In the spring of 2007, two era-defining liberal opinion journalists—up-and-coming self-styled “wonk” Ezra Klein, then just 22 years old, and “neoliberalism” godfather Charles Peters, already on the wrong side of 80—met for a discussion swollen with meaning about a magazine neither worked for, The New Republic.
Klein, then at The American Prospect, a progressive D.C. opinion magazine founded in 1990, wanted Peters, founder (in 1969) of The Washington Monthly, to answer for the way neoliberalism had degenerated into lefty-on-lefty contrarianism. “What has happened, at least to some younger folks like me,” Klein said, “is that at times this appears to have become not an honest critique, but a positioning device. The idea that it’s not about the quality of the argument, but the display: You show honesty by attacking Democrats, you show independence by attacking liberals. At times I think that has been a damaging impulse on our side.”
Peters, already speaking in the past tense about Washington Monthly–style neoliberalism, wanted to make one key difference clear: “We were not Marty Peretz, Peter Beinart, and Michael Kelly.”
Those three men were, respectively, the owner of The New Republic (TNR) for most of 1974 to 2011, the editor of TNR from 1999 to 2006, and the (conservative) editor of Progressivism’s flagship magazine from 1996 to 1997. Under Peretz’s tenure, The New Republic gobbled up a series of bright young journalists first groomed by Peters at The Washington Monthly—Michael Kinsley, Mickey Kaus, Gregg Easterbrook—and launched a series of lefty-infuriating journalistic crusades against Lyndon Johnson’s welfare policies and Hillary Clinton’s health care reforms, and in favor of the forcible overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The New Republic’s full-throated support for the Iraq war (Beinart wrote a rallying cover story that became a book entitled The Good Fight) became the last straw for a new breed of left-of-center commentators who a generation before would have been lining up to work for what was once referred to as “the in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” The likes of Ezra Klein mocked TNR’s reliable hawkishness as “mercilessly frivolous”; Peretz returned the favor by describing Klein as one of those “cold Jews or almost Jews or non-Jews who cannot stomach Zionism because it is of this world.”
The magazine’s circulation plummeted an estimated 40 percent during George W. Bush’s presidency, triggering a series of staff cuts and ownership shuffles. Its brand of progressive-tweaking contrarianism seemed dangerously out of step with the rising tide of earnest, activist-government Obamaism. Markos Moulitsas, proprietor of the popular liberal netroots site The Daily Kos, spoke for many when he declared in 2006 that “TNR’s defection to the Right is now complete.”
Well, those days are now gone. In March 2012, Peretz sold the magazine to baby-faced Facebook billionaire and Obama social media guru Chris Hughes. After nearly a year of hiring, expanding, and reorganizing, Hughes (who, like Peretz, gave himself the titular role of “editor in chief”) unveiled a redesigned New Republic, featuring on the cover a laughably softball interview that Hughes and TNR Editor Franklin Foer conducted with President Barack Obama. (Sample question: “You spoke last summer about your election potentially breaking the fever of the Republicans. The hope being that, once you were reelected, they would seek to do more than just block your presidency. Do you feel that you’ve made headway on that?”)
The second redesigned issue featured a cover concept as fresh as a Ronnie Ray-gun joke: Against an all-white background a small headline read, “The Republicans: The Party of White People.” Another headline tease above the masthead spoke volumes about the magazine’s ideological realignment within Washington journalism: “Ezra Klein Cannot Be Stopped.”
Peretz reacted by lamenting in The Wall Street Journal that “I don’t recognize the magazine I used to own.” A liberal blogosphere that was raised on anti-Peretz jokes erupted in collective snickers. (“So admirable of Marty Peretz to help the new TNR win back readers he alienated,” came a typical Twitter reaction from Center for American Progress analyst Matt Duss.)
But the truth Peretz alluded to was more interesting than his critics—or probably even Peretz himself—grasped. An entire valuable if flawed era in American journalism and liberalism has indeed come to a close. The reformist urge to cross-examine Democratic policy ideas has fizzled out precisely at the time when those ideas are both ascendant and as questionable as ever. Progressivism has reverted to a form that would have been recognizable to Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann when they founded The New Republic a century ago: an intellectual collaborator in the “responsible” exercise of state power.
In 1909 a 40-year-old journalist and philosophical gadfly named Herbert Croly published a book entitled The Promise of American Life, which championed a strong central government—preferably headed by a charismatic president—to stand along with big labor as a bulwark against capitalism and “extreme individualism.” The book caught the eye of charismatic former president Theodore Roosevelt, who expropriated Croly’s call for a “new nationalism” in a famous 1910 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in which he laid out the philosophy behind what would become his “Bull Moose” run for the White House in 1912.
In one of the most power-aggrandizing passages in the history of American political speechcraft, Roosevelt thundered that “the New Nationalism…is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from over division of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock. This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare. It demands of the judiciary that it shall be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property, just as it demands that the representative body shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people.”
(A century and one year later, Barack Obama, who first ran for president as a critic of George W. Bush’s abuse of executive power, would trek to Osawatomie “to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own.”)
Backed by the family of Willard and Dorothy Whitney Strait, which made its fortune through the Morgan banking interests and Standard Oil, Herbert Croly approached a young T.R. fan named Walter Lippmann about starting a magazine of ideas to champion the New Nationalism. In November 1914, just as World War I was getting under way, The New Republic made its debut, mailing copies to fewer than 1,000 addresses. By the end of the war in 1918, circulation would stand at 40,000, a baseline around which it has been zig-zagging ever since.
Then as now, the magazine represented a marriage between New York literary ambitions and Washington power politics. Judge Learned Hand mingled in its pages with critic Edmund Wilson and economist John Maynard Keynes. Lippmann, on his way to becoming the most popular public policy intellectual in the country, developed into a horse-whisperer for politicians, transferring his fealty from Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson so quickly and thoroughly that he was already writing speeches for the president by 1916 and working full-time for his war cabinet the following year.