Is Opinion Journalism Dead or Dying?

The self-inflicted death spiral of The New Republic continues to compete with the death spiral of the campus rape narrative at the hands of Rolling Stone, and both may be heralds of a turning point for the slow decline of liberalism. (And now TNR has had to cancel its next issue, due out in a few days, because the mass exodus of its staff has left it fatally shorthanded.)

A number of folks, especially Ezra Klein, have said that TNR had become something of a dinosaur, but then Klein is the precious young thing who said the Constitution is outmoded because it’s like over 100 years old dude. Several other people, like Seth Stevenson at Slate and the erratic Dave Weigel, are saying that maybe TNR deserves this fate because 20 years ago it published one article by . . . Charles Murray. Seriously?

Anyway, Klein: might flourish under Snyder. But it won’t be what The New Republic was. And that’s because the thing The New Republic was has already died. The eulogy that needs to be written isn’t for The New Republic. It’s for The New Republic and The American Prospect and The Washington Monthly and their peers. It’s for the role once played by Washington’s small fleet of ambitious policy magazines.

There’s something to this, though I think there’s more to this than just the rise of the digital world and new competition such as Slate that ended TNR’s near monopoly on intelligent liberal opinion journalism. It turns out that conservative journals went through a difficult period back during the 1980s, in part because having always been in opposition, it was a tricky thing to sympathize with and defend the Reagan Administration. NR’s publisher Bill Rusher told me that Reagan on a few occasions called him and Bill Buckley on the phone to explain that the Administration was about to do something that might not please conservatives, but that there were good reasons for it, etc. And NR would pull its punches. (Though NR did openly break with Reagan over the INF Treaty in 1987 and other aspects of Reagan’s Soviet policy.) A lot of people were saying at the time that The American Spectator had gone downhill. And lots of people were saying that The New Republic was the most interesting thing to read.

One of “those people” saying these things at the time was me. I wrote a long essay for the Claremont Review of Books about it in 1985. You can find the whole essay here. I argued then that thought magazines go through something familiar to the manufacturing and retailing world—the product life-cycle. I actually concluded that The American Spectator hadn’t gone downhill at all, but that it hadn’t adapted to the changing times. Like this:

In recent months, however, the consensus of many I have spoken with, has been: “What’s wrong with The AmericanSpectator?” It has grown listless; it has seemingly published few notable “must-read” articles; Tom Bethell’s column, though usually right about everything, seems stale and repetitive; and Tyrrell, of course, is Tyrrell. “The Spectator,” goes the word on the street, “is going downhill.” Yet a strict review of the Spectator over the last ten years shows that recent issues have not noticeably deteriorated either in the prestige of writers or the quality of articles. In the past year the Spectator published several first-rate reviews and essays, including a chapter of Edith Efron’s book on deceptive cancer research, a marvelous demolition of The Big Chill by Yale and Rita Kramer, as well as contributions from Richard Grenier, Gregory Fossedal, Vladimir Bukovsky, Charles Murray, Paul Johnson, and Lew Lehrman. But they have also published some bizarre stuff, such as Ben Stein’s “Love Between the Ages,” about a middle-aged lawyer’s sixteen-year-old girlfriend, written in the cost-effective prose of a securities analyst, “almost as if,” a friend cracked to me, “Lolita had been rewritten by Milton Friedman.” And this is not even to mention the frequent contributions by Taki, the bohemian Greek tycoon whose self-glorified decadence climaxed with his conviction on cocaine charges last year in England.

Still, if one compares an issue from 1984 with one from 1977, one can come up with no fundamental differences, except perhaps the format improve­ments of the recent issues. But perhaps this continuity is precisely the problem. Intellectual journals, like consumer products, are subject to the “product life-cycle” phenomenon, and if they fail to adapt to changing circumstances, they perish. This can certainly be said to be part of the cause of the decline of Partisan Review (how many times can you read Lionel Trilling or Clement Greenberg on “Art and Neurosis”?), Harper’s, the Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review, and any number of other journals now resigned to the boneyard or close to death’s door.

