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Along with The Nation (founded in 1865), The New Republic helped create the template for the modern magazine of political opinion, a publishing niche reason joined in 1968. Others in the category include the conservative National Review (1955), the left-investigative Mother Jones (1976), and the neoconservative Weekly Standard (1995). Opinion magazines tend to be slim, light on advertisements, heavy on text, and dependent on the largesse of either millionaire owners (as with The New Republic) or nonprofit donors (like reason).
Most of the time, including much of The New Republic’s history, these explicitly ideological publications stay reliably tethered to a political faction or set of ideas. That began to change with the arrival of The Washington Monthly.
Charles Peters, a lawyer, Army veteran, and politician, worked for the federal government from 1962 to 1968 as head evaluator of the newly launched Peace Corps. That work seared into Peters an appreciation of the vast gulf between high-minded intentions and the messy realities of government. With The Washington Monthly, Peters would take that critical-thinking ethic and spread it all across the workings of the federal bureaucracy.
“The government’s struggle to reform itself has been the continuing political story of the 1970’s,” Peters co-wrote in the preface to a 1976 collection of Monthly articles, “but often the story has a familiar ending. No sooner has an agency been set up to save the environment, deliver the mails, cure the sick, or discover new sources of energy than it begins to behave like the many other government agencies, which were created years ago in similar bursts of enthusiasm but quickly crossed the threshold into bureaucratic ossification.”
The late ’60s and early ’70s were perhaps the high-water mark for liberal disaffection with Democratic politics, a ferment that produced a creative burst of art, policy, and journalism. The Pentagon Papers, released in 1971, revealed serial Democratic-administration treachery in the escalation of the Vietnam War. David Halberstam’s bestselling The Best and the Brightest, released in 1972, eviscerated the very notion of elite, technocratic management. Hollywood was coughing up cynical anti-authoritarian classics like The Conversation and The Candidate. Ralph Nader, Teddy Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter backed industrial deregulation in the name of breaking up government-managed oligopolies. Skepticism was making the world a better place.
The willingness to take on liberal sacred cows proved tonic to a generation of skeptical political journalists, who saw their project as the patriotic elevation of truth above faction. It also led to some unorthodox conclusions about redistribution, religion, and race.
Charles Peters summed up some of these ideas in “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto,” a 1983 Washington Monthly piece that reads today like a message from a different liberal planet. “We no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business,” he wrote. “Liberalism has become a movement of those who have arrived, who care more about preserving their own gains than about helping those in need.”
From a libertarian’s perspective, this neoliberalism—much like the Bill Clinton–led “New Democrat” movement it helped inspire—was a mixed bag. Calls for scaling back old-age entitlements and overhauling union-hobbled public schools went hand in hand with support for tough-on-crime policies and the military draft. But as a journalistic and policy-seeking impulse, it was a breath of fresh air that helped bring the Democratic Party, and therefore the country, out of the dead end of trade-union liberalism. It also had a lot more to do with Marty Peretz’s New Republic than either Peters or Ezra Klein were ready to admit.
“We were for the Contras in Nicaragua; wary of affirmative action,” Peretz recalled in his Wall Street Journal lament. “For military intervention in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur; alarmed about the decline of the family. The New Republic was also an early proponent of gay rights. We were neoliberals.”
Peretz took self-critical liberalism so seriously that in 1991 he hired the openly conservative Andrew Sullivan to edit the magazine. Under the leadership of Sullivan and hawkish successor Michael Kelly, the liberal stalwart got heavy into the Clinton-bashing business, most famously in an influential and award- winning 1994 HillaryCare hit piece by the Manhattan Institute’s Elizabeth McCaughey titled “No Exit: What The Clinton Plan Will Do for You.”
By the time the Iraq war came around, the magazine’s by-now institutional contrarianism had combined with Peretz’s vociferous Zionism to alienate a generation of progressives. Young lefties were sick of Democrats being apologetic about liberalism and constantly currying favor with Republican hawks and conservative economists. Ezra Klein, then producing op-ed pieces with headlines like “Give Bigger Government a Chance,” poured salt on neoliberalism’s grave just prior to meeting Charles Peters.
“Neoliberalism is not simply temperamentally unsuited to the times; it is an ideology that failed,” Klein wrote. “Substantively, it didn’t move the country very far forward at all. Its lasting legacy will be the elevation of counterintuitive argumentation and sardonic detachment in the press corps.”
The last remaining trace of neoliberalism’s contrarian bent may be a running joke on Twitter about Slate, the publication former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley founded in 1996. The hashtag #slatepitches is tacked onto tweets that are self-consciously counterintuitive purely for the sake of being counterintuitive, such as “The State of the Union is an important and interesting speech” (as Foreign Policy Managing Editor Blake Hounshell wrote in February). In reality, Slate’s political and policy coverage these days is about as unpredictable as you’d expect from a publication whose staffers preferred Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a count of 29 to 2.
Some of The New Republic’s rapprochement with the left began prior to Chris Hughes’ arrival. In 2006 then-new Editor Franklin Foer (who quit in 2010 and was rehired by Hughes last year) made one of his first acts repudiating Elizabeth McCaughey’s HillaryCare piece, announcing in an editorial that the magazine’s new No. 1 priority would be “to begin [in] the very spot where liberalism left off a decade ago: Guaranteeing every American citizen access to affordable, high-quality medical care.”
Soon came another apology, about Iraq: “The New Republic deeply regrets its early support for this war. The past three years have complicated our idealism and reminded us of the limits of American power and our own wisdom.” By the time newbie Hughes bought the magazine, it had become one of the biggest journalistic cheerleaders for ObamaCare and was regularly churning out the kind of Keynesian economic treatises that made Charles Peters’ skin crawl back in the heyday of neoliberalism.