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.