The New Republic is coming to an end. And the autopsies have begun. So have the critiques. But the real problem with the New Republic is not that it was racist, though it was. It’s not that it was filled with warmongers, though it was. It’s not that it punched hippies, though it did. No, the real problem with the New Republic is that for the last three decades, it has had no energy. It has had no real project.
The last time the New Republic had a project was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was in the journalistic vanguard of what was then called neoliberalism (not what we now call neoliberalism). That is what a great magazine of politics and culture does: it creates a project, it fashions a sensibility. The Spectator did it in the early eighteenth century, Partisan Review in the 1930s did it, Dissent in the 1950s did it, and the New Republic in the 1970s and 80s did it.
I’m not saying that I like that last project; I don’t. I’m just saying that it was a project, and that it was a creation. Love them or hate them, great magazines gather the diverse and disparate energies of a polity and a culture and give them focus. They shape assumptions, they direct attention, they articulate a direction. The New Republic hasn’t done that since I was a teenager. (That’s the irony/inanity of Stephen Glass’ famed — really, fabled — fabulism: there was nothing fabulistic about it at all. His lies weren’t stretchers. They were social truths: they played to, repeated, every conventional assumption of the age of which the magazine was capable.)
That’s why virtually every obituary for the magazine that’s been written by people of roughly my age opens or closes with a memoir of one’s high school experience; the entire constituency of the magazine seems to be suffering from a Judd Apatow-like case of arrested development.
In the last three decades, the New Republic has generated controversy, clickbait, talk of the town. It’s sponsored solid journalism, smart criticism, bad policy, and bloody wars. God knows, it has not suffered for talent or intelligence. But what it hasn’t done is create a sense or sensibility, a deep style in the Nietzschean sense. It has instead been living off the borrowed energy and dead labor of its past. It has long ceased to be the place where the intellectual action is.
To mourn its demise now is to mourn something that disappeared years ago.