I. On a fall night in 1914, Theodore Roosevelt summoned the young editors of a yet-unpublished magazine to the seat of his ex-presidency, his estate on the north shore of Long Island. The old Bull Moose had caught wind of the new project and wanted to make sure that the editors had the full benefit of his extensive wisdom. In T.R.’s social set—Harvard and Yale men with an intellectual proclivity and a progressive bent—the impending debut of The Republic, as it was called in its nascent days, was much anticipated. It was grist for gossipy letters and dinnertime chatter.
The magazine’s proposed title would have appealed to Roosevelt because it conjured both Plato and Rome. And the classic reference was merited, since America was in the thick of a Renaissance of sorts. A new artistic fervor occupied the narrow streets of Greenwich Village, thanks to the early arrival of European modernism and bootleg editions of Freud. Even more importantly, there was a proliferation of political reform movements, budding seemingly everywhere and pushing a mélange of causes—temperance, suffrage, antitrust, trade unionism. The presidential campaign two years earlier, which Roosevelt lost, had amounted to a competition to capture the hearts and minds of these reformers.
All this energy needed a home and deeper thinking. That might have been the primary point that Roosevelt had hoped to impress upon his protégés over dinner. But he could never quite contain his conversational agendas, and he piled argument upon argument, so persistently and so deep into the night that the editor of the magazine, Herbert Croly, closed his eyes and drifted into an embarrassingly deep sleep.
The Republic, however, was doomed—or at least its name was. A partisan organ with the very same title already existed, owned by John F. Kennedy’s gregarious grandfather John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. When the genteel editors politely inquired about the possibility of sharing the moniker, the old Boston pol refused. In truth, he probably hadn’t intended to turn them away, only to get a little compensation for his troubles. But the editors missed the hint and renamed their magazine.
It would be The New Republic, which better represented the spirit of the enterprise anyway. The magazine was born wearing an idealistic face. It soon gathered all the enthusiasm for reform and gave it coherence and intellectual heft. The editors would help craft a new notion of American government, one that now goes by a very familiar name: liberalism.
II. The story of modern liberalism begins with Herbert Croly, an unlikely theorist of this movement and an even less likely maestro of an intellectual start-up like The New Republic. He was painfully shy. Conversations with him awkwardly stalled while he aimed his gaze at the ceiling. Paralyzing bouts of anxiety and depression had prevented him from ever properly graduating from Harvard. By the time he turned 40, he had slipped into a different sort of paralysis: a life of gentlemanly languor. He wrote about architecture for an obscure trade newsletter. Thanks to his wife’s wealth, he could afford to spend a chunk of his year playing bridge and tennis at a country house in New Hampshire.
But his father, David, had been an eccentric newspaper editor, with wide-ranging intellectual interests and an immense mustache that cascaded toward his shoulders. David was an enthusiastic proselytizer on behalf of the French theorist Auguste Comte and his grand theory of history. Comte believed that knowledge would evolve to the point where experts could efficiently manage society with scientific precision—a doctrine that, in some respects, foreshadowed New Republic–style liberalism. During long walks in Central Park, David urged young Herbert to embrace Comte and continue spreading his good word. He wanted his son to assume his place among the great philosophers.
By the time he crept toward middle age, after so many years of drift, Herbert attempted to fulfill his father’s dreams for him, in one last mad dash for greatness. He poured all his accumulated thoughts and theories into a bulging manifesto called The Promise of American Life. The book, which appeared in 1909, argued that American life had grown hobbled by the lingering legacy of Thomas Jefferson—the nation celebrated an antiquated form of individualism and libertarianism that no longer matched the realities of the industrial age. Modern life had sapped the energy from America; it tolerated rampant mediocrity. To restore itself, the country would have to turn to the theory of government espoused by Jefferson’s old nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. That is, it would need a strong central state. Croly’s book embodied many of the characteristics of the magazine he created: It was in turns wonky and literary; it rigorously analyzed the economic perils of unregulated trusts and calculated the toll of intellectual conformism.
It was an unusual book that attracted a small but fanatical following. One young couple read the book aloud to each other on their honeymoon. Willard Straight, a brilliant orphan from rural New York, had charmed his way into becoming J. P. Morgan’s man in China. His new bride was Dorothy Whitney, an heir to a glimmering tangle of intermarried fortunes. Her parents had also died young—which left her with almost unlimited philanthropic potential and an uncommon degree of independence. As a young single woman, she had bankrolled a settlement house and spent years touring Europe. The couple shared a sense of idealism and earnestly professed the progressive faith.
