Andrew’s post “Do You Still Read Nash?” provoked a fascinating and long debate that raised lots of issues about insiders writing about their own group and the role of politics in one’s understanding of the past. But it also got me thinking about other works that people refer to but maybe no longer read. So in the spirit of Andrew’s post, I’d like to ask about Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s book, The Vital Center (1949). The book’s subtitle, “The Politics of Freedom,” suggests the wider argument. Schlesinger’s book defends and promotes the postwar consensus around the international policies of FDR. Suggesting that communism resulted in totalitarianism (which showed the bankruptcy of the left) and that the social organicism of paleo-conservatives yielded another kind of fascist totalitarianism (which showed the bankruptcy of the right), Schlesinger placed the vital center as the mean between these two failed extremes. It was the cold war liberal vision that avoided both kinds of totalitarianism while promoting liberty around the world.
Do You Still Read Schlesinger’s Vital Center (1949)?
I first heard the term “vital center” in a lecture on the larger political context of postwar liberalism. While acknowledging the cold war liberal (and therefore foreign policy) application of the term, the professor emphasized that this consensus bled over into domestic issues as well, so much so that Eisenhower and even (to some extent) Nixon fell within this Vital Center. My professor was not alone in borrowing the term while ignoring the book. In essence, he took the notion of vital center and made it the center not between fascism and totalitarianism but between conservatism and the New Left.
Schlesinger himself strongly objected to such a formulation and sought to reign in the definitional unclarity. But as he did so his efforts exposed the originally partisan function of the term. For example, he wrote in the introduction to the Transaction edition of the book in 1998: “‘Vital center’ refers to the contest between democracy and totalitarianism, not to contests within democracy between liberalism and conservatism, not at all to the so-called ‘middle of the road’ preferred by cautious politicians of our own time. The middle of the road is definitely not the vital center: it is the dead center. Within democracy the argument adheres to FDR’s injunction to move always ‘a little to the left of center.'”
Put that way, the book seems more of a primary source written by a Cold Warrior in the middle of ideological battle, which of course it is, rather than a usable secondary source today. So I ask: Do you still read Schlesinger’s Vital Center?