A Radical Takes Over as President of The Nation

Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of the socialist quarterly Jacobin, once bemoaned The Nation’s limp leftism. Now he’s in charge of growing its business.

A few months before Bhaskar Sunkara launched the socialist magazine Jacobin at age 21 in 2010, he wrote a blistering blog post titled “The Death of a Nation,” which lamented “the deterioration of The Nationinto a vapid, politically complacent mouthpiece of the establishment.” He added, “The Nation was never ours, but it was a halfway house for radicals.” In particular, he singled out Melissa Harris-Perry, then a Princeton professor and MSNBC personality and regular contributor to the magazine, as “a reactionary who doesn’t write very well” and indicative of “the collapse of the revolutionary left.” The day after the post went up and received pushback from commenters, Sunkara went back to clarify that he didn’t blame The Nation’s leadership for their ideological laxity: “If you were [Nation publisher] Katrina vanden Heuvel would you be looking for a palatable, media-exposed writer like [Harris-Perry] or a curmudgeony radical holdout?”

On February 23, Sunkara was named the president of The Nation. “Unlike some radical socialists, I’ve always believed that progress in the United States would be made by some sort of coalition between socialism and liberalism,” he told The Fine Print. “To me, the real question is, what’s going to be the dominant part of this coalition?” Stepping in as president of The Nation is certainly one way to ensure this particular microcosm of that coalition swings towards the socialists. As American liberals have shifted further left on some issues, in the wake of two Bernie Sanders campaigns, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the pandemic, The Nation has also bolstered its socialist contingent, hiring, for instance, as its literary editor former Dissent co-editor David Marcus, who Sunkara said, “I’ve known since I was an undergraduate in college.” Sunkara also gets along with the magazine’s editor D.D. Guttenplan. “He’s been the editor of The Nation who’s been calling me every six months or so to write, and often with pitches and ideas that were quite leftwing, about socialism, about developments of the UK Labour party and labor left,” he said. “I don’t think that I would have been so comfortable moving from an explicitly socialist left publication to a more liberal publication unless it was a publication that’s always welcomed the left.”

With Sunkara taking The Nation job, new leaders are taking over at the quarterly Jacobin. “We have an incoming publisher we’re announcing at the end of the month,” Sunkara said. “Micah Uetricht, our current deputy editor, is going be editor.” Sunkara said he’s stepping away from the magazine he founded — which now has more than 75,000 subscribers and 3 million monthly visitors to its website — because he thinks it’s reached a point where it can continue to grow in new ways with new leadership. “Even at this point, before the final transition, there’s basically nothing for me to do day to day, except to periodically check-in and make sure structures are working and people are happy,” he said. “If you want to think about what the purpose of good leadership or institution-building should be, it should be creating things that can function in the absence of one person or a couple of people, rather than being the wizard trying to micromanage and juggle a million things, which definitely is the way I used to operate, up until a few years ago.”

Jacobin’s business success allowed it to bring employees on to take over some of those responsibilities. “Early on in a project, you have to put on multiple hats, but it’s important to have a vision of a completed project in which you’re like, ‘Alright, I currently have five positions, but in my completed role I will only have one position.’ Jacobin — at least in my vision of completedness — has kind of been completed. Obviously as new people step up in Jacobin, they might be able to see new opportunities that I don’t foresee,” he said. “One thing that attracted me to The Nation is just the fact that it’s been around since 1865. It has this longevity and institution building. My dream for Jacobin, obviously, is for it to be around for, if not 150-something years, at least a hundred years, which requires more than just the efforts of a few people.”

His new job also means he won’t be able to write as much. “I’ve been trying to develop a kind of niche skillset around circulation and marketing and all the other pieces around being a publisher,” he said. “And I felt like, whether I wanted to do this or not, this was kind of what I landed into as the thing that I’m good at.” There’s nothing in his Nation contract to preclude him from writing for other publications, but practically his time is going to be limited. “I had been at some point writing fortnightly for The Guardian, then I dropped down to monthly, if even, so I think that will unfortunately become something like quarterly, if even. And then I’m halfway through two book projects, one I am about to submit this weekend. One is a history of the Grenadian revolution, so I kind of went very niche and socialist for that one. There’s another bigger book on market socialism that I’m working on with Mike Beggs, who’s an academic in Australia, and this guy, Ben Burgis. That’s still ongoing, but I’ll probably miss my deadline a little bit,” he said. “When I have time to write, I want it to be projects and things that are longer term and for posterity, rather than direct interventions, because I’ve always found that I can find other writers that are as good or better writers than me.”

