The problem with The New Republic

The New Republic is coming to an end. And the autopsies have begun. So have the critiques. But the real problem with The New Republic is not that it was racist, though it was. It’s not that it was filled with warmongers, though it was. It’s not that it punched hippies, though it did. No, the real problem with The New Republic is that for the last three decades, it has had no energy. It has had no real project. The last time The New Republic had a project was in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when it was in the journalistic vanguard of what was then called neoliberalism (not what we now call neoliberalism). That is what a great magazine of politics and culture does: it creates a project, it fashions a sensibility. The Spectator did it in the early 18th century, Partisan Review in the 1930s did it, Dissent in the 1950s did it, and The New Republic in the 1970s/1980s did it. I’m not saying that I like that last project; I don’t. I’m just saying that it was a project, and that it was a creation. Love them or hate them, great magazines gather the diverse and disparate energies of a polity and a culture and give them focus. They shape assumptions, they direct attention, they articulate a direction. The New Republic hasn’t done that since I was a teenager. (That’s the irony/inanity of Stephen Glass’ famed—really, fabled—fabulism: there was nothing fabulistic about it at all. His lies weren’t stretchers. They were social truths: they played to, repeated, every conventional assumption of the age of which the magazine was capable.) That’s why virtually every obituary for the magazine that’s been written by people of roughly my age opens or closes with a memoir of one’s high school experience; the entire constituency of the magazine seems to be suffering from a Judd Apatow-like case of arrested development. In the last three decades, The New Republic has generated controversy, clickbait, talk of the town. It’s sponsored solid journalism, smart criticism, bad policy and bloody wars. God knows, it has not suffered for talent or intelligence. But what it hasn’t done is create a sense or sensibility, a deep style in the Nietzschean sense. It has instead been living off the borrowed energy and dead labor of its past. It has long ceased to be the place where the intellectual action is. To mourn its demise now is to mourn something that disappeared years ago.


  1. poco December 5, 2014 at 10:43 pm | #

    Oy! If you are going to talk from The Spectator to The New Republic, you gotta talk about Scrutiny here. Really, dude, if you are talking about journals with projects that were supremely influential, you just cant ignore the Leavises and Scrutiny. Love it or hate it, the journal shaped English Lit. criticism for the next 100 years!!

    And yeah, glad to see TNR die with all of its horrible influence.

    • James December 6, 2014 at 5:25 am | #

      Wow! someone mentioning Scrutiny! I binge- read Scrutiny from the first issue to the last, practically cover to cover, and I’m not even a literature person. I found the critique of literary output from a principled and unified standpoint fascinating and enlightening. It really does fit the bill Corey specifies, creating a sensibility with an impact; and they had a clear idea of how literary art could influence and interact with developments in the wider culture, especially with regard to poetry, but also fiction like that of Lawrence, for which there seems to be no counterpart today. So I second that nomination.

      I’m nobody, so who cares, but I always preferred NYRB to TNR.

  2. L December 5, 2014 at 11:38 pm | #

    The last time The New Republic had a project was in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when it was in the journalistic vanguard of what was then called neoliberalism (not what we now call neoliberalism).

    Sorry, mate. You lost me there. How has the definition of neoliberalism changed from the late ’70s to now? Except in so far as even much of the left is unable to tell the difference between New Liberalism and neoliberalism, or Eisenhower New Republicanism for that matter.

    • SocraticGadfly December 6, 2014 at 11:14 am | #

      I agree. Corey, how is neoliberalism back then different from today? I’ve seen Carter called the first neoliberal president (and it arguably fits) using standards of today. So, yes, if there is supposedly a different neoliberalism back then, how was it different?

      • foppejan2 December 6, 2014 at 6:55 pm | #

        What is there that needs to be argued for? Hegemony is boring..

    • William Neil December 7, 2014 at 1:16 pm | #

      Thanks L, I’m with you.

  3. Bill December 6, 2014 at 2:49 am | #

    The problem I have with the “obituaries” is there claim that THR wad liberal. It hasn’t been remotely liberal in about 50 years, when I first read it.

  4. Bill Michtom December 6, 2014 at 2:52 am | #

    The only problem I have with reading about the end of TNR is the obits that claim it was a liberal outlet. It hasn’t been since shortly after I started reading it about 50 years ago.