When they finished reading Croly’s book, they wrote him a mash note and invited him for lunch. A few months later, they had more or less hatched their plans for launching a political weekly that would trumpet the ideas in Croly’s book and channel the enthusiasms stirred by Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party bid.
Unlike the highbrow little magazines to come in the 1930s, The New Republic wasn’t intended to be a clubby conversation among the hyper-literate. Croly had a very specific understanding of elites: They were meant to be a vanguard that would self-consciously shape the political culture of the country and set its artistic standards. Croly wanted his publication to serve as a transmission belt of ideas, carrying the thoughts of intellectuals to a much broader and, therefore, much more meaningful audience. “[Our] primary purpose,” Croly wrote Willard Straight, “will not be to record facts but to give certain ideals and opinions a higher value in American public opinion. If these ideas and opinions were accepted as facts it would be unnecessary to start the paper. The whole point is that we are trying to impose views on blind or reluctant people.”
Croly was already in the middle of his career, but he populated The New Republic with bright young things, which became a magazine tradition. There were the likes of Walter Lippmann, who wrote his first groundbreaking manifesto at the age of 23, and his contemporary Randolph Bourne, an idealistic hunchback mangled at birth by mishandled forceps. Their essays for the magazine were sometimes intensely personal. They exuded the idealism of youth and the era’s belief in the power of the intellectual to change the world. But their faith in the intellectual took very different forms. Lippmann ingratiated himself to the establishment, attempting to whisper in its ear. He regularly lunched at the apartment of Woodrow Wilson’s top adviser, Colonel Edward House, and signed up as an aide to the team that planned for the negotiations at Versailles. Meanwhile, Bourne preferred the purity of yelling from more bohemian quarters, decrying the moral costs of cozying up to power. Lippmann and Bourne came to despise each other, even as they briefly resided under the same journalistic roof.
It’s hard to describe the magazine in its early years because it was such an unusual alchemy. You might encounter a short story by Willa Cather sitting next to a dense report on the aluminum tariff. (The humorist S. J. Perelman once ribbed the magazine’s readers: “An old subscriber of The New Republic, am I, prudent, meditative, rigidly impartial. I am the man who reads those six-part exposes of the Southern utilities empires, savoring each dark peculation.”) But that somewhat random quality was the point. The boundaries between policy and literature were meant to be porous. The realm of ideas prospered from having these seemingly disconnected articles jammed together—and they were part of the same social project: constructing a citizenry that has high aspirations and rigorous standards, both for its politics and its arts.
III. After Willard Straight’s death, his widow assumed control of the magazine. Her employees considered her something of a saint: unquestionably committed, tolerant of opinions that diverged from her own, and their intellectual equal. But Dorothy Straight was also an absentee owner, especially after she remarried an English agronomist called Leonard Elmhirst; in 1925, the newlyweds departed for Devon to launch their own utopian experiment. They bought a country estate and turned it into the English manor version of a settlement house, educating impoverished locals using the latest techniques of progressive education. Her departure from New York did no damage to the magazine. What did damage the magazine was her succession plan. At the end of World War II, she handed it over to her son, Michael.
There was reason to feel some empathy for young Michael. He was raised in his mother’s social experiment, an emotionally disorienting way to spend childhood—and when he arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge, he felt unprepared for its academic and social rigors. That’s one reason, he later limply explained, why he joined up with the Soviet spy ring that included Kim Philby. (Stalin was said to have personally tracked Straight’s recruitment.) Although he claimed to have broken with the Soviets in 1941, he passed along documents to his handler well after that.
Michael Straight had grand plans for The New Republic. He wanted it to compete with Henry Luce’s Time magazine, except from the left. He boasted that he would grow circulation from 40,000 to 100,000, hired an expensive art director, and procured the services of Edward Bernays, the godfather of public relations. More importantly, he installed a figurehead at the top. Henry Wallace, FDR’s old vice president and the most famous liberal in the country, became editor in 1946. But the whole experiment went wrong. Wallace degraded the prose of the magazine—filling it with claptrap that Dwight Macdonald savagely derided as “Wallese.” The New Republic became a tiresome vehicle for Wallace’s vision of world government.
