The Dilemma of Modern Liberalism

Review: The New Republic Anthology, Insurrections of the Mind

Chris Hughes
Chris Hughes / AP
November 8, 2014

Insurrections of the Mind is an interesting book that says a lot about the magazine it is anthologizing, the New Republic, and a lot about the ideology that animates that magazine: American liberalism. Some of what is says is intentional. Some of it is accidentally illustrative.

There is no doubt that this is an impressive volume, purposefully designed to convey what are true facts: for a century the New Republic was the intellectual soul of modern liberalism, and the most intelligent non-fiction periodical of the 20th century. The reader confronts essays by Walter Lippmann, John Dewey, and Herbert Croly—and that is only in the first 40 pages. Keep reading and one will find Reinhold Neibuhr and Gunnar Myrdal, and more. For this reason alone, the volume is highly recommended.

It must be said that the near single-mindedness with which the editor, Franklin Foer, wants to place the New Republic at the center of it all can be a tad much. Anecdotes about Herbert Croly "around the office" come across as heavy-handed. At times I thought to myself, "Ok. I get it. You’re a big deal."

At other times, the annotations are pompous in the extreme. Introducing an article by Margaret Talbot, Foer insists that former editor Andrew Sullivan liked to discuss middlebrow cultural entries like The Simpsons, but that such pieces "had to employ the very same rigor the magazine would apply to French symbolist poetry." Give me a break.

But even so, I quibble only mildly. After all, is this not the New Republic in a nutshell? Come for the liberal politics, stay for the self-indulgent essays about Kafka … then, stay a little longer for them to explain to us dummies how important their Kafka essays are.

In general, the essay selections are interesting, even if they sometimes generate the sense we are reading a court history. For instance, there are no original essays from the 1920s that are sympathetic to the Soviet Union, although the New Republic and liberalism in general were quite sympathetic. Instead, we get a critical entry on the USSR by John Maynard Keynes. Similarly, an essay from 1989 by Andrew Sullivan on gay marriage seems shoe-horned into a volume that, in general, wisely resists hot button cultural concerns—as if to tell the readership, "Hey, TNR supported gay marriage before you did!"

The flip side is the frequent essay that really smacks you across the face for its brilliance. Such entries will differ from reader to reader, but for me, the real humdinger was Arthur Schlesinger’s diatribe against Jimmy Carter published in 1980. A memo to conservatives who still enjoy attacking the 39th president: almost everybody used to do this, and nobody did it better than the liberals.

Another standout: "The Liberal’s Dilemma," written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1977. And with this piece, we begin to learn things about the New Republic that perhaps the volume’s editor did not intend to teach us.

Drawing on the stump speech Moynihan gave while running for the Senate in New York, he writes:

The dilemma for liberals in New York ... is that we faced unprecedented government problems which however had come about under the auspices of impeccably liberal governments in New York City and New York State. Not merely liberal, but most often patrician liberal. There had been a great coalescing of progressive forces, and government was truly given a free hand to do all that it could do. And all that it did was go bust.

This remains the dilemma of modern liberalism.

In a certain, important sense both political parties are liberal, which is to say that both like to use government programs to bring about socially benevolent results. (Moynihan himself suggests that here because by 1977 New York City had just finished being governed by Republican John Lindsay and New York state by Republican John Rockefeller.) Democrats like government programs. Republicans like targeted tax "cuts." Both are different ways to spend money to get people to do what government wants them to do, be it getting health care or keeping two-parent families together. And yet, public problems persist—and we also face a massive public financing crisis.

So whatthen has the New Republic—which unquestionably featured some of the greatest public intellectuals of the 20th century—have to say about the "crisis of liberalism" today?

Using this volume as a guide, the answer is: nothing.

One cannot help but be struck by the juxtaposition of the last 100 pages—featuring essays from the 21st century—to the first 450 pages from the 20th century. On domestic politics, I count just three entries of recent vintage. First, there is a decidedly dated and partisan offering from Jeffrey Rosen about the 2000 election. Second, there is a churlish attempt by Jonathan Chait to make "Bush Hatred" intellectually legitimate. Third, there is an entry from John Judis on Barack Obama. For my money, Judis is the most interesting writer at today’s New Republic, but this essay witnesses him giving in to the Obama Frenzy of 2008. He declares the soon-to-be president an "American Adam," a man who—free of our past sins—has it within himself to remake the American landscape.