Sunkara is arriving at The Nation during a tense moment for its labor union. The Nation Union’s collective bargaining agreement expired on December 31, and they’re still negotiating with Erin O’Mara, his predecessor as president, who is continuing as the executive director of The Nation Fund for Independent Journalism and a consultant to the publisher. “The union will continue its activity,” Annie Shields, a Newsguild member organizer and until recently the engagement editor at The Nation, told The Fine Print. “We have a strong unit council of five or six people, and the entire shop is united in participating in the contract campaign.” Sunkara said that unless the negotiations drag on for a long time, he won’t be very involved, and O’Mara will continue to represent management at the table. “That’s still Erin’s ballgame. I just concluded the Jacobin CBA as one of my last acts in December, so I’m glad that Erin’s seeing it through,” he said. “She has a lot of experience with this, so I’m sure she could do a better job for both the staff and the institution as a whole than I could.”

Still, he has a perspective on how bargaining should go. “The Nation obviously needs to protect the rights and the material conditions of its staff, but it also needs to devote its resources to its ideological purpose,” he said. “In all my experience at Jacobin and being involved in other publications, unions with this ideological background don’t quite bargain like they’re bargaining against a massive for-profit company, and, on the other hand, management doesn’t bargain like its only goal is to extract more and more from its members. I think both sides do a balancing act and layout their priorities, and, in the end, a stable institution and bringing in revenue is in the interest of everyone. I think it’s a little bit more nuanced than just one side is representing some sort of corporate interest, and the other side is representing the humble workers, and I think both sides know that. So, obviously, I’m looking forward to working with all the staff and I’m happy that it’s a unionized staff that has a collective bargaining agreement.”

He’ll also have to grapple with The Nation’s budget deficit (20 percent of the magazine’s revenues come from The Nation Builders donors). “Obviously, the goal is to bring in more money and also to find efficiency changes,” he said, but added, “a lot of my personal approach isn’t like how do you fix everything at once? It’s how do you ensure that what’s working can continue working, without a set of disruptions or just changes for the sake of changing things.” That means he’s not coming in with a large set of specific proposals. “I think my only firm plan is to embark on a web redesign,” he said. “It was great when it was constructed in 2014, 2015, but it’s been overdue for a redesign.” That’s just one example of his general approach, which accepts that things might be costly in the short term, but will hopefully pay off down the road. “Fundamentally, a lot of what The Nation does is about finding things that are important in the medium and long term to The Nation’s brand and identity, for example, championing of investigative journalism,” he said. “That, by nature, is going to lose money, but you have to create the context in which, over the medium or long term, preserving what The Nation is doing well can boost subscriber growth, and obviously, especially get young people to read instead of just going incognito mode when they hit the ticker paywall.”

In Sunkara’s first piece for The Nation, back in June 2013, he renewed many of his criticisms in his 2010 blog post, including his digs at Harris-Perry. “Liberalism — including in the pages of The Nation, save for a few redeeming essays and columns — seemed, even at its best moments, well-intentioned but inadequate,” he wrote. “Even The Nation’s bravest material has, like welfare liberalism as a whole, struggled to articulate a clear critique of the structures and social forces that have rolled back many of the social gains of the past century.” Looking back on that first piece, he remarked, “it was a very controlled opposition in the sense that it was solicited by Katrina, and published in The Nation. It was the cover story of that particular issue, so it wasn’t a thoroughgoing radical critique.” In announcing his new role, vanden Heuvel commented, “Bhaskar brings an entrepreneurial lens and a new generation of leadership to The Nation. He is a champion of independent media who has launched and grown some of the most significant institutions on the left today.”

Sunkara said it was the long-term view that most excited him about his new job. “Even in my most critical stage, being a young leftist, which I know you saw in that article, I’ve always had a lot of respect for the institution and what it stood for,” he said, adding that during the Cold War, “it was the type of publication that was not a communist publication, and stood for a broad set of ideas, from a Dewey-ian liberalism to, on the other side, a democratic socialism, like a broad tent, but it was a publication that didn’t go for the same type of rabid anti-communist drumbeat.” For someone who founded his own magazine relatively recently, stepping into a broader history is both invigorating and involves a different sort of responsibility. “I think it stood broadly on the right side of history, at least in the 20th century and the 21st century,” he said. “The legacy is really important to me, and I want to play a part in continuing it.”

Including, especially, its periodic theme cruises, a revenue-generating idea the liberal magazine borrowed from arch-conservative The National Review. “I actually have been a long-time defender of The Nationcruises, like a maniacal defender of The Nation cruises, to the point where I’m not actually sure whether I was ever being ironic or not,” Sunkara said. “I just think they’re a good revenue stream to support our journalism, and also very identified with The Nation. A portion of our core audience loves them and it’s just a novel idea that over the years has brought in millions for our work. I don’t have a more articulated defense than that!”