Monday, November 17, 2014

The New Republic and Modern American Liberalism

Liberalism wagers that a state . . . can be strong but constrained – strong because constrained. Rights to education and other requirements for human development and security aim to advance equal opportunity and personal dignity and to promote a creative and productive society. To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported a wider social and economic role for the state, counterbalanced by more robust guarantees of civil liberties and a wider social system of checks and balances anchored in an independent press and pluralistic society. – Paul Starr, The New Republic, March 5, 2007.
The New Republic is 100 years old this month. For a bi-weekly journal of opinion and the arts with an intellectual flare and a small subscription base, this is quite an accomplishment. Founded in 1914 by Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly and inspired by the reform impulses of Theodore Roosevelt then vibrating through American society, for the past century The New Republic has engaged in a vibrant debate over the essence of a good society and what makes life worth living. Although distinctly liberal in origin, it has in its philosophical leanings evolved, shifted, varied and, at times, contradicted itself in a manner to be expected of a journal that takes ideas and democracy seriously.

I first discovered The New Republic in the summer of 1981 when I was 22 years old. Only a month earlier I had graduated from Wittenberg University and been baptized into the “real world” of full-time employment, living in Houston and working as a financial accountant for a Texas-based oilfield services company. The job was dull and uninspiring, but one afternoon I wandered into the lobby of the 29th floor and noticed on a glass coffee table a magazine that looked unlike any other I had previously seen. The cover story immediately caught my attention. It concerned the rise of the New Right and the perils of Christian fundamentalism, matters of particular relevance to life in Texas and which explained, in part, America’s rightward tilt during the Reagan years. As I began reading, I was impressed immediately by the journal’s clear and eloquent prose, its understanding of history, and its pragmatic liberalism. It was beautifully written and filled with high-quality essays and articles on politics, society, religion, literature, and the arts. It was refreshingly liberal, but not ideological, and I soon learned that its editors despised dogmatism and were as critical of the far left as of the far right.

Each week that summer I searched out a new issue and read it cover to cover. I devoured every editorial, every article, every word. The writing was intelligent and accessible, offering commentary on everything from the continued relevance of John Maynard Keynes to the origins of the Enlightenment. It was lively and stimulating and introduced me to issues of which I had previously paid little attention – Israel and Zionism, the plight of Soviet Jewry, the historic struggle against South African apartheid. It explained and placed in context the internal debates within the Democratic Party over foreign policy and America’s proper role in the world, and the ideological divides within the Republican Party. The editors and contributors wrote sensibly on civil rights, civil liberties, education and the environment. And in the “back of the book” as it was called, one found intellectually engaging book reviews and essays on art, film, music, history and literature. I was hooked.

By the time I started law school at George Washington University in the fall of 1982, I was a loyal reader and subscriber. One day, hidden away in a quiet cubicle on the third floor of the Gelman Library, I wandered into the periodical section and discovered bound volumes of every past issue of The New Republic. Here I escaped into slices of history. I read essays by Walter Lippmann, Edmund Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Alfred Kazin, and James MacGregor Burns; editorials that addressed what were then contemporary issues of urgency – the two world wars, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, the later struggle for civil rights at home and, eventually, the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. I would return to this cubicle and venture into the periodicals time and again over the next three years, taking needed breaks from my legal studies.

For much of the past 33 years, I have continued to read and subscribe to this journal. It has inspired, educated and infuriated me – sometimes all at once. But it has always made me think. For more left-leaning liberals, The New Republic is a difficult partner, for it deviates too far and too often from what some might consider traditional liberal orthodoxy. On foreign affairs, military policy, and America’s response to perceived Soviet aggression (in the 1980’s) or Islamic extremism and international terrorism (since 9/11), the magazine’s editorial and published voices have sometimes drifted towards the neo-conservative camp. I have on occasion disagreed with the editorial proclamations of the magazine on these issues and have at times been perplexed by its choice of authors, but intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas is the very essence of liberal debate, a concept sometimes lost nowadays in elite intellectual circles on the left and the right (college campuses included).

Since its founding a century ago, The New Republic has been at the forefront of helping to define, mold, and influence American liberalism. As Editor Franklin Foer explained to The New York Times in 2011, The New Republic “invented the modern usage of the term ‘liberal.’ And it’s one of our historical legacies and obligations to be involved in the ongoing debate over what exactly liberalism means and stands for.” For me, it has been an essential resource in formulating and refining my own philosophical and political leanings.