And circumstances today are certainly different from when the Spectator was cutting its teeth in the mid-1970s. “Neoconservatism” is no longer a new and fresh perspective but, more than that, the Spectator is no longer the only place one finds its point of view. Indeed, though the Spectator is still among the best of journals, the proliferation of conservative journals since 1980 has left the Spectator just one of the pack. Besides the Dartmouth Review-Badger-Herald clones, there is This World, The Yale Literary Magazine, Policy Review, the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Cogitations, Benchmark, and Catholicism in Crisis, to name a few, all competing with the Spectator, National Review, and Commentary for the attention of readers. The market, as an adman might say, has reached saturation. . .

It would be fair to conclude, then, that The American Spectator and National Review haven’t gone downhill so much as their changing tasks have necessarily made them less “lively.” Just as the chase is often more fun than the kill, so too the battle with regnant liberalism makes for more fun reading than the squabbling about regnant conservatism. In short, theSpectator and its allies are no less important reading than before, but we no longer reach for them first in our mailboxes.

So why did The New Republic in those days deserve to be on the top of your weekly reading pile? I had a lot of reasons, but here’s the conclusion:

The source of TNR’s unpredictability, then, is its ambivalence about liberalism. But while “unpredictability” makes for curious reading, the dark side of ambivalent unpredictability is inconsistency, and TNR is nothing if not inconsistent these days. Two consecutive issues illustrate the tendency. The last issue of 1984 carried essays by Charles Murray and Glenn Loury blasting away at the logic of affirmative action quotas and the lack of racial progress from the liberal agenda, plus an editorial sharply critical of Caspar Weinberger for being dovish and near-sighted in his ideas on the use of U.S. forces. But the next issue carried a rambling editorial on the South Africa controversy that culminated in the following obiter dictum: “The South African question is excruciatingly simple. Indeed, there probably has not been an evil so simple since the fall of Berlin.” Kondracke must have been out of town when this editorial went through the pipeline. And the issue also contained Leon Wieseltier’s complaints about the conservative criticism of the bishops’ letter on the economy-conservative criticism that differed little from Charles Krauthammer’s own dissection of the bishops’ missive that appeared-you guessed it-in a previous issue of TNR. Thus, to read TNR today is to read a journal often at war with itself; Michael Harrington is published along with Charles Murray, while Kondracke praises Reagan’s abilities even as Carl Bernstein, in the same issue, belittles the President. . .

It should be observed, finally, that what now makes The New Republic interesting is exactly that ecumenism that made National Review interesting for so many years, that willingness to open its pages to diverse voices clamoring to draw into focus those principles from which a sensible conservatism or liberalism might take its bearings. But this very ecumenism could ultimately become the weakness of The New Republic if it sacrifices principle for variety; indeed, it is the lack of discernible serious principle at the heart of The American Spectator that accounts for much of its diminished appeal. At present, however, The New Republic seems to recognize that if liberalism is to be transformed into a viable political force, its transformation may have to take place within the bounds conservatives are staking out. [Editorial remark: I argue that this is exactly what Bill Clinton figured out after 1984, and it is no accident that The New Republic was known as the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One” during Clinton’s presidency.] The battle of political journalism today depends on whether the boundaries of political consensus about the fundamental principles of the American regime are effectively defined by The American Spectator and other conservative journals, or whether conservative journals allow themselves to be outflanked by The New Republic. Whether the Humpty-Dumpty of liberalism can be put back together again is a tall question, but if it is to be answered, it will be answered in the pages of The New Republic, even as onlookers note floating above the establishment heights from which liberalism fell, the Cheshire cat grin of The American Spectator.

I doubt we’ll find much principle in the quest for variety in the era of the Chris Hughes TNR, which he says will be a “vertically integrated digital media company.” Megan McArdle writes: “I don’t know what that means either.”

But finally, Tweet of the Week (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds):

New Republic Swept AWay copy