic also made the wrong ideological bet on race and identity politics. The magazine was slow to hire women and people of color, opposed affirmative action, and supported welfare reform and criminal justice policies that led to mass incarceration. It even (in the most extreme example, and admittedly a move opposed by most of the staff at the time) published an excerpt from The Bell Curve, a 1994 book espousing the genetic mental inferiority of African Americans. Jeet Heer describes the coverage of race in the Peretz era:

Peretz didn't reserve his vitriol for Arabs. In 2009, he described Mexico as "a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counterculture and increasingly violent modes of conflict."

Meanwhile, Peretz's magazine was attributing the problems of black America to Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry, and anonymous welfare mothers, while largely ignoring deindustrialization and mass incarceration. Affirmative action became a regular target; legacy admission of whites to colleges and universities was rarely discussed. Of course, the competing positions on affirmative action deserved an airing. But to attack affirmative action in a magazine with a staff that was almost entirely white and male was to defend not a principle but a troubling status quo.

As the American population and the electoral base of the Democratic Party has grown more and more diverse over time, liberalism turned slowly yet decisively against these positions and toward a more multiracial future.

On both foreign policy and racial politics, the Peretz-era New Republic lost the battle over what it meant to be a liberal. It became so out of sync with liberal thought that it endorsed Joe Lieberman for president in 2004, a candidate so disconnected with Democratic voters that, after not competing in Iowa, he finished fifth in the New Hampshire primary and soon dropped out.

His support for the Iraq War would also lead him to lose the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary when he ran for reelection two years later. Lieberman's hawkish views might have been a good fit among Democratic Party liberals in 1964, but not in 2004.

One way to think about this is as part of an intra–Democratic Party argument that took place in the 1980s and early '90s about what the party needed to do to win presidential elections more often. From 1968 through 1988, the Democrats lost five out of six presidential elections. Many liberal pundits and Democratic politicians debated what the party needed to do to win presidential elections again. The truth was that this streak was a product of essentially random variation in short-term economic conditions close to election time. But pundits and politicians wanted an ideological explanation.

One natural inference was that because the party started losing presidential elections around the time it heartily embraced the civil right movement and turned against the Vietnam War, these changes were a major culprit. To win the presidency again, the Democrats needed to reconstruct their geographic and ideological constituency from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

In the 1980s, many thought that if only the Democratic Party distanced itself from threatening African-American leaders like Jessie Jackson, and demonstrated that it was tough on crime and tough overseas, it would win the presidency by winning back the white Southern voters who were the backbone of Democratic electoral strength before 1964.

This impulse to reconstruct the old coalition can be seen also in the desire to nominate a Southern Democrat for president. "Super Tuesday," in which most Southern states held their presidential primaries on the same day, was set up in 1988 to help a Southern candidate like Al Gore win the nomination. Gore lost in 1988. But Bill Clinton of Arkansas won the nomination and the presidency four years later.

But as the presidency of Barak Obama draws to a close, this fight over the future of liberalism and the Democratic Party is essentially over. The party has an increasingly racially diverse voting base. Racial, gender, and sexual pluralism is a key part of the party's culture and ideology. And there is no renewed interest in the party for overseas ground wars.

As Obama mentioned in his last State of the Union last night (to essentially no dissent from Democrats), he believes we need to remember the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq: that large-scale invasions of other countries are often ineffective and counterproductive.

In the two major ways the Peretz-era New Republic distinguished itself, it lost the battle for the soul of liberalism and the Democratic Party. Where once its views on race and foreign policy represented a faction within liberalism, now they don't seem liberal at all.

In terms of its ideological niche, Hughes seemed to have wanted to make the magazine less political — more of a general interest magazine that also covers politics, like the Atlantic and the New Yorker. But to the extent that he wanted to engage in politics, he seems to have wanted to give up on the losing battles of the Peretz-era and embrace the modern liberal ideological coalition. The best evidence of this is the hiring of writers like Jeet Heer and the attempt to grapple with the publication's legacy of racial conservatism.

Getting back in sync with modern liberalism was a necessary first step toward at least political relevance, if not economic viability. But it turns out that the ideological shift was too little, too late, or that the shift in the economic model was too poorly executed, or likely a combination of both. As a result, Hughes had trouble attracting readers, to some degree before the exodus of Peretz-era staffers and especially afterward.

Now the survival of organization is in serious jeopardy. I don't know for sure how it can be saved. I do think there are several viable economic models for liberal policy journalism. And leaving behind the anachronistic ideological hobbyhorses of the Peretz era will make survival and future relevance more likely.