There are a lot of people at New Republic who I really like. In particular: Brian Beutler and Jonathan Cohn. But as a going concern, New Republic generally means one thing to me: a supposedly liberal magazine that is most concerned with attacking liberalism. Most of all, I associate it with its darkest years under the editorial leadership of Andrew Sullivan. This was when it pushed not only Betsy McCaughey’s hit job against the Clinton administration’s healthcare reform law, but also The Bell Curve.
This is what made the phrase “Even The New Republic…” so pernicious. Conservatives could and did say things like, “Even The New Republic thinks that economic inequality doesn’t matter because minority groups are just stupid!” (For those who don’t remember, that was the argument of The Bell Curve — although stated less bluntly.) Back in 2004, Steve Rendall and Anne Kosseff at FAIR described the magazine’s abandonment of its progressive roots since the early 1970s, Not Even the New Republic. In fact, it included a great quote from Hendrik Hertzberg, “The old ‘even The New Republic…’ scam was getting a little old in the 1980s; now it’s a quarter of a century old.”
As a result of this, I have a hard time getting too excited by the news that Chris Hughes has decided to destroy New Republic and turn it into a “digital media company” — think: BuzzFeed. The news, however, is both funny and sad. It is funny in that billionaire man-child Hughes has decided to do this. After all, why did he buy the magazine in the first place? He could have started his own stupid “also ran” digital media company. The whole thing is entirely typical of the useless rich. They like the idea of buying a magazine with a storied past, but they are soon bored and decide to “update” it and make it profitable. According to Jonathan Chait, the magazine has never been profitable and Hughes must have known that when he bought it.
The news is sad because many great writers have now quit BuzzFeed--. (That’s a programming joke!) This includes Jonathan Cohn and Noam Scheiber. The truth is that over the last few years, New Republic really has gotten a lot better. And now this is all gone. And I don’t have any convenient place to check out what Alec MacGillis and Julia Ioffe are writing. But I’m sure they will all still be around and I will find them.
The question is whether this is actually worse than Martin Peretz’s purchase of the magazine in 1974 or the beginning of Andrew Sullivan’s editorship in 1991. And there is potentially a huge upside here. I suspect this will be a huge failure. New Republic will muddle along for many years to come. But it is for all intents and purposes dead. No one is going to step up in a decade and say, “I want to take this mediocre ‘digital media company’ and turn it back into the important magazine it once was!” Instead, one day in the not so distant future, Chris Hughes will have had his fun and will be beyond caring what everyone is saying about him, and he will quietly abandon the project.
There is an important lesson in all of this. The rich are not the saviors of our culture. When they rush in to save institutions like New Republic, they do it as a form of self-aggrandizement. Our only hope is that we create a more equal society. But at this point, it wouldn’t make me sad if Chris Hughes was killed in an auto accident.