Robert Frost was on to something when he advised against joining too many gangs. “Join the United States and join the family,” he counseled. “But not much in between unless a college.”

But even so independent a spirit as Frost might have made an allowance for joining a magazine, especially one with a tradition of making valuable contributions to the battle of ideas. Martin Peretz certainly did. As he writes, “My friends and I made a place for ourselves in these institutions—Harvard, the Democratic Party, and then, after I bought it, the New Republic, which in its time was the most influential political magazine in Washington.”

The former editor of the flagship journal of American liberalism does not exaggerate by much about the influence that he and his “friends” once wielded in the political discourse. In his gripping new memoir, The Controversialist, Peretz explains how, for decades, the New Republic was in the thick of things, a journal of politics and culture that was required reading for smart operators and observers of every stripe in the federal city.

A stalwart but idiosyncratic Democrat, Peretz vividly depicts American politics over the past half-century, including the recent fever to which it has succumbed. He takes readers on a tour of the political landscape, especially the contemporary left, that is at once bracing and more than a little dispiriting. The Democratic coalition has long been in thrall to identity politics, but recently this flirtation has evolved into something more like an infatuation. Increasingly bound by identitarian resentments, the left has turned against liberal American nationalism.

One feature of this new dispensation that especially dismays Peretz is the festering antagonism toward Israel, which has come to the fore since Hamas launched its savage raid into Israel last October. The costly consequences of these progressive innovations (and liberal betrayals) are made palpable in the personal frustrations and failures of the author and his erstwhile magazine.

The Controversialist covers a lot of ground. It is a personal history and a political manifesto as well as a rogue’s gallery of cantankerous polemicists. In spare but powerful prose, Peretz tells an engaging story of a life of incessant labor as well as the loves and grudges he nurtured along the way. For better or worse, Peretz never quite fit in: a consummate insider who views power with more than a touch of skepticism; a staunch partisan who rejects party-mindedness; an engagé intellectual who disdains becoming an “institutional man” despite harboring great respect for institutions.

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Born in New York City just before the outbreak of World War II, Peretz was the son of proudly Jewish but secular immigrants who had made it out of the bloodlands of Eastern Europe just before the nightmare began. Growing up in the Bronx among other Yiddish-speaking refugees, Peretz was part of “a community in mourning,” but still received instruction in a sappy all-American ecumenicism that preached the “pleasant fiction” of “one world,” interconnected. An uncomplicated Zionist and a proud American, he grew up believing that there was no contradiction between those inheritances.

In postwar America, non-Orthodox Jews tended to be Democrats because the Republican Party was not socially or economically attuned to poor immigrants. The Peretz family was no different and harbored great sympathy for the party of Truman. At Brandeis University, Peretz honed his liberal instincts in a left-Jewish milieu before attending Harvard as a graduate student. Despite his avid support for civil rights and opposition to the war in Vietnam, Peretz stood aloof from the sentimentalists and socialists who had no eye for “the darkness of human nature” and were therefore partial to an inveterate misreading of the real world. “Even within the party of the historically marginalized,” he found himself on the margin. If a sign of intellectual integrity is the willingness to offend one’s own flock, Peretz was a man for all seasons.

Such a peculiar worldview sat uncomfortably with any mainstream institution in the country, so Peretz decided to create one—or, more precisely, to bring regime change to an existing institution. He trained his sights on the New Republic, a venerable but exhausted periodical of the left.

After acquiring the New Republic and disposing of its staff, Peretz enlisted comrades who shared his impatience with a party in sway to the left. To refashion the magazine, he recruited a host of old-fashioned Democrats including Mike Kinsley, Rick Hertzberg, Leon Wieseltier, and Charles Krauthammer—writers who represented a liberal tradition that had long since fallen out of favor. (He identifies the latter two as the authoritative voices of the magazine.) Together, they settled into a “rhythm of provocation” that exuded a brash confidence in their outlook and principles.

Under Peretz’s stewardship, the New Republic defied neat categorization. Boasting subscribers and contributors from the establishment and the left, it regularly earned the approval and derision of both. (Such mixed reviews defined its relationship with Commentary, too.) It invited contrarian writers from Andrew Sullivan to Charles Murray to Camille Paglia to challenge progressive dogmas on a range of social and cultural issues. It hankered for a smaller, more sustainable welfare state, a view that left socialists and even mainstream liberals gasping. It wasn’t afraid to take on powerful interest groups, as when it defended racial equality but was wary of racial preference.

At once anti-Communist and anti-McCarthy, the New Republic wanted to “protect the private life of individuals from overarching political theories.” It was thus a magazine “from the Left but not of it, intellectual but not academic, a publication of ideas that was also where the action was.” The basic aspiration was to elevate “the old Left belief in political action to better society.” Against the genteel liberalism of the day—whose “certified intellectuals” were Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith—the New Republic championed “the humanist concern with the health of the culture” while making the case for “why Zionism mattered.” This involved a permanent struggle against the “polite rationalist establishment,” which gave no pause to Peretz and his crew, who embraced politics “not in the American sense of a pastime—like baseball or the stock market—but in the émigré sense of an absolute commitment.”

