The New Republic's Newest Editor Moves Left

Chris Lehmann is The New Republic's fifth editor in five years. A veteran of The Baffler,  Lehmann is taking advantage of the resurgence of leftism to build a magazine that's part politics Twitter and part Old Gawker, with a staff to match. (Art by Vicky Leta.) 

By Steven Perlberg

There’s a lefty magazine diving head first into the intramural battle for the future of the Democratic Party, fighting for Medicare For All, launching attacks against Joe Biden and moneyed centrists, praising Ilhan Omar, and criticizing haplessly dense New York Times columnists. It campaigned for impeachment despite early jitters from the Democratic establishment. It published a thoughtful, non-trolly piece about “cancel culture” that lit up Twitter.

Welcome to the New-New Republic. Or maybe it’s New-New-New Republic. The publication has been through so many iterations, with five different head editors in roughly as many years, that it’s hard to keep track. Founded as a progressive magazine 105 years ago, many readers still remember it chiefly from its 1990s reputation as an influential neoliberal organ. “I often tell people, ‘This may not be your father’s New Republic, but it might be your great-grandfather's New Republic,’” said its newest editor, Chris Lehmann.

Lehmann joined TNR in February 2019 as a consultant before officially taking over the magazine in April. The former editor of The Baffler, he has solidified his version of TNR around a decidedly left voice deeply skeptical of the Democratic establishment, a real-time rebuke not only of the magazine’s reputation during the Clinton ‘90s as the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One,” but also of its more recent past as an ill-defined, broadly liberal digital publication.

For students of the magazine’s recent history, the current transformation might be a shock. It’s not hard to imagine how an earlier version of TNR might process the news right now: Medicare For All won’t do well with swing voters. Joe Biden has the best chance to beat Trump. Impeachment will hurt Democrats. Cancel culture something something political correctness! — By Bret Stephens.

Instead, the magazine has been staffing up during Lehmann’s tenure with familiar voices from left-media Twitter, including Alex Pareene, Libby Watson, Osita Nwanevu, Nick Martin, Melissa Gira Grant, Walter Shapiro, Adam Weinstein, and Jason Linkins. “I implicitly trust his editorial vision,” said Pareene, who joined as a staff writer after taking a buyout from the former Gizmodo Media. “We want to be unapologetic about our politics.” 

Lehmann’s politics? He defined TNR to me as seeking to “make sense of a dramatically altered reality; one in which considerations of social class loom much larger; one in which obviously a certain kind of ethnic and racial demagoguery are playing a big role in our national politics; and where the house of liberalism is often on the defensive — not quite trusting its own instincts to forcefully challenge the Trump-GOP regime.” The magazine is, in other words, something of a national politics-focused Gawker in exile, openly hostile not only to the right, but also to fecklessness in the center and any whiff of “both sides” journalism.

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A self-described left populist, Lehmann is the author of two books on capitalism and a former writer and editor at a handful of major outlets, like New York magazine, the Washington Post, and Yahoo News. Lehmann told me he has drawn some ideas from prior iterations of the magazine, particularly its early-20th-century founding as a publication covering the consolidation of American industrial capitalism, a wave of multi-ethnic immigration, and foreign policy challenges — a chaotic moment similar to now. 

The New Republic was launched in 1914 by founding editors Walter Lippmann, Herbert Croly, and Walter Weyl. According to Croly, the magazine was to be a “weekly review of current political and social events… [representing] progressive principles, but it is to be independent of any party, or individual in politics.” The popularity and financial standing of the magazine fluctuated over the following decades among liberal intellectuals — through two world wars, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam — and in 1974 was purchased by Marty Peretz, a Harvard lecturer and stridently pro-Israel neoconservative. 

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it functioned as an important, insidery Washington title, advocating “Third Way” politics and making a bunch of white media guys famous. One staff writer was exposed as a fabulist in 1998 (which was turned into a movie). The ‘90s years were marked by the tenure of editor Andrew Sullivan, who supervised a string of controversies, most famously the publication of an excerpt of Charles Murray’s racist pseudoscience IQ book The Bell Curve. Other well-known editors followed Sullivan: Michael Kelly, Chuck Lane, Peter Beinart, and Franklin Foer. 

