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Out of Place in America

This will be a paragraph to return to with The New Republic readers in the coming months and years; it’s the first we ever published, on November 7, 1914:

The New Republic is frankly an experiment. It is an attempt to find national audience for a journal of interpretation and opinion. Many people believe that such a journal is out of place in America; that if a periodical is to be popular, it must first of all be entertaining, or that if it is to be serious, it must be detached and select. Yet when the plan of The New Republic was being discussed it received spontaneous welcome from people in all parts of the country. They differed in theories and programmes; but they agreed that if The New Republic could bring sufficient enlightenment to the problems of the nation and sufficient sympathy to its complexities, it would serve all those who feel the challenge of our time. On the conviction that this is possible The New Republic is founded. Its success inevitably depends on public support, but if we are unable to achieve that success under the conditions essential to sound and disinterested thinking, we shall discontinue our experiment and make way for better men. Meanwhile, we set out with faith.

And with that, our editors got in the second paragraph we ever published to business. With the U.S. House and Senate elections having just gone down four days prior, that business was making sense of the poor faring of Progressive politicians and sentiment (it was a time, remember, when the adjective meant something specific, not least at The New Republic)—noting: “Apart from the narrow margin whereby the Democrats retained control of the House of Representatives, the salient feature of the election is the apparently reactionary revulsion of popular opinion.” I suppose this is only one among many features of our founding moment that would again be salient today.

The salient feature of our founding purpose is meanwhile, it wouldn’t be too cute to say, the antithesis of reactionary opinion (despite a 229-year-old cliché that the antithesis of reactionary opinion would have to be revolutionary opinion): Our original Progressivism was buoyed at the outset by an optimism about the prospect of science bringing harmony to American politics and policy, the naïveté of which didn’t take long to reveal itself; but at The New Republic’s heart was less a hard-scientific sensibility in human affairs and more a deep belief in the creative potential of republican self-government. That’s a sense in which you can think about The New Republic as having the unusual quality of being liberal without being ideological: When you read here about the forces driving a major shift in the electoral landscape, or why dealing with the effects of global warming will require a real shift in American identity, or how a seemingly alien institution might be the best way to resolve the deep conflicts that will inevitably linger from our current period of turmoil and fracture, you’re reading a magazine about change and possibility.