This anti-utopian liberal philosophy was out of step with a Democratic Party in transition. As the country was deindustrializing and becoming more of a consumer economy, the party that had long drawn its support from organized labor and the white working class was growing estranged from those forces and becoming a party of a mobile middle class. The “luxury beliefs” of the cognitive elite began to seep into the party and cut it off from the ancient faith in democracy and patriotism.

The New Republic believed that the best guarantor for individual freedom and cultural autonomy was a modest welfare state at home and the assertion of American power abroad. The project to create a “humanized technocracy” and liberal hegemony ran against the instincts of both parties in important respects, but Peretz does concede that, after Vietnam, the Democrats became utterly irresponsible in foreign and defense matters. The willful blindness of the left to the intentions of the Soviet Union (and latterly to other totalitarian enemies of the free world) ensured that “the only responsible people” in American politics were the Reaganites.

This became apparent in a series of foreign crises that followed the collapse of Soviet Communism. In 1992, reports of mass killings of Muslims started coming out of former Yugoslavia. As Christian Orthodox Bosnian Serbs, backed by Slobodan Milosevic, slaughtered Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, the New Republic swiftly recognized the danger of “state power in the service of tribal animus.” It dispatched a young journalist, Samantha Power (before her fall from grace), to Sarajevo to cover the ethnic cleansing. A steady stream of editorials vehemently argued that the génocidaires needed to be stopped and punished by force and with urgency. Peretz prodded Vice President Al Gore, his old friend and confidant, to launch a military intervention and cheered loudly when the Clinton administration belatedly did so.

On the subject of Israel, Peretz was and remains a consecrated liberal hawk. Though he always insisted upon Palestinian self-determination as a matter of duty and interest, he believed that America’s governing elite was broadly deluded about Yasser Arafat’s intentions (and later those of the Iranian mullahs). Even though the Palestinian chairman visited the Clinton White House more than any other world leader, Peretz never wavered in his belief that Arafat “wanted to enter Jerusalem as a conqueror” and would never “let go of his war” against the “Zionist entity.”

But it was in the post-9/11 era that the New Republic distinguished itself as the leading—perhaps the only—citadel on the left that responded seriously to the threat of Islamist totalitarianism. The rest of the left was in “ugly disarray,” writes Peretz, “opposing not just the invasion of Afghanistan but the liberation of Afghan women from the Taliban’s fundamentalist government” on the logic that it would only entrench American hegemony.

Anti-totalitarian liberals heartily defended the Bush administration’s muscular foreign policy, whose “neoconservative” analysis echoed Peretz’s own commitment to “a systematic approach to the failed states of the Middle East.” Ardent advocates for the liberation of Baghdad found abundant space in the New Republic to make their case. None was more eloquent or trenchant than Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-American scholar who conceived of American power as not only an assurance of American security but also a “vehicle to achieve other peoples’ freedom.”

“Everybody had supported the neocons in the beginning,” Peretz rightly reminds us. After the war hit tough going, “they were looking for scapegoats.” Scapegoats were duly procured by the Democratic elite who bent the knee to its anti-war flank, and the New Republic was fingered as the most proximate culprit of the misadventure in Mesopotamia. After keeping the faith with the Iraq War longer than most, it eventually yielded to a sense of buyer’s remorse. Peretz issues a clipped mea culpa that casts the war not merely as an “operational failure,” which is undeniable, but as “the failure of a foreign policy ideology, neoconservatism,” which is drivel. The orgy of violence that overtook post-Saddam Iraq and the “disillusion” it wrought among the American public was a ghastly outcome, but it hardly proves that the confrontation with the Iraqi tyrant would have been safely postponed, let alone avoided altogether.

After it authorized the war but before it unified in opposition to it, the Democratic Party attempted to split the difference by nominating a compromise candidate in 2004. The hapless John Kerry had infamously voted for the war before abandoning it at the first sign of difficulty. Incredibly, Peretz claims not to remember for whom he cast a ballot that year. This confusion or prevarication puts one in mind of his flippant 1980 vote for the third-party candidate John Anderson, whose main advantage was not being Jimmy Carter. Evidently, pragmatism was not always high on the list of virtues at the New Republic.

In the long shadow cast by the war in Iraq, the New Republic struggled to keep old readers or find new ones and, in 2012, passed into new hands. Within a year, Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, shored up the magazine’s faltering finances and gave it a facelift. The glossy new magazine jettisoned its liberal identity and became narrowly partisan, echoing the “managerialism and universalizing aspirations” of the Obama White House. To Peretz’s mind, the rebranded New Republic became little more than a “stenographer for power.”

Peretz freely confesses that the story of modern American liberalism is a “tale of failure,” and he writes about it with an indignation that’s all the more damning for being understated. Even at the apex of his influence, Peretz exemplified the temperament of the periphery, but somehow this psychological distance from power didn’t prepare him for the maelstrom visited upon him and his philosophy. After basking in the sunlight for so long, he plainly felt the sting of a cruel defeat and resigned himself to his fate as “a marginalized man.”

The Controversialist is a cautionary tale, not against political idealism per se, but of the high cost it imposes in a country caught between “the partly corrupted Establishment and the increasingly irresponsible disenfranchised.” Americans desirous of a more decent public life should lament that there is very little to console Peretz—or, for that matter, the Republican Old Guard that is feeling no less forsaken and desolate nowadays.

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