Then in 2012, roommate lottery-winner Chris Hughes bought the magazine, but by 2014 had decided he didn’t want to own The New Yorker of the Beltway but rather a “vertically integrated media company.” So Hughes replaced Foer with former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder. Famed literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who would later acknowledge his workplace misconduct, also decamped. The high-profile reshuffling triggered an exodus of staff writers and contributing editors, forcing a temporary halt in publishing (recall the long-forgotten Twitter meme: “Take me off of your masthead!”). 

The vertically integrated media company moved its headquarters to New York City (into plush Union Square offices decorated by Hughes’s personal designer) and cut its print publication frequency. By 2016, Hughes was $20 million poorer from the vanity project and sold the magazine to the liberal Oregon publisher Win McCormack, who until 2017 employed Hamilton Fish as publisher (Fish resigned amid some more misconduct claims). Since taking over, McCormack has also cycled through a series of top editors — Eric Bates, J.J. Gould, and finally Lehmann. (The McCormack family also controls The Baffler and the publisher Tin House.)

Now, yet again, TNR is trying to find its way. “‘Where do we fit’ and ‘what is our mission’ has been a fraught issue bandied about ever since Chris Hughes [acquired TNR] and Franklin Foer left,” said Ryu Spaeth, now the magazine’s features editor, who has worked at the publication for five years. “If you think of TNR under the Marty Peretz era as being something of an insider magazine — something of an elite institution — Chris has turned that on its head as a sort of a proudly outsider magazine.” Spaeth compared the start of this new era as similar to the beginning of Snyder’s leadership under Hughes, when the magazine was “getting out there and reaching people.” 

Current and former staffers I spoke with did note that, ideologically, the biggest shift away from the ‘90s past came with Hughes’ purchase and the subsequent wave of hires in 2014. And it’s not like staff writers already take marching orders from Lehmann like he’s Socialist Roger Ailes. Still, it’s clear the new TNR is honing a clearer voice and position among left media properties, an increasingly crowded terrain ranging from staunch socialist magazines like Jacobin and Commune to the “Dirtbag Left” of Chapo Trap House to mainstream liberal outlets like Vox and the Obama-ite podcasters of Crooked Media

Some staffers feel that Lehmann has ushered in a more appropriate identity for the magazine, in contrast to his predecessor, Gould, who had previously worked at another famed liberal magazine, The Atlantic. “I think he wanted TNR to be Atlantic-like — above the fray and magisterial,” one staffer said of Gould. “He leaned toward being polite, even-handed...just a recipe for everyone ignoring you.”

Gould told me the TNR he had in mind was to be liberal and pluralistic in spirit but also radical at heart. “There's a number of issues we imagined owning and advancing creative policy solutions on,” Gould said. “But overall, I wanted to navigate away from culture-war vicious-cycling and focus on understanding the complex social changes we’re going through—and on winning influence for intelligent, humane ideas that grapple with them.”

It’s a kind of liberal solutionism at odds with Lehmann’s version of the magazine. Gould said that his split from the company was amicable, but he has observed the ideological shift the magazine has since taken. “I respect Chris deeply,” he said. “What I do worry about on the left in general is that we're missing too much of the democratic challenge of forging space for engagement and persuasion… My belief is, what we can do in the public sphere, in media, and certainly in opinion journalism, still, is to move hearts and minds—including our own. That's not about genteel distractions like ‘civility’ or ‘centrism.’ It’s fiercely urgent.”

For their part, new staffers were drawn to TNR’s latest fiery reinvention. “The New Republic has always been the publication at the center of what it means to be progressive or be liberal,” said Nwanevu, the author of the essay on cancel culture, who recently joined TNR from The New Yorker. “Certainly the center is not a place where people are looking to for ideas, and that gives us a profound responsibility. It’s a wonderful opportunity for anyone who is writing on the left.”

