There was an irony at the heart of Chris Hughes’ brief stewardship of the New Republic, which, the Facebook mogul announced yesterday, is now up for sale again. Hughes appeared to have two goals at the magazine: First, push the once center-left opinion journal further to the hard left, especially on issues of identity politics. (The cover story of the first issue after the mass departure of the magazine’s longtime staff was an extended denunciation of the “old” New Republic‘s coverage of racial issues). The second goal was to turn the 100-year-old magazine, once understood by its owners and writers as a kind of “public trust,” into a ruthlessly profitable corporation—or, in an editor’s now infamous words, a “vertically integrated digital media company.”
We usually don’t associate left-wing politics with this kind of corporatism and consultant-speak. And yet, this is the outlook that increasingly characterizes America’s new class of left-leaning plutocrats, who are quite left-leaning on social issues, but also deeply immersed in the world of startups, “brands,” and “disruption.”
This tension between the magazine’s political outlook and its business strategy clearly wasn’t the only source of its failure—but it probably wasn’t irrelevant, either. Hughes’ emphasis on profitability was more anathema to the magazine’s old-guard liberal staff than it might have been to business-friendly journalists at the Wall Street Journal editorial page. More than anything, it was the departure from the masthead of big names like Jeffrey Rosen, Robert Reich, and Judith Shulevitz that doomed the magazine. The old-guard writers were replaced with (mostly) hip young social liberals who appeared to have fewer objections than their predecessors to Hughes’ Silicon Valley-style business model, but couldn’t control the conversation in the same way.
It’s always dangerous to generalize from one event, of course, but Hughes’ destruction of the 100-year old magazine may point to challenges for left-leaning institutions down the line. The liberal billionaires of yore were enamored of the idea of “public trusts” and were therefore willing to lose money on institutions over the long run. It’s unclear whether the new class of young lefty plutocrats, whose liberalism is rooted more in identity politics than in social solidarity and class consciousness, will have the same impulses, or if they will be more determined, like Hughes was, to quickly generate profits. As Andrew Ross Sorkin pointed out, the young generation of billionaires is still finding its bearings when it comes to vanity projects.