The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Like a lot of people who write on the internet, I also once worked at The New Republic. In my case it was for one summer, between college and law school, and I was a lowly intern working for "TNR Online." (I guess that was the beginning of The New Republic's transformation to a "vertically integrated digital media company"?)
I'd gotten the job because of one professor who had a lot of faith in me and some writing I'd done in college. It was at TNR Online where I published my first articles about law. (All of them, ironically, have disappeared since.) It was at TNR where I first had a job that was intellectually hard. It was at TNR where I first had a job that required me to stay late at the office, and it made me want to stay late at the office.
When I started law school the next year, I started to dig into the New Republic's history. My first year of law school, I used to spend nights and weekends in the Sterling Library archives, finding and devouring old New Republic columns by Alexander Bickel. For me, Bickel's columns will always be the real New Republic.
So for me the New Republic has been fading for a long time. But last week's announcement of mass departures is the final blow. Given how much an intellectual institution is composed of its members and its social norms, I think it is fair to say that whatever remained of the institution of The New Republic is now dead.
Chris Hughes, the stranded owner of The New Republic, has an op-ed in the Post that I guess is supposed to be a defense of his regime. But while it contains the word "institution" eleven times, it doesn't really contain any substantive content or reason to believe that Hughes understands or values anything that was ever good about The New Republic. (Jack Goldsmith calls Hughes's op-ed "just platitudes".)
My reaction here is more sadness than specific criticism of Hughes. While I'm sad to see The New Republic go, the political coverage had been slipping for some time. To be sure, that wasn't nearly as true of the "back of the book," run by the seemingly-immortal Leon Wieseltier. As Josh Chafetz says:
The New Republic's back of the book was motivated by nothing so much as an abiding belief that ideas matter, that culture matters, and that if you write about them in a deep and serious way, you can make other people see that and how they matter. This is a – perhaps the – liberal project, in the broadest and most inclusive sense of that term.
Indeed, the back of the book was probably the most significant remnant of the old New Republic, and its destruction is the saddest part of the institution's demise.
There's also lots of criticism bouncing around about how self-satisfied, arrogant, and elitist The New Republic was. Fair enough. But that arrogance was also bound up with that "abiding belief that ideas matter."
Here's one more story: The summer I interned at The New Republic they were working on the "Were We Wrong?" issue. The staff had supported Bush's War in Iraq, and many of them had come to wonder if they'd made a terrible mistake. I was seen and not heard in all these discussions, but what struck me was the moral seriousness with which everybody thought about the project. People unironically used the phrase: "blood on our hands."
Now of course there is something ridiculously arrogant about that. The New Republic probably did not cause the Iraq War. But at the same time, there was something profound about intellectuals taking their own ideas – and their own mistakes – that seriously. People at The New Republic genuinely worried that being wrong about politics and ideas could cause death. Ridiculous or not, the world needs more people who think ideas are that important.
Lots more good stuff has been written about The New Republic's demise (intellectuals and journalists mourn their own), like this from Jack Goldsmith, this from Paul Horwitz, this from Dan Drezner, and this from Megan McArdle.
But the thing that seems most appropriate now is this announcement from the magazine's founding:
The New Republic is frankly an experiment. It is an attempt to find national audience for a journal of interpretation and opinion. Many people believe that such a journal is out of place in America; that if a periodical is to be popular it must first of all be entertaining, or that if it is to be serious, it must be detached and select. Yet when the plan of The New Republic was being discussed it received spontaneous welcome from people in all parts of the country. They differed in theories and programmes; but they agreed that if The New Republic could bring sufficient enlightenment to the problems of the nation and sufficient sympathy to its complexities, it would serve all those who feel the challenge of our time. On the conviction that this is possible The New Republic is founded. Its success inevitably depends on public support, but if we are unable to achieve that success under the conditions essential to sound and disinterested thinking, we shall discontinue our experiment and make way for better men. Meanwhile, we set out with faith.
The bad news is that The New Republic experiment has finally failed. But the good news is that there are still a lot of smart people who care passionately about ideas and about rebuking error. They just write elsewhere now.
(P.S. Sorry about the hyperbolic post-title, but the chance to quote Grand Moff Tarkin was irresistible.)