Worse still, Wallace began to mount his own third-party presidential campaign with the not-so-stealth support of the communists. After two years, Straight parted company with Wallace, and the magazine endorsed his opponent, Harry Truman. But the damage had been significant, especially to the bottom line. Straight could no longer afford to run the magazine. He considered merging the magazine with its liberal cousin, The Nation. Talks had progressed to the point where they had even settled on a name for the new title, albeit a mouthful: The Nation and New Republic.
The Michael Straight experiment nearly cost The New Republic its life, but it also changed the magazine for the better, at least in one significant regard. During his tenure, he moved the magazine to Washington. It’s true that the magazine had always covered the town. Its signature column, “TRB,” was meant to purvey inside dish, and the magazine featured many learned pieces on policy. Still, the train ride that separated the magazine’s headquarters in Chelsea from Washington manifested itself in the pages of the publication. The New Republic was idealistic without having a truly intimate understanding of American politics—and, as a consequence, the magazine’s political writing was often absurdly disconnected from the realities of the legislative process. Perhaps the most striking sign of this dissonance was the fact that the flagship magazine of liberalism considered Franklin Roosevelt a paragon of mushy centrism and despised his New Deal. (This opposition also came despite the fact that an article in the magazine coined the term “New Deal.”)
Moving to Washington sucked some of the romance from the magazine. The New Republic no longer sat in close proximity to the beating heart of American radicalism in Greenwich Village. Bylines of senators—Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Paul Douglas—began appearing in the magazine. It acquired favored politicians—Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, Al Gore. Mingling with power like this undeniably corrupts. Still, the magazine’s writing about politics became more granular, better informed. The New Republic began to concern itself more with the legislative potential of ideas, their plausibility or, more to the point, their implausibility.
Over time, the magazine acquired an acute sense of the special interests that both constrained and enabled political possibilities; it learned to have more realistic expectations for liberalism’s ability to win over public opinion. This new hardheadedness coincided with liberalism’s turn in that very same direction. In those years after the war, The New Republic published the likes of Niebuhr, Orwell, and Schlesinger, thinkers who dispensed with all the old utopian fantasies about radically remaking society. In their view, human nature was not infinitely malleable and could be dispiritingly flawed; the United States faced real enemies in the world, even if its own foreign policy could be heavy-handed and counterproductive. The New Republic insisted on drawing fine distinctions that were actually quite important, the sort of nuance that was dismissed as mealy-mouthed by progressives further to the left. One of the great examples of this was Richard Rovere’s masterful dissection of the playwright Arthur Miller. Even though the magazine abhorred Joe McCarthy and his methods, it denied Miller, one of his primary targets, the status of martyr. Miller’s stand against “naming names,” Rovere argued, was vapid and even dangerous.
Such realism has its flaws—at its worst, it can be soulless and technocratic. John F. Kennedy was perhaps the greatest avatar of this style, and he once delivered the most precise summation of this worldview: “The fact of the matter is that most of the problems, or at least many of them that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of ‘passionate movements’ which have stirred this country so often in the past.” And it’s true that The New Republic did a great deal to inject this sort of sterile thinking into the political culture. But the magazine also simultaneously buffered the country from this thinking by never fully abandoning its idealism. Just because it befriended politicians didn’t mean it ever stopped chastising them for abandoning their principles; it kept advancing the cause of reform, even if it hemmed its own ambitions for those reforms. This is the combination of styles—passionate but realistic, shrewd but permissive of idealistic daydreams—that makes New Republic liberalism so confounding to both left and right. It is a style that, through all the changes in ownership, has never really faded.
IV. I arrived at the magazine 14 years ago, but it really felt more like a homecoming. My father had received a subscription as a high school graduation gift. It is often said that The New Republic had obtained something close to biblical status with its liberal readers. That’s certainly the manner in which my father venerated the magazine. He read every single page of every single issue, sometimes even with a pen in hand to mark important passages. His consumption of the magazine was structured into his day, like his morning calisthenics and changing out of his suit after work. And like a precious religious object, the magazine was handed down from generation to generation. After he finished reading each issue, usually at night after I had fallen asleep, he would quietly slip it under my door.
