What the haters don't understand about The New Republic
Let's take a moment to imagine an alternative American reality.
In this imaginary America, there are two ideologically pure political parties — the Liberty Party and the Equality Party.
The Liberty Party opposes government power everywhere except where it is absolutely necessary — mainly a minimal military for national defense (just big enough to protect the borders of the United States from invasion by foreign armies), and national infrastructure projects too large in cost and extent for any private entity to undertake. Other than that, the Liberty Party advocates allowing the private sector (corporations, small businesses, individuals) to do what it wants, with very little government regulation and very low taxes. It would abolish Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act, while using rhetoric to encourage churches and other voluntary associations to provide charity and other forms of social support to the poor and indigent. It opposes drug laws. It supports absolute abortion rights, universal free trade, and open immigration.
The Equality Party, by contrast, believes in the virtues of big government as a guarantor of social justice. It favors a generous welfare state and universal health insurance. It advocates using robust government regulation of the economy and commerce to protect individuals from various forms of social, economic, medical, and environmental harm. The Equality Party favors a high minimum wage, a strongly progressive income tax, highly restrictive immigration, and the use of tariffs and other forms of protectionism to ensure that American workers are shielded from the most disruptive consequences of globalization. For similar reasons, the party supports a large and well-funded military, which it proudly and unapologetically deploys around the world to protect the nation's interests and to spread American ideals of equality to every corner of the globe.
My point in engaging in this little thought experiment is to highlight the contingency and ideological incoherence of our current partisan alignments. There is no reasonable explanation for why Republicans treat the government as incompetent and potentially tyrannical when it regulates the economy, but place boundless faith in it when it seeks to regulate the reproductive choices of women or transform whole nations through military occupation. The same could be said about Democratic faith in using government to protect American citizens from economic harm, while opposing immigration restrictions and looking skeptically at the use of American military might to advance the nation's interests abroad.
Why, then, do so many on both sides of the ideological divide foolishly treat the current configuration of the two parties as holy writ and respond to deviations from the established alignment as evidence of treason?
That question has been much on my mind in the days since The New Republic imploded. To judge by the furious denunciations of the magazine and cries of "good riddance" emanating from the left, you'd think that its ideological heterodoxy (which became much more muted after Facebook multimillionaire Chris Hughes took it over two years ago) was evidence of an unpardonable sin. It was, in fact, one of the magazine's greatest strengths — and the primary thing, besides the extraordinary cultural coverage that appeared in the back of the book, for which it deserves to be remembered and appreciated.
The most common left-liberal line on TNR — a line sometimes endorsed, inexplicably, by otherwise fair-minded observers — is that in the years after Martin Peretz bought the magazine in 1974, the magazine abandoned its identity as a proudly liberal magazine and began a rightward migration. This migration supposedly began with an editorial endorsement in 1986 of Ronald Reagan's policy of arming the Nicaraguan Contras; gathered steam with the publication of an essay in early 1994 by Betsy McCaughey that helped to sink health care reform under Bill Clinton and an excerpt later that year of the notorious book The Bell Curve, which suggested that genetics are responsible for differences in racial intelligence; and culminated in a full-throated endorsement of the Iraq War, complete with regular sneering attacks on the war's critics under the heading "Idiocy Watch." By the early years of the 2000s, the story goes, TNR was basically a neoconservative magazine indistinguishable from William Kristol's The Weekly Standard.
Lost in this tidy story are the following facts: TNR published in its own pages a number of attacks on its own editorial about the Contras; the excerpt of The Bell Curve ran alongside nearly two dozen essays, many of them severely critical of the book, its argument, and its methods; and the magazine's stance on the Iraq War was inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom among both Democrats and Republicans during the run-up to the invasion in early 2003. Furthermore, the magazine forthrightly expressed contrition for its stance just over a year later, in June 2004.
The point isn't to defend the magazine for these or any other specific editorial decisions over the years, but simply to point out that its defense of ostensibly conservative positions has never been uniform or unambiguous. And then, of course, there's the magazine's long track record of endorsing same-sex marriage (which Andrew Sullivan first defended in a 1989 cover story), a strict separation of church and state, and (aside from the noteworthy exception of McCaughey's story) universal health insurance. If The New Republic is a neoconservative magazine, it's one that does a wildly inconsistent job of advancing the agenda favored by the political right.
But wait, say the critics: TNR's foreign policy problem is about far more than the Contras or the Iraq War! The magazine has been positively war happy, seemingly eager to advocate military action anywhere and everywhere it detects an injustice. And then there's the knee-jerk defense of Israel, which sometimes (in the case of Peretz's blog posts in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks) veered into expressions of outright anti-Arab racism. Surely this shows that TNR has long ceased to be a genuinely liberal magazine!
I certainly won't stoop to defend Peretz's outbursts. And as my regular readers know, I don't at all endorse the expansive agenda of humanitarian interventionism that nearly always guided the magazine's commentary on foreign policy.
Yet it is important to recognize that nothing about TNR's idealistically hawkish approach to foreign affairs was especially "conservative." On the contrary, it was also the outlook of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson — card-carrying liberals all. After the Vietnam debacle and the rise of skepticism among Democrats about armed intervention abroad, many supporters of Cold War liberalism decamped to the Republican Party, voting for Ronald Reagan, supporting his strong stand against the Soviet Union, endorsing supply-side economics, allying with religious conservatives, embracing populist demagoguery. These were and are the neocons.
The New Republic, by contrast, was a magazine by Cold War liberals who remained liberals — who didn't jump ship to the conservative movement and the Republican Party, who dissented from some aspects of Great Society liberalism but not others, who didn't become neocons. That made TNR somewhat more conservative on some issues than mainstream liberal opinion, but on most issues far more liberal than National Review, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and the other leading journals of the right.
It also made TNR by far the most interesting, unpredictable, ideologically heterodox, and intellectually stimulating magazine in the country for years on end — provided that one was willing to be provoked and goaded into thought by smart, sharp, passionate argument.
And that, more than anything else, is why it came to inspire so much hatred. For all of our vaunted love of conflict and pluralistic diversity, most of us insulate ourselves from genuine provocation, exposing ourselves mainly to opinions we already agree with. (The internet is a great facilitator of self-segregation.) From time to time we'll permit ourselves to read a nasty rant from our ideological opponents, but we do so mainly for the sake of recommitting ourselves to our settled, certain causes — to confirm our own rightness, and righteousness. We certainly don't do it out of an urge, or even willingness, to scramble our commitments or inspire an exigent reconsideration of our views by contact with the strongest arguments on the other side of the aisle.
Reading TNR week after week could be infuriating, but it was a salutary fury — the fury that accompanies hard thinking (and rethinking).
Can we really be surprised that the magazine ended up with more than its share of enemies?