The New Republic is not a political magazine, it’s a nostalgia machine. The recent angst-fest and mass staff resignations, sparked by editorial changes at the magazine at the behest of its millionaire owner Chris Hughes, make sense only if we understand that the magazine’s peculiar politics — as crystallized under previous owner Martin Peretz — involve a heavy libidinal investment in generating and storing narratives about an idealized past.
Since 1974, the New Republic has been the home and haven of an undying Cold War liberalism, an ideology that tried, in the era that ran from Richard Nixon to Obama, to recreate the intellectual milieu of the Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower years.
In a touching memoir, Deborah Friedel, who once worked as assistant to New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, records that her boss was happiest in his office: “You see out there it’s 2004, but in this office it’s 1954,” Wieseltier told her (a line he lifted from The Sopranos, a charming subversion of Wieseltier’s own reputation as a Brahmin scold).
1954 was a good time to be a Cold War liberal of the New Republic sort. The Democrats were competing with the Republicans in foreign policy belligerence. You could run a magazine entirely staffed by white men (with perhaps a female secretary and an assistant from Sarah Lawrence), without anyone even noticing. Back in 1954, the dispossession of the Palestinians went almost entirely unaddressed in liberal circles; the only voices protesting Israeli human rights abuses were a few cranky conservatives who could easily be ignored.
You could get away with pretending that Lionel Trilling and Isaiah Berlin were intellectual giants and not be troubled by more radical thinkers working outside the comfort zone of Anglo-American liberalism. Marxism was in near complete abeyance. No wonder Wieseltier likes to retreat into the cocoon of an imaginary 1954.
Like bedding for a cold winter, nostalgia is always multi-layered. Wieseltier’s yearning for 1954 is a desire to return to a particular political moment but also the fantasy that time travel will give him access to a more serious culture, one that treats literature and ideas with stern respect. Digging deeper beyond the editorial agenda, the very act of reading the magazine has been steeped, for many subscribers, in memory.
New Republic readers tend to start young. The wry neocon Joseph Espstein once joked that the undergraduates he encountered at the University of Chicago in the 1950s all seemed like they had “been reading the New Republic from the age of eleven.” I myself first picked up the magazine when I was 14. To read it now, whatever political disagreements I have with it, is to bond with a younger, more vital self. Even the worst traits of the New Republic — its tendency to treat life and death matters of racism as abstract problems — can evoke nostalgia for those who remember their callow college bull sessions.
In a backlash to this kind of New Republic nostalgia, liberal and leftists voices have started to rightly criticize the magazine’s terrible record on race and gender. What hasn’t been noted enough is that the racism and sexism of the New Republic was intimately tied to its politics of constructed memory, its attempt to resuscitate Cold War liberalism.
It’s no wonder that figures like Harry Truman and Dean Acheson were the guiding stars in the Peretzian firmament. In 2009, Peretz lamented that Obama and his staff lacked the wisdom of Acheson:
Acheson’s wisdom is absolutely shocking in that it is so remote from the crowd around Barack Obama. . . Acheson’s memoir, Present at the Creation, should be read as a vindication of Harry Truman. But it may also me read as a critique of Presidemt [sic] Obama. Acheson was a protege of Felix Frankfurter and a law clerk to Justice Louis Brandeis. He roomed with Cole Porter at the Harvard Law School.
The invocation of Harvard, another New Republic fetish, is a nice touch.
The sensibility shaped by Cold War liberalism has now outlasted the demise of the Warsaw Pact by more than a quarter century, suggesting that the core of the magazine’s politics have to do with something broader than a fear of the Soviet Union. The beatification of figures like Truman and Acheson is partially a matter of imperial schmaltz (the United States never dominated the globe more than in those years, as seen in the title of Acheson’s memoirs, Present at the Creation, with its invocation of God-like power).
But Cold War liberalism was always as much about domestic politics as foreign policy. It’s a vision of America as united under strong leaders, with the class strife of the New Deal and Popular Front safely shunted aside in favor of cohesion and consensus. More than just anti-Soviet, Cold War liberalism was (and is) profoundly hostile to the Left, seeing radicalism as a threat to the core value of national unity. No wonder Cold War liberals reacted so badly to the rise of social movements in the 1960s, which challenged the myth of national consensus.
Because the New Republic was a magazine of liberals and not reactionaries, the containment policy granted limited reforms within the framework of the capitalist status quo: Gloria Steinem was a heroine, while Judith Butler was beyond the pale; gay rights was reduced to letting Andrew Sullivan marry but pretending that ACT UP doesn’t exist; labor unions were celebrated in the form of relics like Albert Shanker while contemporary workplace activism merited no discussion; anti-racism meant Colin Powell and the integrated army while Jesse Jackson was a devil figure.
After all, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s had the same position in the imagination of Peretz’s New Republic as Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party had in the minds of Cold War liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The Rainbow Coalition was an epitome of a dangerous alternative vision of politics, one that could derail the national consensus.
Appropriately enough, it was the renegade Marxist Eugene Genovese who best articulated in the pages of the New Republic why Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was so threatening. Reviewing a Jesse Jackson biography in 1996, Genovese, then well on his rightward political march, expressed sympathy for Jackson’s emphasis on hard work and self-reliance but complained:
By opting for a “rainbow coalition,” however, he folded the politics of black self-reliance into the purported general crisis of an allegedly racist, sexist, homophobic, patriarchal society. Step-by-step, this tactic has led Jackson to support the left’s program for the Balkanization of the American nation, which in some instances has issued in the insidious idea that the United States does not really possess a national culture worthy of respect. No wonder that many Americans are concluding that the black political movement constitutes the cutting-edge of an assault on their very being.
Genovese’s language — “an assault on their very being” — might seem overwrought but it came from a wellspring of deep emotion. If you embrace American nationalism as your ultimate creed (as the New Republic did) then even the mild social critique of the Rainbow Coalition will be unnerving.
In fearing “the Balkanization of the American nation,” Genovese tellingly echoed the language of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who in a 1991 book often celebrated in the New Republic spoke about multiculturalism leading to “the dis-uniting of America.”
The often retrograde politics of the New Republic were not accidents of personality growing out of Martin Peretz’s psyche. They were deeply rooted in the magazine’s core ideological commitment to returning to the idealized past of mid-twentieth century America.
If the next incarnation of the New Republic has anything to offer the world, it had better junk the politics of nostalgia.