As I edit the magazine, my father is always on my mind. (He’s exactly the sort of person who would be loath to accord any text with canonical authority—anti-clerical liberal that he is.) To an outsider, his attachment to the magazine might be befuddling. Over time, it has published a steady stream of articles that he has disliked, sometimes intensely so. With every issue (and with every editor, including his son), he has a long list of gripes. But he persists with the magazine, lovingly, despite his many disagreements—and, in fact, because of his disagreements with it. Even when the magazine hasn’t always embodied his politics, it has jibed with his sensibility.
This attachment to the magazine’s style is hardly a trivial thing—liberalism is itself a sensibility as well as a set of ideas, if it is even possible to speak of them separately. For hundreds of years, long before the word was associated with Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt, it has meant generosity and tolerance. It’s pretty clear how those sentiments have evolved through the ages into a modern political program that champions a social safety net, civil rights, and civil liberties. But they are also hallmarks of an intellectual mode—which is manifested in the manner that liberals read and write as much as what they substantively argue. That approach is cosmopolitan and freethinking, daring to engage ideas that it might not share. (This magazine has a tradition of filling the masthead with socialists, communist sympathizers, English Tories, and neoconservatives.) Our doctrine proudly considers itself an anti-doctrine. That is, American liberalism flaunts its pragmatism. It may have strong moral and philosophical beliefs, but it likes to claim that it derives conclusions from evidence and data, not dogma; its expectations for politics and human nature remain on the hard ground, not up in the utopian sky.
There is, admittedly, a bit of easily mocked self-congratulation in this description. And the liberal is perhaps the most mocked figure in American politics. Both the left and right seem to agree that liberals are figures of great weakness, a lot of self-righteous sentiment encrusted around a hollow core. The left’s sneers grow from a sense of betrayal. Because the left assumes that liberals actually share their radical view, they can’t understand why liberals won’t embrace that radical view in public. Liberals, therefore, must be trimming their sails, unwilling to take righteous positions for fear of squandering their cozy place in the establishment.
The great Phil Ochs sang a devastating version of this complaint:
I go to civil rights rallies
And I put down the old D.A.R.
I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy
I hope every colored boy becomes a star
But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal...
I read New Republic and Nation
I’ve learned to take every view
You know, I’ve memorized Lerner and Golden
I feel like I’m almost a Jew
But when it comes to times like Korea
There’s no one more red, white, and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
And that style has been the main source of tension within the staff. The magazine’s radicals have often walked away repelled by the caution of their colleagues. Edmund Wilson, who worked at the magazine during his fellow-traveling years in the 1930s, was especially disdainful of the liberals around him: “For one feels as one reads them today, that, in spite of their expressions of moral and esthetic dissatisfaction, they are still sold like other middle-class Americans on the values of the middle-class world which they criticize.”
Of course, this is a fairly accurate statement about liberalism. Yes, it quibbles with capitalism and our constitutional system—views them as imperfect and in need of constant improvement—but it has ultimate faith in both. But this faith doesn’t grow from a desire to be invited to Georgetown cocktail parties or a fear of offending tennis partners; it is deeply felt.
On the surface, American liberals are an entirely different species than classical liberals. Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and the rest of the classical liberals, after all, hated the all-powerful state and made it their mission to curb it; they celebrated the market and trumpeted the virtues of self-interest. That American progressives chose to call themselves liberals seems a twisted and confusing misappropriation.
Old liberals and the new ones have very different methods; but at bottom, they have exactly the same convictions. They both believe in the transcendent importance of freedom and individual liberty. It’s just that the threats to those values have changed. There’s not a capricious monarch looming. In a constitutional democracy, the centralized state was no longer a grave danger to be contained, but an actual guardian of freedom—a protector against new menaces, like rapacious corporations and bigoted local tyrants. The state must create and enforce the rules that help ensure that the market economy remains productive and fair, despite its size and complexity.
This isn’t the stuff of sloganeering; it’s a complicated set of beliefs that even most liberals don’t fully appreciate. And when The New Republic has hashed out these debates, it has sometimes created the illusion of incoherence—a step to the left here, a step to the right there, then a nice long twirl in the center. Critics of the magazine shout, “But it doesn’t add up!” To which the proper response is: exactly. Aside from the works of John Rawls, American liberalism hasn’t yielded volumes of great philosophical clarity. It has flourished in a magazine, which has provided the perfect venue for liberalism to explore itself—to arrive at provisional judgments and to reverse those judgments, to engage in a never-ending act of ideological seeking, to revel in the vitality that comes with the hard task of intellectual invention.