    • BillR December 6, 2014 at 3:38 am | #

      Liberalism and racism have gone hand in hand since the times of John Locke, if not even earlier:

      The racism inherent to liberalism is not just a matter of oversights in its founding texts. Liberalism as a set of practices has always been intimately entwined with racism. As the Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo shows “Slavery is not something that persisted despite the success of the three liberal revolutions [in Holland, England and the United States]. On the contrary, it experienced its maximum development following that success.” He also notes, in passing, that in South Africa, liberal forms of government emerged precisely as racial exclusion and subordination were entrenched. Losurdo concludes that liberalism only ever sought to apply its commitment to equality within the limits of “a restricted sacred space” and not in the realm of “profane space”, space that constituted most of the world.

      • halginsberg1963 December 6, 2014 at 8:36 am | #

        Sadly, the history of “progress” in the Western world is much as you describe BillR. From the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights to the Code Napoleon through colonialism, some are pushed farther back so others can move forward. Nevertheless, there are two obvious flaws in your attempt to turn Robin’s comment against liberalism.

        First, the greatest liberals – David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King – fought for a better life for all people. They were not racists. Second, while many liberals have not always fought the good fight. Their motives, intent, and affect have virtually always been far superior to those of their conservative counterparts.

      • empty December 6, 2014 at 3:40 pm | #

        Did you really mean to include John Stuart Mills. Who in his ironically titled “On Liberty” states:

        Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.

        justifying colonial domination of the lesser races.

    • BillR December 6, 2014 at 9:40 am | #

      At least most Conservatives don’t feel the need to sugarcoat their racism in a manner several of the folks you cited (esp. Hume, Mill, and Eleanor Roosevelt) do. Here’s the fount of “moral clarity” for Conservatives, Sir Winston Churchill testifying in Parliament shortly before World War II broke out on the rights of Palestinians and other non-white peoples:

      I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.

      No wonder he’s lionized in all English-speaking nations as the greatest defender of what Domenico Losurdo has labeled “Master Race Democracy”.

      • BillR December 6, 2014 at 9:50 am | #

        A nice Christmas gift, though a bit expensive, that adds bit of context to the Churchill quote:

      • BillR December 6, 2014 at 10:16 am | #

        There’s a nice, succint clip on youtube (search for ‘ Domenico Losurdo What is Liberalism’) worth checking out.

      • Bill Michtom December 6, 2014 at 10:24 am | #

        While I mostly agree with your previous comment, using Churchill as an example of anything other than racist imperialism is, to my mind, illegitimate. Over the course of his life, he was one of the world’s great villains.

        OTOH, modern US liberals were/are overtly anti-racist.

  5. Stephen Zielinski December 6, 2014 at 7:28 am | #

    Let the dead bury the dead.

  6. SocraticGadfly December 6, 2014 at 11:27 am | #

    Corey, I would modify your thesis. I’d say that it was rather that its intellectual steam got adopted by so much of the modern GOP, as well as neoliberal Democrats, that its one big idea became an inside-the-Beltway commonplace.

    My additional thoughts:

    That includes my prediction that Chris Hedges’ end result will be, mayhaps, a highbrow Huff Post, more possibly a highbrow Daily Mail.

  7. jonnybutter December 6, 2014 at 3:01 pm | #

    the real problem with The New Republic is that for the last three decades, it has had no energy.

    What Corey is saying about TNR is true of the liberal project in general. And when you have only two political parties in a country, they are both responsible for everything. I hold American liberals only slightly less responsible than conservatives for our 30+ year reactionary ‘moment’. I hold liberals *100%* responsible for the fact that even after 30+ years, the reactionary cycle never seems to end.

    I don’t think MLK was a liberal. I also am not so sure, Bill R, that racism is an *essential* part of liberalism. Reminding us that exemplary liberals were racist doesn’t show that it is. I see a lot of problems with liberalism, and don’t think of myself as a liberal; and I am perfectly aware of how central a role in the liberal project (when it had energy) racism had. But you can sincerely try to be anti-racist and still be a liberal.

    • jonnybutter December 6, 2014 at 4:57 pm | #

      My point is for both BillR and Bill M: simply being non-racist, or trying sincerely to be so, doesn’t get a liberal off the ideological hook. See Corey’s post about Aziz Rana, and the links therein.

    • Roquentin December 6, 2014 at 11:01 pm | #

      I’d agree with this. As often as I criticize liberalism, I don’t think racism is an essential part of its ideological tenants. It doesn’t necessarily exclude racism either, but that’s not the same thing.