As Princeton University professor Paul Starr, a contributor to The New Republic and the co-founder of The American Prospect has noted, liberalism is notoriously difficult to define, for it is not an ideology so much as a practical assessment of how to build a free, fair, and prosperous society. The liberalism espoused by The New Republic in the early 20th century was based partly on the belief that, as the country evolved from an agrarian based economy to one dominated by the modern corporation, and as American life became increasingly complex and dependent on the technological and industrial revolutions of the modern era, less relevant became Jeffersonian notions of libertarianism and individualism. The reforms and protections needed required a more Hamiltonian vision of American government, stronger and more centralized to properly and effectively address the many areas of neglect and exploitation that had resulted from unfettered capitalism and rising inequality.

At the turn of the 20th century, when Teddy Roosevelt was President, the United States enacted a series of progressive reforms intended to counter the excesses of the industrial age. Laws were enacted that restricted the use of child labor and exploitative working conditions, improved workplace safety, opposed monopolistic and unfair trade practices, and protected and preserved millions of acres of national parks and forests. Twenty-five years later, during the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt helped bring about much needed reforms to the banking and securities industries, created jobs through public works programs, and established social security insurance. The building of roads, bridges, tunnels, and, in the 1950’s, the interstate highway system, mobilized the nation’s commerce and connected every region and segment of the country. The War on Poverty and the civil rights laws in the 1960’s ended Jim Crow, created medical insurance for children and the poor, provided public housing and expanded the reach of education. Laws governing clean air, clean water, and food safety; laws against discrimination in the workplace; expansion of health care insurance, safe air traffic control  – these are just a few practical examples of how liberal reforms have made American life safer, fairer, and more secure.

Liberals believe that government can be used for good, to harness expert knowledge to solve problems in a way that will allow American prosperity to spread and grow fairly and equitably. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy said in a speech before the New York Liberal Party that, if by the term “liberal” one means “someone who cares about the welfare of the people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, their civil liberties . . . then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.” To Kennedy, a liberal was also one who believes “in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. . . . For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.”

Kennedy understood that, while “the fight to eliminate poverty and human exploitation is a fight that goes on in our day,” liberals accept the fundamental tenets of the free enterprise system and a certain degree of inequality. They understand that government is a human endeavor, and thus imperfect. It does not always get things right, or properly balance competing interests. Kennedy, as a practical liberal, remained open to further reforms and modifications and sought to allocate resources to the areas of greatest need. He was a liberal in the way I am a liberal and The New Republic is a “liberal” magazine. Liberals wish to address imperfections and injustices, but we are reformers, not revolutionaries. We do not endorse the concept of the superstate. “I abhor the waste and incompetence of large-scale federal bureaucracies,” said Kennedy in a 1960 speech cited favorably by The New Republic. “I do not favor state compulsion when voluntary individual effort can do the job and do it well. But I believe in a government which acts, which exercises its full powers and responsibilities. Government is an art and a precious obligation; and when it has a job to do, I believe it should do it.”

Authentic liberalism – not socialism, not left-wing radicalism – but the liberalism as generally articulated in The New Republic has developed with an understanding of how policies work in light of political, social, and economic realities. Experience shows that some government programs are more effective than others at achieving intended goals. The debate over the direction of modern liberalism must therefore be premised on how public policy works in practice not theory. As Paul Starr wrote in an April 2007 issue of The American Prospect:
Modern liberalism has never been ruled by a theory in the way that free-market conservatism and Marxian socialism have been. A pragmatic emphasis on experience and evidence – on how things work in practice – has been critical in making liberalism work. . . . Liberalism regards the well-being of the least well-off as a central criterion for a just society, and it seeks to provide individuals with some degree of protection against risks beyond their control; but it accepts inequalities insofar as they are to everyone’s long-run advantage, and therefore aims for sustainable growth with widely shared gains.
The struggle to define liberalism will continue to be fought on the pages of The New Republic for years to come. The arguments will undoubtedly shift from left to center and back, and labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” will not always apply. But it is an important debate because modern liberalism has brought about more forward progress in American society than any other political movement. And as we advance into the 21st century, the debate is one that will influence how we choose to allocate limited resources for the benefit of all of our citizens; remain true to our immigrant history as a light among the nations and still protect our national security and economic interests; address the stark environmental threats posed by climate change; remain united among an increasingly divided electorate; decide when to exert American military force; and define our proper role in the world.

There are no easy answers to these issues and no simple solutions. But I will remain engaged in the debate for as long as I am able to learn, think, listen, and question. And I have The New Republic to thank for helping me stay informed and engaged with the world for most of my adult life.

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