How a misunderstood theory from nearly 70 years ago explains American politics.
During the Trump presidency, a glut of terms and takes have been introduced to help Americans understand the current political moment. These takes have moved from newspaper columns to bookstore shelves. There are books about how democracies die, how the Founders would understand our current moment, and what the current president will do to the foundations of this office. 15 books have been written about the White House alone, with books on Trump-inspired topics by Jill Lepore and Michael Beschloss appearing just in the past month. In this effort to understand and explain our politics, some writers have delved into the past and reused terms pioneered by earlier scholars. Using these earlier ideas helps gain authority for new interpretations and places the current moment into historical context. This effort has produced mixed results.
One of the older concepts more commonly used to explain the Trump presidency has been the vital center. According to some scholars and pundits, the vital center is the set of shared norms and ideas that have powered American politics at least since the end of the Second World War. These ideas include an interventionist foreign policy, a tacit acceptance of minorities and immigrants, and belief in a mixed market economy. Supporters of this interpretation of the vital center also believe that the country’s most successful politicians work outside of the constraints of ideology. In the words of a writer in The Nation, they “do not just seek the space between right and left, but also elevate politics above the interests of any single faction or group.” Throughout the liberalism of Lyndon Johnson or the conservatism of Ronald Reagan, this vital center has always held.
Alas, this vital center has begun to break down. The comity of earlier eras of American history, when Democrats voted for Ronald Reagan’s tax plan and Republicans pushed to impeach Richard Nixon, has been replaced by vehement partisanship. These commentators often blame Trump first and then blame the forces of the left, particularly students and college professors, for this breakdown.
The current exposition of the vital center is a reasonable theory to explain American politics. But it is an inaccurate use of the term as invented by its originator some 70 years ago. The original vital center was not the work of that era’s Thomas Friedman or centrist Republican Senator Ben Sasse. Instead, it was the work of a self-styled “radical liberal” whose interpretation explained the nature of American politics much better than the current centrist approach.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. coined the term The Vital Center in a book by that name in 1949. Schlesinger’s book approvingly used the term to describe a middle point between Soviet-style communism and radical right-wing politics. Schlesinger was not, however, advocating for an interpretation of political centrism that we would recognize today.
Instead, his program was as liberal as that of a current self-described socialist like Bernie Sanders. For instance, Schlesinger wanted to impose massive inheritance taxes and income taxes on the nation’s wealthiest. Schlesinger wanted to incorporate some model of Medicare for All and even flirted briefly with nationalizing parts of the country’s industry. He approvingly quoted a Harvard professor who argued that radicals should
be resolute in [their] demand to confiscate (by constitutional methods) all property once a generation. [They] will demand really effective inheritance and gift taxes and the breaking up of trust funds and estates. And this point cannot be lightly pushed aside, for it is the kernel of [their] radical philosophy.
As long as the left supported the United States, opposed the Soviet Union, and met the principles of the Constitution, Schlesinger supported its goals. He spent an entire chapter of The Vital Center discussing his commitment to radicalism. Radicalism, the way Schlesinger defined the vital center, was be a force that wanted to remake the national economy while also avoiding Marxism and supporting “a belief in the integrity of the individual, in the limited state [meaning a non-communist state], in due process of law, in empiricism and gradualism.” The truth was that the vital center was located almost as far to the left as any non-Soviet-sympathizer was willing to go.
Schlesinger’s interpretation of a radical vital center driving the nation’s politics is particularly relevant to today. Many of the policy proposals Schlesinger supported in the 1940s are relevant today. Medicare expansion, higher taxes on the wealthy, and more protections for labor unions are all enormously popular. They reflect the winning message of the 2016 Donald Trump campaign, in which xenophobic attacks were arguably less influential than promises to rein in big banks or provide cheap health care to all Americans.
A true expression of the vital center would involve a full embrace of Schlesinger-style liberalism throughout the Democratic Party. Democrats must argue in favor of bold, persistent legislation to fix the nation’s ills. They need to pass laws, raise money, and reform systems that stymie change. Most importantly, they need to reject the voices that reject radicalism and propose modest, moderate change as the only way forward. The conception of the center held by politicians like Hillary Clinton and groups like Third Way was soundly rejected in the 2016 election. Democrats don’t have to embrace banks and energy companies to understand the nation’s vital center. They just have to advocate on behalf of the American people.