      Also, I thought about Chris Hedges “Death of the Liberal Class” when reading this. There’s plenty I don’t agree with Hedges on, but he’s quite adept at recognizing where the problem is.

  8. J. Otto Pohl December 7, 2014 at 9:44 am | #

    Actually all forms of liberalism have been exclusionary to some extent and exclusion by liberals on the basis of race has been common since the 18th century. It may be less exclusionary than other older ideologies it was replacing in the 18th century, but complete equality of all men and women has never been on the table in any version of liberalism. One of the reason why ideologies like socialism, feminism, and Pan-Africanism developed was that they wanted greater equality for certain groups of people who were subjected to defacto inferior treatment under the liberalism of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Liberalism in the 21st century still does not support complete reacial equality. Given its history it would be surprising if it did. The exclusionary nature of 18th century liberalism by the way was one of the topics I covered extensively in my Early Modern European History class this year. Africans seem much more perceptive than Americans on these types of issues.

  9. Roquentin December 7, 2014 at 11:52 am | #

    For everyone making arguments about liberalism and racism, couldn’t you make similar arguments even about socialism? Or nearly any other -ism? I know many would disagree with me, but National Socialism and fascism did borrow a certain degree of their ideas from socialism and the worker’s movement. Even now, if you look at the European far right in a party like the National Front in France, True Finns in Finland, or Jobbik in Hungary they are all vaguely racist and anti-capitalist parties. If you want to say liberalism and racism aren’t mutually exclusive, then you should probably level the same accusation at socialism.

    As I stated above, racism is not an essential part of either.

    • J. Otto Pohl December 7, 2014 at 12:00 pm | #

      Yes, an argument can definitely be made that Marxist socialism with its emphasis on workers, a category that did not exist in many non-European socieities, was also ethnically and racially exclusionary in theory. It definitely was in practice in the USSR, PRC, Vietnam, and other actually existing socialist states.

      • jonnybutter December 7, 2014 at 1:46 pm | #

        The distinction between theory and practice was my point.

        I hope we can agree that it’s well worth it to think hard about what the hell the *theory* actually is. Once you can call things by their right name, it’s easier to decide what you prefer. You might have heard of a little book dedicated to the idea that the right name of what we call ‘conservative’ is ‘reactionary’? At the risk of making heads explode, I think we also have to face the fact that the right name of what we call ‘liberal’ (in the US) is ‘conservative’. There are nominally socialist parties in Europe which are also conservative. In the US it was actually a reactionary idea, I think, to deliberately drain our political terms of meaning (liberal liberal liberal liberal). But it looks like it is liberalism itself which devalues and degrades politics.

        I would think lots of ideologies could end up ‘walking hand in hand’ with racism. I do think liberalism might be more ‘at risk’, because of its appalling tendency – or the tendency of an easy vulgarization – to put an actual dollar price on everything, to reduce complexity to a dollar amount. Liberalism, or perhaps the just slightly vulgar version of it, ultimately knows the price of everything and the value of nothing (so to speak). The liberals – in practise – invented their racism to rationalize exploitation; what counted was money and power. For the liberal, slavery (and labor, btw!) was/is the inverted categorical imperative.

        I admire some Hume, Mill, and Smith. I don’t find Locke broadly fascinating, but of course he’s important politically. But the problem with liberalism is its essential conservatism, in the (Western) scheme of things.

        I only commented in the first place because I find that we all ignore the elephant in the room sometimes and argue around a term for which we don’t all have the same definition! Definition is danged hard!

        (Luckily, Corey reads Locke so you don’t have to.)

  10. pwlsax December 10, 2014 at 2:59 pm | #

    (That’s the irony/inanity of Stephen Glass’ famed—really, fabled—fabulism: there was nothing fabulistic about it at all. His lies weren’t stretchers. They were social truths: they played to, repeated, every conventional assumption of the age of which the magazine was capable.)

    Thanks for the link to Buzz Bissinger’s amazing piece, tho the above is not really a point Bissinger made. He portrayed Glass as a man focused on ingratiating himself with coworkers and settling scores with a achievement-obsessed upbringing. About all Glass seemed to care about in his writing was that it be “better” than the truth.

  11. The Gospel of Barney December 11, 2014 at 1:50 pm | #

    How true!

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