Arthur Schlesinger believed in democracy because it was the system best able peacefully and constructively channel the dangerous instincts of a fallible species.
Seventy years ago this month, a 31-year-old Harvard history professor summarized the political and cultural predicament of the United States and its fellow democracies.
“We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety,” Arthur Schlesinger wrote. “The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.”
The eerie applicability of those lines to 2019 suggests that now is a good time to reconsider the 1949 manifesto by Schlesinger in which they first appeared, “The Vital Center.”
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If a single volume might be said to encapsulate Cold War liberalism, it would be “The Vital Center.” Could its arguments nevertheless help guide this generation of Americans through their political wilderness?
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In a world in which fascism had been defeated, Schlesinger did not pause to savor America’s World War II triumph. He looked ahead to the menace from another totalitarian variant, Soviet communism, and its domestic apologists.
He defined the political center not as a cautious middle way between the ultraright and ultraleft, but as a “fighting faith” in democracy that could both justify America’s postwar global power and motivate Americans to exercise it.
“Vital,” in his title, conveyed both of its dictionary meanings: necessary and energetic.
Though a New Dealer and a Democrat to his core who wanted government to blunt capitalism’s sharp edges — he served on President John F. Kennedy’s White House staff — Schlesinger envisioned a center capacious enough to include small-D democrats of the right as well as the left.
The democracy of “The Vital Center” was fundamentally a process rather than a result — a process that, diligently practiced, would “strengthen itself,” as Schlesinger’s biographer, Bard College history professor Richard Aldous, told me.
With U.S. politics now consumed by polarization, and the presidency in the hands of a man who openly disparages the “rigged” system, history since the Cold War has not panned out quite as Schlesinger might have hoped.
Schlesinger himself warned of this in his foreword to the 1998 edition of “The Vital Center.” A new “age of anxiety,” spawned by digital technology and globalization, and the dislocations they wrought, was at hand, he wrote. “The totalitarian movements of the 1930s” might come back in a “different guise,” unless democracy could “expand opportunity for men and women to live fulfilled lives.”
Schlesinger understood that Hitlerism and Stalinism had been simply the most recent, and most horrible, embodiments of the twin political threats that permanently haunt the modern world: reaction and revolution.
A key to President Donald Trump’s success with white working-class voters was to defend the New Deal and Great Society social insurance programs — Social Security and Medicare — while demonizing immigrants and immigration.
The contemporary relevance of “The Vital Center” lies not so much in its specifics as in its spirit. Though a liberal, Schlesinger was no idealist. Some of his book’s most withering paragraphs take aim at progressive-minded folks who “sacrifice humanity … on the altar of some abstract and special good.”
He insisted instead on democracy because it was the system best able peacefully and constructively to channel the dangerous instincts of a fallible species.
“The Vital Center” reflected the influence on Schlesinger of political philosopher and Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who observed that “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Certainly today’s reactionaries and revolutionaries would have no trouble identifying them, just as they have no trouble picking apart contemporary institutions and weaponizing their flaws politically.
It takes courage to acknowledge the limitations of human nature, and of human institutions, as Schlesinger did, yet hope for a rational, decent politics just the same.