The Death of Contrarianism

The New Republic returns to its Progressive roots as a cheerleader for state power.


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.

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.

So what can we expect from the new New Republic? Judging from its output since the redesign, this is a magazine that is prepared to spend (and therefore lose) more money than it has in a generation, which is good news for liberal journalists at least. Top-shelf writers Michael Lewis, Walter Kirn, and Michael Kinsley graced the Obama interview issue; Sam Tanenhaus and Julia Ioffe anchored the next.

But the political discussion proceeds as if the failed liberal experiments of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s never happened. "Progressives have achieved the impossible: They balanced California's books," proclaims David Dayen, brazenly ignoring the Golden State's $28 billion wall of debt and estimated $300 billion in unfunded pension liabilities (not to mention the fact that the balanced-budget claim was based on the kind of overly optimistic projections that have long caused eye rolling among Sacramento journalists). Walter Kirn spends thousands of words elegantly describing the nuanced cultural aspects of being a lifelong gun owner, pointing out that much of the anti-gun policy debate is hysterical, but then punts on the policy conclusion: Owners should accept feel-good gun restrictions, Kirn says, in order to look "civilized" and "reasonable" to the rest of the country.

The great irony is that The New Republic is repudiating contrarian neoliberalism precisely when we need it most. Obama proposes in his State of the Union address to jack up the minimum wage to $9 an hour, and instead of surveying the vast skeptical academic literature, or asking (pace Charles Peters) whether such liberal gestures are "more about preserving their own gains than about helping those in need," TNR columnist Timothy Noah declares, "Raise the Minimum Wage! And make it higher than what Obama just proposed." The president announces in the same speech a plan to create universal, federally funded preschool, and instead of reflecting on the well-documented failures of the K–12 system, Jonathan Cohn congratulates the president, because "first somebody has to start the conversation." A more accurate take: First somebody has to ignore the conversation of the previous four decades.

In the spring of 2010, liberal commentators began advancing a meme that the conservative movement's intellectual wing was heading toward "epistemic closure," shutting out any viewpoints that didn't match their skewed version of reality. Paul Krugman and Eric Alterman deploy the term readily to mock the closed-minded groupthink of their opponents. Like a lot of partisan insults, the closure crack contained some truth: Witness the conservative-journalism freakout in February over a group, called "Friends of Hamas," that eventually turned not to exist. But it was also a reminder of the Pendulum Rule of politics: You quickly become that which you criticize.

Somewhere, some day, a left-of-center critique of the Obamaite consensus will emerge, perhaps even one that revives the neoliberal economic ideas currently out of fashion. It's hard to know where the epistemic opening will come from, but we can say for certain where it won't: The New Republic.