The Magazine

A Camelot Minute

Arthur Schlesinger's "Vital Center" hasn't held.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By FRED SIEGEL
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The Vital Center:

The Politics of Freedom

by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

Transaction, 274 pp., $24.95

IN 1949, TWO LANDMARK political works--Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom and Peter Viereck's Conservatism Revisited--seemed to define the new postwar shape of American politics. The two books were beautifully wrought essays written by friends, both Harvard-educated historians of considerable breadth. The 32-year-old Schlesinger's book redefined liberalism for the generation that had fought its way through the Depression and World War II, while the 33-year-old Viereck's essay was hailed as the first account of "the new conservatism." Both men, the children of politically committed parents, defined themselves in opposition to fascism and communism, "the twin evils of totalitarianism," even as they were unambiguous critics of what they saw as Sen. Joseph McCarthy's vulgar populism.

Writing almost in parallel, Schlesinger and Viereck staked out positions in which a philosophical conservatism based on a sense of man's fallen nature was used to leverage a modulated political optimism grounded in a prudent empiricism. Together, Schlesinger and Viereck, generally men of almost Erasmian balance, feared the impact on democracy of the "anxieties" induced by freedom. Writing in the wake of the mass movements that had convulsed Europe, they were disdainful of laissez-faire capitalism and of the Babbitry they associated with business leaders, even as they looked to elites to contain democracy's rawer tendencies. But today Viereck's book is all but forgotten, while The Vital Center continues to be discussed by liberals almost as if it were written by a contemporary.

What accounts for the eclipse of one and the continued allure of the other? Some significance should be attached to the way they made their arguments. Neither man was sensitive to the ethnic and religious dimensions of American life. But in a short book, Viereck spent, as he later acknowledged, far too much time explicating the virtues of Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian architect of the long post-Napoleonic peace in Europe. America's postwar alliance system, as well as the still-promising United Nations, were, it was true, influenced by the way Metternich had tried to contain the earlier ideological scourge of Jacobinism. But Americans had a hard time connecting with Metternich, an aristocrat who insisted on "deference" from his social inferiors.

Schlesinger's heroes were more accessible. In The Vital Center he argued that Franklin Roosevelt was continuing the course embarked on by Andrew Jackson, who fought the privileged power of the Bank of the United States in the name of popular aspirations, just as FDR championed the average American when he took on the "economic royalists." This tack grounded the New Deal's state-brokered compromises between free market capitalism and the claims of "community" in homegrown traditions.

Schlesinger's critics, such as historian Marvin Meyers, insisted that he had gotten Jackson all wrong. The Jacksonians, Meyers argued with considerable skill and evidence, looked to free markets as a bulwark against the privileges they associated with political arrangements. But Meyers and other critics had little popular impact. Schlesinger succeeded in persuading most liberals that the New Deal was far more than just a temporary bargain to meet the emergency of the Great Depression. Rather, liberals became convinced, and many remained convinced, that the New Deal arrangements not only reflected, but culminated for all time, the ceaseless struggle between business and the people that defined American history.

Viereck's Burkean gradualism was a partisan dead end. In 1952, much to the dismay of other conservatives, he supported the Democrat Adlai Stevenson for president. By the mid-1950s he was being bypassed by an alternative strand of conservatism more attuned to America's vigorously capitalist past and far less burdened by the fear of populism as a harbinger of totalitarianism. In his 1962 introduction for a new edition of The New Conservatism, an overwrought Viereck denounced the political populism of the William Buckley/Barry Goldwater brand of conservatism as "a façade for either plutocratic profiteering or fascist style thought control nationalism." This populist or "street corner" conservatism, as it was known in the cities, marked the beginning of a political break with both Viereck's focus on the madness of the 1930s and the Republicans' residual stick-in-the-mud pre-New Deal politics.

Schlesinger's resolutely partisan approach to politics and policy endured--though, by the early 1950s, Viereck and the liberal historian Eric Goldman were already pointing out that liberalism was increasingly small-"c" conservative in its defense of New Deal policies, which might or might not stand the test of time.