THE NEW REPUBLIC: SOMETHING WORTH READING
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- The New Republic is a very thin weekly magazine with a charm all its own. This is a journal that has been caustically critical of President Bush's economic policies, yet supported the conquest of Iraq and defended the actions of the American press in its coverage of that war.
It is a journal of modern liberalism that also has the integrity to point out weaknesses in liberal ideology as well as mistakes made by the Democratic Party. It has concentrated a great deal of its energies these past two years to exposing the ineptitude and hypocrisy of the Bush Whitehouse while all the while carefully examining potential opposition candidates as to their strengths and failures (see www.tnr.com).
As an example of The New Republic's style, consider the current issue (September 29, 2003). It takes up, among several other things, the failure of the Cancun trade negotiation talks, arguing that the American position to maintain a system of subsidies on cotton will have potentially disastrous effects on poor farmers in the third world.
Author Jeffrey D. Sachs points out that subsidies to American farmers are so generous that we actually export overseas, and, "For Africans, the result is a loss of roughly $300 million per year in income - a literally life-and-death difference for large numbers of impoverished households teetering on the brink of survival." Why do we do this? Sachs answers, "Yet, just as George W. Bush opposed action on climate change to avoid upsetting coal miners in the swing state of West Virginia, he has also decided he can't alienate Big Agriculture - major campaign contributors - in the Southern states that he will need to carry in 2004."
This reads true, and it reads clearly. It is a breath of fresh air.
And, it also exemplifies what I like about The New Republic. There is a balance between, on the one extreme, mindless assertion, and on the other extreme, tedious fact-mongering. The important facts and statistics get presented as the context for important issues that need to be discussed in some depth.
TNR (as it calls itself within its pages) is willing to challenge fashionable assumptions. For example, an editorial suggested a grand compromise on the issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: to allow for drilling, but also to take serious action to enforce higher gas mileage in our SUV production. I don't know if I agree with it (I had earlier published an op ed piece in my local alternative newspaper opposing drilling), but the argument was very seductive.
Economically, the magazine has flogged the Bush administration over its tax cuts. A couple of years ago, at a time when the Bush administration was offering rosy forecasts, TNR warned of serious dangers. Those dangers have now come to pass as our yearly deficit approaches the half-trillion dollar mark.
The September 29 issue also has a discussion of the phenomenon that is coming to be called "Bush hatred," meaning the visceral dislike of the President by a substantial fraction of the American people. The New Republic leads off with what it calls "An Appreciation," written by senior editor Jonathan Chait (The Case for Bush Hatred: Mad About You).
"I hate President George W. Bush," it starts. "There, I said it. I think his policies rank him among the worst presidents in U.S. History. And while I'm tempted to leave it at that, the truth is that I hate him for less substantive reasons, too." What begins in this dryly comedic style develops into a serious, cogent explanation for why people have a perfect right to dislike the man and his policies.
What makes The New Republic different is that it goes on to present a chance for the other side to deliver its rebuttal, and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru delivers the goods. His material is less quotable, rather academic sounding actually, but makes the case that Bush hatred is not going to do the Democrats any good politically in the next election.
"One danger is that Democrats will be identified with the left-wing fringe that regards Bush as a Nazi and a murderer. But, even if that doesn't happen, every critique the Democrats make of Bush's policies could become tinged with an unappealing hostility toward Bush himself," Ponnuru says.
The conversation is available on the tnr.com Web site as a continuing series this week, fun for both sides of the political spectrum.
The willingness to go against the grain has allowed TNR to publish Gregg Easterbrook's excellent piece on how oilmen see the world (The Producers; June 4, 2001). Easterbrook writes, " Where the critics are wrong is in the unstated assumption that thinking like oilmen is an unequivocally bad thing - that all energy companies want to do is profiteer and kill caribou.
"On important questions of policy, the energy-industry world-view is often correct. And where the energy worldview - and the Bush plan - are wrong, it is often because they fail to face the implications of their own thinking." What follows is an intelligent essay that supports Bush and Cheney as "correct to say that the country needs increased energy production, including a new, rational look at atomic power," while faulting them for their blindness to the need for energy conservation.
What is interesting about this approach is that it attacks sacred cows of both right and left, including the anti-nuclear bias of the left and the stubborn indifference to conservation on the right.
TNR has had the unusual courage to defend the political rights of religious non-believers (Bad Faith; March 25, 2002). Peter Beinart writes, "In fact, the Bush administration never mentions non-believers; it never suggests that they, too, possess a moral sense that leads them to abhor terrorism and defend freedom."
Where I am trying to go with all this is to suggest that The New Republic is a magazine worth reading because it avoids the static thinking and ideological strictures so common in other journals of political thought. The Right is full of publications (and foundations) devoted to free markets (whatever that might mean in the real world). The Left also has its share of ideologically straight-jacketed magazines and alternative newspapers.
The scientific approach is to see if the data (ie: our real world experiences) fit the ideology. TNR manages to do something akin to applying a scientific approach to questions of politics and economic policy, something sadly lacking in so many other publications.
Stylistically, TNR is something of a throwback. It lacks flashy graphics for the most part. Actually, it lacks graphics almost entirely. On the other hand, it allows its authors to develop their thoughts fully, even if doing so takes 15,000 words. The result is a publication generally lacking in "gotcha" sound bite theatricalism but containing a good bit of careful thought.
It is the magazine I recommend to my friends on the left and on the right as an example of what a modern liberal approach can be.