Ron Radosh

TNR and the Crisis of The American Intellectual: Can the Old Liberal Stalwart Play a Role in Today's World?

Yesterday, The New Republic announced that its editor for the past five years, Frank Foer, is stepping down to return to the position of editor-at-large and regular writer for the journal of opinion. (Foer’s outgoing statement and new editor Richard Just’s outlining of his vision for the magazine may be found here.)

I wish Just, whom I do not know, well in his new job. Just writes:

I believe passionately in the higher magazine journalism: in the worth of long-form argument and narrative, the importance (intellectual but also social) of brilliant cultural criticism, and the value of highly informed, nuanced, and passionate crusading.

He is correct when he says that “no magazine has as rich a political and literary tradition as TNR.” I doubt, however — I say this in sadness — that he is right when he claims that “no magazine is in a better position to demonstrate, definitively, that all the things that we love about magazine journalism can not only survive in this new age of media, but prosper in it.”

Most TNR readers I have spoken with regularly comment to me about the journal’s decline in importance over the years. Their decision to go bi-weekly, while possibly necessary for financial reasons, made it less effective as an influence in the nation’s political debate. Sites like Real Clear Politics sometimes put up pieces from TNR, but more than often, one finds more entries from conservative journals like National Review and the Weekly Standard. Checking the magazine’s print circulation figures that by law are publicly printed once a year, we see a steep drop in subs, compared to a huge rise in left-wing magazines like The Nation, and a constant high circulation in National Review, still since Buckley’s days the standard-bearer for the conservative movement.

I have much affection and respect for TNR. I have myself published many of my major journalistic endeavors in its pages. In the mid-80s, the magazine gave me the opportunity to write often about the conflict in Central America in its pages, and way back in 1979, they printed an early version of my work on the Rosenberg case (co-authored with Sol Stern) as its cover story, making the issue an instant best-seller.

For many years, the magazine functioned as the more realistic and hard-edged liberal alternative to the stale liberalism of the wartime Popular Front, and later, the new anti-anti-Communism of the bulk of the liberal movement during the Vietnam War and after the war tore our country apart. Just writes that he intends to again have the journal stand:

… on behalf of the strain of liberalism that this magazine has championed for the past century — a liberalism that is obsessed not just with building a fairer, more decent society at home, but also with the spread of democracy and human rights abroad; a liberalism that is not afraid to question itself and to criticize its own.

A few years ago, Just participated in some of the meetings held to create an American version of the Euston Manifesto, which TNR publicized, and of which Just was a co-author and signer. (The full American manifesto can be found here.) As the American authors of what began as a British endeavor explain:

The statement was a defense of liberal democracy and human rights as well as a rejection of anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and terrorism.

Regarding the British one as a “turning point in contemporary intellectual and political debates,” the American supporters came up with their own domestic version.

Unfortunately, the high hopes its framers had came to naught. Its influence was virtually nil. In Europe, rather than have a great effect, the climate of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, especially in London where Euston originated, has only become worse.

The problem that Just and TNR have, however, is one brilliantly addressed by Walter Russell Mead in his latest important blog post on “The Crisis of the American Intellectual.” Read argues that the reason today’s intellectuals are ill-equipped to play a major role in addressing what we must do about today’s issues goes way beyond Just’s hopes that liberalism questions itself and its own favored exponents of the doctrine.

As Mead explains, “the United States is stuck with a social model that doesn’t work anymore.” Mead writes that the problems go beyond the erosion of our cultural model, the problem of the deficit, and the problems of international competition, all of which he thinks can be dealt with. The problem is nothing less than the Weltanschauung of the American intellectual class. Mead explains:

The biggest roadblock today is that so many of America’s best-educated, best-placed people are too invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level.  Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Instead, he argues that they are “backward looking and reactionary.” By that he means they are stuck in the old Progressive era notion of “progress” and I would add the vision of statist socialism favored by many on the Left. First, Mead addresses ideology:

Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor.  The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

And this, to get back to the problem facing TNR, is still the perspective most of its editors hold. They think the “administrative, bureaucratic state,” as Mead defines it, can still be handled via regulatory measures. Hence their defense of and support of the disastrous ObamaCare, which outgoing editor Foer mentions as one of the magazine’s most important efforts. As Mead writes so powerfully, “if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and institutions of twentieth century progressivism.” Its promises have dissolved, and its “premises no longer hold.” This goes against the grains of many of our best intellectuals, Mead claims, an observation justified by reading many of TNR’s own writers and editors when they write about domestic issues.

For America to prosper, Mead argues:

Power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

This is in line with what historian Martin J. Sklar argues in a forthcoming book he is working on, when he writes that the current health care legislation instead of producing democratization, leads to:

… a new system of inequality, tyranny, corruption … and social injustice … as has always been the case … with sectarian-utopian programs installed politically, under bureaucratic state-command, in the name of “social justice” and “redistributing the wealth” — from Hitler’s Germany, to Stalinist Soviet Union, to Maoist China, to Fidelist Cuba, to Khoemeinist Iran, to Britain’s NHS, and to “real change” ObamaCare U.S.A.

Just as Mead writes about what a “Marxist would speak at this point about the proletarianization of the petit bourgeois intellectual professions,” Sklar too writes about the “proletarianizing of the medical profession,” which he argues is a “retrogressive and reactionary development” that moves us away from self-government and that intensifies conflict. The result, he predicts, will be discriminatory medical care, “first-class for some, second-and third class for everyone else … imposing a scarcity regime upon an abundance capacity.” By treating health care as a government controlled “entitlement,” Sklar argues, it converts “a human right into a state-right” and increases “the coercive power of the state.” As he puts it:

The state (government) has not rights, but powers. … Any claim by the state to rights is a usurpation of the people’s sovereignty, as well as of their rights … [the health-care law violates] the constitutionally protected rights of life, liberty, property, and privacy, as well as the constitutional division and limitation of powers among the federal and state governments.

What it boils down to, in Mead’s words, is that our intellectuals have to give up their very worldview, and join those among the populace who “are in rebellion against this kind of state and society.” Society at large must be serviced, not the professional guilds and their narrow interests. It means nothing less than leaving behind the assumptions of the progressive state and the “Blue Social Model.” Most important of all, Mead argues this is not an old-fashioned and largely irrelevant left/right debate, but one about “the past and the future.” Both liberals and Tea Party members can unite, he suggests, about creating a “radical overhaul of our knowledge industries.”

Using another paradigm, the old statist model and progressive ideology is actually reactionary, and not “progressive.” Instead of creating more government protection to more interest groups, Mead writes, we have to radically restructure government “to be more effective at a lower cost,” and I would say, in a much smaller scale.

And this brings me back to TNR and its potential role in the future. As good and necessary as the American Euston Manifesto is, the advocates of the old progressive and liberal model have to move in new directions — such as those suggested in Mead’s brilliant essay. Are Richard Just and the other TNR editors prepared to acknowledge that the old so-called progressive Left is neither progressive or “left,” but instead utterly reactionary? Is it, therefore, ready to dispense with the magazine’s own heritage — that of a now reactionary progressivism favored by its founder Herbert Croly?

If Richard Just is up to addressing these questions in a serious fashion, then there is hope that the old liberal stalwart will still have a critical role to play in our nation’s forthcoming debates. I too was one of the signers of the Euston Manifesto, but much has changed since 2006 when it was written. We need more than a “path to a new and reinvigorated liberalism in foreign policy,” which was Euston’s major concern. We need an understanding that the old paradigm is over, and the search for what must replace it has just begun. Will TNR play a role in this endeavor? Time will tell, and I wish Richard Just much luck in his most difficult job.