Mother Jones’ Legacy Is Haunting Mother Jones as the Magazine Embraces Neoliberalism

Media Features Mother Jones
Mother Jones’ Legacy Is Haunting Mother Jones as the Magazine Embraces Neoliberalism

In a recent piece called “Bernie Sanders Would have Lost the Election in a Landslide,” Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum harps on one of his favorite grudges.

“Since the topic keeps coming up,” Drum writes, he should set the record straight. Using political ideology, he argues that Bernie Sanders was too liberal. He does not explain what being too liberal means or why it matters, expecting the reader to follow along without questions.

“Republicans would have twisted him up like a wet rag and tossed him down the drain,” Drum writes, without explaining why or how.

What is striking, more so than the absolute lack of rigor in the piece, is what it represents: an election in which Mother Jones defied its namesake. The publication has continued to insist Bernie Sanders was not a viable candidate when its namesake was, in fact, his ideological forerunner.

In another piece, Drum invited “hate” for Bernie Sanders, arguing that he is at fault for millennials’ dislike of Hillary Clinton, a blatant distortion.

“While the original Mother Jones was someone who was known for uniting disparate political groups, [Editor-in-Chief Clara] Jeffery and Drum are constantly voicing their disdain for millennials (which is a very bad tactic if they were genuinely interested in strengthening a left-leaning political movement),” said Robert Oakes, a community organizer and DSA member from Austin, Texas.

“For me, what the publication using the name ”Mother Jones” has turned into, is more than just a disrespectful sleight to the labor organizer known by the same name. The fact that what much of the publication comes out with these days—centrist, neoliberal, bourgeois-minded pieces—is anything but radical, presents a huge problem for leftists and organizers that would hold the original Mother Jones in high regard,” Oakes said.

Roy Marsh, a Fort Bragg, North Carolina resident, used to read Mother Jones regularly, but he doesn’t so much anymore. “I see them as sort of the worst example of a lot of neoliberal media posing under the kind of classic leftist flag,” he said.

Marsh further articulated that “it doesn’t make sense, given the namesake. It’s truly angering that a poor woman laborer who fought tirelessly (and was arrested) for poor workers and even socialism is being represented by smug elites who viciously go after a fairly mundanely left candidate (Bernie) for the temerity of challenging a corporatist shill.”

Mary Harris Jones, or Mother Jones, was a labor organizer who became iconic around the turn of the twentieth century for catalyzing a left filled with workers. Through organizing — she helped found the Social Democratic Party — the Industrial Workers of the World, and she actually saw results.

“I wonder what some of the modern liberal pundits would write if they went back in time to report on the real Mother Jones riling up workers against the powerful,” Marsh added.

The magazine, it’s important to note, publishes strong reporting — Shane Bauer’s work on private prisons stands out in particular. But that is often overshadowed by the sheer thrill that many of the magazine’s prominent members take in ascribing to center liberalism.

It’s not the first time that readers have questioned whether the name really fits. In a 1978 National Affairs piece called ‘Would Mother Jones Buy Mother Jones?’ Michael A Scully had similar criticisms regarding liberal elitism that readers have today.

“The magazines of the radical left have lost their beleaguered look, as have their readers: Affluent societies produce affluent critics,” he wrote, adding: “no magazine, and perhaps no person or group, has fused more successfully the disparate strands of 1960’s radicalism than has Mother Jones

Then, Mother Jones had been in print for two years, founded by idealistic progressives. “We thought the country was ready for a magazine of investigative reporting that would focus on the great unelected power wielders of our time—multinational corporations,” wrote one of the founders, Adam Hochschild.

Even that goal fell away during the election when the dominant voices of the magazine took to championing Hillary Clinton, notorious for her alliance with Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobile, and TD Bank, to name a few.

Mother Jones used to be a publication that was really easy to respect, but over the last decade or so to say it lost its way would be an understatement,” said Gavin Bard, a writer from Philadelphia.

“I know a lot of labor-focused leftists really turned on it when its treatment of… interns came to light, but that isn’t the only thing. It just feels like over the last eight years or so there was this conscious shift from the publication being an aggressive investigative outlet to just another cog in the Democratic machine’s corporate center,” he added.

After Donald Trump was elected, Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery called on one of Mother Jones’ famous lines — “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living” — to discuss concern over a Trump presidency, without much specificity about what to be fighting and no mention of class whatsoever.

Jeffery demonstrated the friction that bothers readers when she tweeted “I have never hated millennials more,” in response to that young people were saying they planned to vote for third-party candidates.

“It’s kind of odd,” Salon writer Daniel Denvir wrote the time, that a magazine named for Mother Jones would demonize the left, especially young Bernie Sanders supporters. He noted an article by Pema Levy about so-called Sanders supporters attacking Elizabeth Warren for endorsing Clinton. Denvir found that one of the main people quoted was not, in fact, a Bernie Sanders supporter.

This demonization of a young, radicalized left — the “bernie bros,” or the “irony bros” — popped up throughout the magazine’s election coverage, and on the Twitter feeds of its editors.

But perhaps Jeffery’s most striking deviation from Jones’ legacy is her disdain for the homeless. Whereas Mother Jones was a champion of the downtrodden, Jeffery seems genuinely irritated by them.

Critics will be quick to note that not all of Mary Harris Jones’ politics fit what today’s progressive movement looks like, and that’s fair. At some point, a name is just a name. For example, she was opposed to women’s voting rights, saying it was a distraction from socioeconomic issues. Jeffery, it’s worth noting, seems to have the opposite fixation — for example, she frequently wrote off legitimate criticisms of Hillary Clinton as a candidate as sexism.

So there’s no mandate saying that Mother Jones has to follow its namesake’s politics, of course, but it does leave readers asking.

Earlier this month, in a Twitter conversation about Bernie Sanders’ popularity, a user named chesed_gevurah took Kevin Drum to task about the namesake. “Also, it’s just weird (and sad) when an editor for @MotherJones magazine is vocally opposed to socialism,” he wrote.

Kevin Drum responded: “I’m not an editor. And MoJo is not a socialist publication anyway.”

Chesed_gevurah fired back: “Ah, apologies re: editor thing. Sure, MJ may not identify as socialist, but given whom it’s named after…”

Drum effectively shrugged his shoulders, tweeting: “I guess it seemed like a good idea in 1970. Or something.”

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