And that is it. In response to the crisis of liberalism, the New Republic of the 21st century responds with surly diatribes against Republicans and a credulous celebration of Barack Obama.

It is in this way that Insurrections of the Mind is an illustrative account of modern American liberalism. It illustrates the apparent fact that liberals do not have any answers for their own dilemma. Instead, I think liberals today lean very hard on hatred of their partisan opponents and blind worship of false idols provided by the Democratic Party.

Moynihan’s dilemma of liberalism could be slightly revised to account for the argument of Theodore Lowi in The End of Liberalism, published about a decade before Moynihan’s diagnosis. Lowi argued that the modern state in fact is now beset by "interest group liberalism:"

It may be called liberalism because it expects to use government in a positive and expansive role, it is motivated by the highest sentiments, and it possesses strong faith that what is good for government is good for the society. It is "interest-group liberalism" because it sees as both necessary and good that the policy agenda and the public interest be defined in terms of the organized interests in society.

The original progressives would have been appalled by this. The 1912 Progressive platform intoned: "Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people." The Progressive party, and soon the New Republic as well, would fight this "invisible government" that had joined in an "unholy alliance ... corrupt business and corrupt politics."

Thus, the progressive movement out of which the New Republic formed was not merely about expanding social welfare, implementing economic regulation, and redistributing the tax burden. It also faced this challenge: all these ideas were popular with the people, and indeed had been for almost a quarter century by 1912. Yet they had been thwarted at every turn. How had this come about? How also did reformers have to resort to founding a third party, rather than use one or the other existing coalition to make change happen?

The Progressives’ answer was that popular government had been corrupted by special interests—and so the early movement actually had a twofold purpose. Yes, it would expand the scope of the state, but it would also make government responsible to the people. In this latter sense, the Progressive movement understood itself as restoring to preeminence the republican aspirations of the Framers. Hence the name—the New Republic: something novel to restore something ancient.

So, combining Moynihan with Lowi, the dilemma of liberalism may be defined this way: it is not only that the liberal regime has failed to do what it promised and bankrupted us in the process. It has also been pretty damned beneficial for the "malefactors of wealth" against whom the original liberals campaigned so vehemently.

This is a crisis that should deeply trouble all liberals, i.e. anybody who accepts the basic parameters set through policies enacted under Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and LBJ. That is pretty much everybody, including Republicans and most modern conservatives.

Modern conservatives who accede to the essential bargain are beginning to come to terms with the crisis. Hence, we see the Paul Ryan plan for Medicare. Say what you like about it, it is nevertheless the only serious proposal out there that acknowledges the severe problem in our public finances. We also see conservatives increasingly opposing crony capitalism, as embodied in the Export Import Bank. Many quarters on the right have not grasped the full weight of their own role in the liberal dilemma, but these are good starts.

Meanwhile, most modern liberals—i.e. those who are intent on expanding the state beyond the parameters—want nothing to do with this problem. There are exceptions to the rule (Ralph Nader notable among them) but it remains a rule, one which we see in action on the final pages of this volume. Unless it somehow enhances the electoral prospects of the Republican Party, most liberals do not really care about the "invisible government." Moreover, most of them are not troubled at all by how to pay the bills.

Indeed, they are all joined together in celebration of the Affordable Care Act, which is a case study in crony capitalism and dishonest accounting.

If anything, it is getting hard to distinguish the liberal reformers from the plutocrats who must be reformed—a blurring of distinctions that only enhances the power of the "invisible government." Once again the New Republic leads the way, for who should appear at the end of this volume but Chris Hughes, now the publisher and editor-in-chief. He offers some gooey pablum about the relevance of his magazine even in the Internet Age when all manner of information is instantly available and blah blah blah.

The dull platitudes of Hughes’s "Afterword" are only interesting for their origin, as he is a co-founder of Facebook. If you have read Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict, you will know that the new tech oligarchies of Silicon Valley are becoming as dangerous to republican government as Standard Oil once was. Indeed, Hughes’s former compatriot Mark Zuckerberg has been using his enormous fortune to push a massive amnesty that would drive down wages and increase unemployment for the American working class but be a substantial boon to wealthy businesses like Facebook.

In other words, the politically powerful captains of industry against whom the New Republic was founded to oppose are now more or less in charge of the New Republic. If that is not a metaphor for modern liberalism, I do not know what is.