My initial reaction to the collapse of The New Republic was hardly unique given that I’m someone who cobbles together a living by writing, teaching and being generally committed to a life of the mind. I felt professional solidarity with the host of esteemed editors and journalists who found themselves facing industry forces beyond their control and, as a result, a bleak future of diminished expectations. Many of them resigned in protest after witnessing the low-rent treatment shown to top editor Franklin Foer by the 31-year-old Chris Hughes, a billionaire by happenstance who lucked out by sharing a room at Harvard College with the founder of Facebook.
This solidarity is borne of experience. Like many other journalists, I have been hired and fired plenty of times over the last 15 years, engaged in unpaid internships promising “valuable experience” and persuaded that writing for “exposure” in lieu of pay might “lead to something better in the future.” Such precariousness is the nature of our age, an epoch of extreme inequality, says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “Since the current recovery began in 2009, all economic gains have gone to the top 10 percent,” he wrote recently. “We’re in the first economic upturn on record in which 90 percent of Americans have become worse off.”
Yet I am one of the lucky ones. “Knowledge workers,” as we are sometimes called, are among the last to feel the pain of conservative economic policies launched during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Normal working families have felt more, and more intense, pain. David Cay Johnston is among the few to bother understanding this. He wrote in The Washington Spectator that, “The reason the richest of the rich are enjoying such immense incomes is not because they suddenly got smarter and built better mousetraps. And it certainly is not because the vast majority all decided to become slackers. It is because of government policy.”
So in Chris Hughes’ plan to turn The New Republic into the next BuzzFeed, I saw a dilettante buying a place in intellectual history while threatening an institution that 100 years ago first championed American progressivism, the only political force in my view that can save us from permanent servitude to market fundamentalism.
Then I reconsidered.
Other than a mutual concern for informed debate and a desire for smart discussion of the arts, what do I have in common with these leading lights of public discourse, with these celebrated arbiters of taste and propriety among Washington’s elite? The New Republic stands alone among journals of liberal opinion for having a long history of bending the ear of the powerful, for speaking directly to that insulated cabal of the wealthy and consequential. If every displeased, dismayed and disillusioned journalist in the country decided one day to quit in protest of a publisher’s meanness and moral turpitude, there wouldn’t be any employed journalists anywhere. The fact that these influencers of the influential did so is a reminder of the social status and political power they continue to enjoy.
Most journalists (most I know, anyway) toil far from such lofty and influential heights. They shoulder everyday contempt and rage for the verities of newsroom politics. They despise the meddling and near-sighted ethics of their publishers. They work longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits. They freelance for pennies if they write for anything. And when they are fired or laid off or they quit, they don’t seamlessly transition to the faculty lounge or think tanks eager to embrace them. Most leave journalism altogether. To feel solidarity with those who resigned under their own power from one of the most coveted jobs anyone can have in 21st-century journalism is an act of cognitive dissonance if it isn’t an act of self-loathing.
Such was missing from most coverage of The New Republic‘s collapse. Sure, we read about all the many scandalous details of what happened—that publisher Chris Hughes had hired a replacement for editor Franklin Foer before telling Foer he was being replaced; that the publication’s new CEO, Guy Vidra, appeared drunk on the incoherence of industry lingo when he told staffers he wanted to “break shit and embrace being uncomfortable” in the pursuit of transforming The New Republic into a “vertically-integrated digital-media company”; that the Washington cognoscenti chattered so garrulously about Vidra’s word-salad vision for the magazine that you’d think people everywhere actually cared about what was happening to it.
But mostly what we read about was the brave few who quit in solidarity with Foer and long-time literary editor Leon Wieseltier. They were the protagonists of a story in which they stood against vulgarity and disregard for civil institutions, in which they battled the forces of “disruptive innovation” that daily threaten to make all that’s solid melt into air and all that’s holy profane. Indeed, they were the heroes deserving of more than they were given, even though each in one way or another—intentionally or not, fairly or not—was complicit in the triumph of a conservative political order 40 years ago that in the end they said they fought so strenuously against.
From the very beginning of what would become a dominant orthodoxy in the advance of free trade, low taxation, and deregulation (in a word, “Reaganomics”), these Very Serious People reflected, rationalized and amplified the views of elite Washington. Yet when agents of that order sought to destabilize one of its primary organs, they were disgusted. The untouchables who long ago accepted creative destruction as a plainly evident fact of life were suddenly touched, and they didn’t like it. Or perhaps it wasn’t creative destruction they minded so much. Perhaps what bothered them was their no longer being the exception to the dominant orthodoxy.
They were just like everyone else.
I’m aware that The New Republic long ago ceased being as influential as it was. I’m aware that even in the beginning, when Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly first conceived the opinion journal in Teddy Roosevelt’s living room in 1914, it wasn’t as progressive as it claimed to be. To an extent, it has always been imperialist; to a degree, it has always been in thrall to power. And my complaint doesn’t take into account its particular sins of war-mongering, xenophobia and bald-faced racism. That’s because my complaint is ultimately about the paradigm we live in—the reality we must reckon with—and that there’s no viable alternative thanks in part to The New Republic. The only liberalism taken seriously by the ruling class is the liberalism of The New Republic. We’ve tried that. It doesn’t work. What we all need—including the many victims of the magazine’s sins—is a resurgence of what Walter Lippmann called, in a very different context, “militant liberalism.”
“Change will come only by the drastic competition of those whose interests are not represented in the existing news organization,” Lippmann wrote in 1920 in the concluding pages of his classic, Liberty and the News. “It will come only if organized labor and militant liberalism set a pace which cannot be ignored. Our sanity and, therefore, our safety depend upon this competition, upon fearless and relentless exposure conducted by self-conscious groups which are now in the minority.”
Militant liberalism must set the pace for change, but that can’t happen when those speaking for liberalism fail to serve people who most need it. The ruling class always believes its ideas are everyone’s ideas. As The New Republic moves to serve a more heterogeneous audience, perhaps those ideas will reflect more closely those of the ruled. In this sense, we can be grateful for Vidra’s yen for breaking shit.