Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. from an early television program he hosted on NBC, ca. 1951.
profile / power

The Power Historian

What was Arthur Schlesinger’s “vital center”?
…  
One of the few dissenting voices against the idea of consensus in these years was a young Harvard professor by the name of Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger was an outspoken liberal, and so he was not, like Hofstadter, critical of liberalism’s ascendance. But as the son of a Progressive historian, he also argued that it had arrived there through conflict, not consensus. In his first major works of history—The Age of Jackson and his three-volume epic, The Age of Roosevelt—he set out to prove his thesis, documenting how a bellicose view of politics had created and sustained the Democratic Party, first with its rise under Andrew Jackson and then with its revival under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Schlesinger went even further in his 1949 Cold War treatise, The Vital Center: If liberals and social democrats were to beat back communists abroad and right-wing conservatives at home, they needed a more realistic view of politics. History and human reason alone would not do the work for those on the side of progress. Social change required the tactics of war: intrigue, argument, duplicity, and confrontation. This is what he meant by a vital center—not a politics of accommodation, but one of all-out attack.

Over the years, Schlesinger’s vital center hasn’t often been remembered this way. Because of his strident anticommunism and his close ties to postwar Democrats—in 1961, he was appointed special assistant to John F. Kennedy—many of his critics saw Schlesinger as the avatar of consensus. Later, when a young cohort of “New Democrats” and neoliberals (yes, they used the term) began to push the Democratic Party to the right, The Vital Center was invoked to justify their triangulations and compromises. (Shortly after signing welfare reform into law in 1996, Bill Clinton declared before an audience of DLC members: “we have clearly created a new center…the vital center.”)

As we learn from Richard Aldous’s compellingly narrated and well-researched biography of Schlesinger, this was perhaps not so much an accident as an inadvertent result of his own ideas. Schlesinger always believed that his vital centrism was at the behest of a more egalitarian society—the welfare state in the United States and social democracy in Western Europe. But his instrumental view of politics was also always at risk of hardening into an ideology of its own. Like all forms of political and moral realism, the means could quickly become ends and power the sole prize.
  …
View source