That same opportunity convinced Watson, a staff writer focusing on politics and health care who previously worked at Splinter. “I feel like it’s a place where I can be openly lefty, and there aren’t many places left where you can do that,” she said. “It was not the TNR of the past that interested me in coming in. It was the TNR of the future.” 

The new approach has also grabbed the attention of others in the left-media space. “It seems they are trying to recreate the success that Splinter had in making itself this sort of loudest, satirical voice in the room,” said Ryan Grim, the Washington editor of The Intercept, which has also made the intra-Democratic battle a centerpiece of its editorial strategy. “If you take an ancient brand like the New Republic and bring that kind of voice to it, then people are going to pay attention.” I spoke with Grim shortly before Splinter was abruptly shut down (not to mention the resignation of most of Deadspin, after the vertical’s staffers were told to “stick to sports” and not stray into politics by the same owners).  

Lehmann has made some structural changes, too. He added two rotating columnists on race issues, Kimberle Crenshaw and Adolph Reed Jr, and reformatted the front of book, with columns on political language, the right wing media, and the politics of design. Lehmann also credited Laura Marsh, who has led TNR’s cultural coverage and criticism since 2017, for extending the magazine’s “long tradition of sharp, substantive reviewing and reporting.”

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This is still the scandal-prone New Republic we’re talking about, so it’s time for this part of the story: Lehmann’s tenure has not been without controversy. TNR in June posted a job listing for a part-time “inequality editor” without benefits, and amid Twitter backlash reversed course, saying that benefits would now be included with all part-time positions. “I think we were properly called out for it, and we responded,” Lehmann said.  

There was an even bigger shitstorm this summer when TNR published a confusing piece by gay literary critic Dale Peck about Pete Buttigieg, which called the South Bend mayor and presidential candidate, who came out in his early 30s, “the gay equivalent of Uncle Tom.” The publication deleted the essay after it was lambasted as gross and homophobic (suggested reading: Rich Juzwiak’s contrasting take at Jezebel). As a result, TNR pulled out of a climate forum for Democratic presidential hopefuls, an event that was eventually scrapped in the aftermath of the controversy. Lehmann declined to comment about the incident or its fallout inside the magazine, only saying that afterward there had been an “internal discussion.”

The business side presents challenges for TNR, too, just as in Hughes’s time. Earlier this year, the magazine hired former New York Times and Village Voice executive Kerrie Gillis as publisher. “The main challenges with a noteworthy magazine is being able to compete for revenue dollars on all platforms and trying to stand out with limited marketing budgets,” Gillis told me. What about advertisers wary of political content? “Most publications need to rely on the reader first because advertising dollars are not as available as in the past,” Gillis said. “And, yes, many advertisers do not want to be associated with political content, but luckily quite a few do.” The magazine currently has a circulation of 40,000 and pulls in just under 2 million monthly uniques, Gillis said. 

Gillis said that the magazine — like plenty of other publications — has sought other revenue streams, such as events. While the company remains committed to staying in print, she said that it is is also looking at establishing a digital paywall (the magazine tried a paywall in the past as well). 

I asked Snyder, the former editor, for his thoughts on the magazine’s challenges. “The biggest problem facing The New Republic for some years has been relevance. In many ways, the political, technological, and economic transformations underway in America today are similar to those unfolding when the magazine was founded in 1914,” he said. “It's doubtful those founders, if they were setting out from scratch today, would have picked a printed magazine as the best way to achieve their original mission. TNR's challenge today is figuring out how to stay true to its purpose in a radically changing media landscape.”

Survival is the order of the day for most media companies at the moment. But at least in the short-term, Lehmann seems to have found a way to make a dent in the digital discourse more effectively than his McCormack or Hughes-era predecessors. If TNR’s purpose has always been to drive dialogue around the key issues of the moment on the left, the latest iteration is true to its century-old legacy. Whether that kind of energy can hold throughout an election year and into the future remains to be seen, but as the Intercept’s Grim put it, the magazine’s new iteration offers “a reminder that people should be wary of writing publication obituaries too soon.”

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