It’s My ‘Vital Center’

The historian who coined what has become President Clinton’s favorite new buzz phrase gives him an earful.

It’s My “Vital Center”
The historian who coined what has become President Clinton’s favorite new buzz phrase gives him an earful. By Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
(1,533 words; posted Friday, Jan. 10; to be composted Friday, Jan. 17)

      As a nonmember of the Internet, I enter this conversation late; but my spies inform me that S LATE’s ” Committee of Correspondence” recently discussed a couple of concepts with which I have been associated–the “vital center,” a phrase latterly adopted by President Clinton, and the theory of cycles in American politics.       “We proclaim,” the president said on the night of his re-election, “that the vital American center is alive and well.” In a press conference two days later: “Our people voted for the ideas of the vital American center.” And, in his December 1996 speech before the Democratic Leadership Council: “We have clearly created a new center … the vital center that has brought so much progress to our nation in the last four years. … Let us commit together to mobilizing that vital center.”

When I named the book I wrote in 1949 The Vital Center, the “center” I referred to was liberal democracy, as against its mortal international enemies–fascism to the right, communism to the left. I used the phrase in a global context.
     President Clinton, as suggested by his reference to “the vital American center,” is using the phrase in a domestic context. What does he mean by it? His DLC fans probably hope that he means the “middle of the road,” which they would locate somewhere closer to Ronald Reagan than to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In my view, as I have said elsewhere, that middle of the road is definitely not the vital center. It is the dead center.
President Clinton’s view? He is evidently saying that the United States is facing vital problems that the American people must attack together without reference to shibboleths of the past. He has tried out variations on the phrase before. “This is a time of such profound change,” he said in April 1995, “that we need a dynamic center that is not in the middle of what is left and right but is way beyond it. … I want us [Democrats and Republicans] to surprise everybody in America by rolling up our sleeves and working together.”
     What is the “profound change” that generates the “new challenges”? In his Dec. 13, 1996 press conference, Clinton recalled the time a century ago when “we moved from the farm to the factory” and “became primarily an urban manufacturing country.” Today, he suggested, we are undergoing a parallel mutation caused by the shock of a new “basis of economic activity … knowledge and information and technology.”
Our contemporary shift from a factory-based to a computer-based economy is even more traumatic than our great-grandparents’ shift from farm to factory. After all, the Industrial Revolution extended over several generations and allowed time for human and societal adjustment. The Cybernetic Revolution is far more immediate and drastic in its impact. Every few months, new “generations” spring out of the microchip arsenal. Moreover, where the Industrial Revolution in the end created more jobs than it destroyed, the Cybernetic Revolution threatens to destroy more jobs than it will create. It also threatens to erect new and less permeable class divisions. Those who flunk the computer will become the new Blade Runner proletariat.
     The cybernetic challenge–so Clinton, I take it, believes–renders the familiar divisions between left and right obsolete. The new technologies, he says, “make it possible for people to be more empowered at lower levels of government and lower levels of business, indeed, individually and in their own families.” The era of big government is therefore over. The era of local solutions has arrived.
Is this a realistic expectation? No doubt the new technologies, with their interactive potential, create new political possibilities. Brian Beedham in the Dec. 21, 1996, Economist even argues that representative democracy is finished and the age of direct, “full” democracy–government through referendum and plebiscite–has dawned. If that is so, the republic will become California, and heaven help us. The wisdom of the Federalist Papers–the need for deliberative democracy–is not yet outmoded.
     And when Clinton keeps on announcing the “end of big government,” one wonders whether this is not one more of his placatory phrases. For he plainly remains a believer in activist government–even if the scope of his activism is, for the moment, very limited. Concern for his place in history should nerve him to less modest initiatives.

      He told the DLC that “our first task is to finish the job of balancing the budget.” Our first task? Another placatory phrase, one must hope. Andrew Jackson was the only president to extinguish the national debt, but if that were all Jackson had accomplished, he would not be considered among the great presidents. Nor will cutting entitlements win Clinton a nomination for Mt. Rushmore.
     The rest of his agenda–education and literacy, bringing the underclass into the mainstream, pressing the fight against crime and drugs, strengthening families, campaign-finance reform–makes more sense. But much of that will involve him in political combat–an art for which he has shown considerable skill but, alas, only intermittent taste. Still, if you want to change things, you can count on the hostility of those who benefit from the way things are. No great president was a middle-of-the-roader. “Judge me,” said FDR, “by the enemies I have made.”
The prognosis for activist government brings up the question of political cycles. Let me recall the cyclical hypothesis, which I inherited from a more distinguished historian, my father. This hypothesis finds a pattern of alternation in American politics between “negative” and “affirmative” government–that is, between times in which voters see private action as the best way of meeting national problems and times in which voters call for a larger measure of public action.
     Thus the Reagan 1980s represented a high point in the faith in the omnicompetence of the private marketplace. But it was also a replay of the pro-business Eisenhower 1950s, 30 years earlier, and the Eisenhower era was itself a replay of the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover 1920s. Similarly, at 30-year intervals come periods of public activism: Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive era in 1901; Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal in 1933; John F. Kennedy and the New Frontier in 1961. If the 30-year rhythm held, the 1992 election was scheduled to see a swing away from Reaganism and toward affirmative government–and that is what appeared to happen with the election of Bill Clinton.
There is no mystery, by the way, about this periodicity. Thirty years is roughly the span of a generation. People tend to be influenced by the ideals dominant at the time they arrive at political consciousness. Young people who grew up in the Progressive era–like FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman–when they came to power, carried forward the Progressive ideals they had imbibed in their youth. Young people who grew up under FDR–like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy–when they came to power, tackled the New Deal’s unfinished business. As the Kennedys and Johnson were in effect Roosevelt’s children, so Bill Clinton and Albert Gore Jr., who arrived at their political consciousness in the 1960s, are Kennedy’s children.
     I do not suggest that the cycles determine the course of history. The mainspring of the cycle is the generation. José Ortega y Gasset and Karl Mannheim long ago pointed out the power of generational change. After a time, each phase of the cycle runs out of ideas and out of steam, and the voters turn to the alternative. This is what Herbert Stein calls “the boredom-fatigue factor.” “The public,” says Stein, “becomes bored with a government that doesn’t do anything and yearns for more action. But then they become tired out by a government that is always getting into fights and nagging them to think about or try something new.”
These are cycles of opportunity, not of necessity. As the national mood swings back and forth, new leaders arrive and confront new possibilities. What the leaders do with these possibilities depends upon their own ideas, capacities, skills, and visions, and upon the conjuncture of objective circumstance.
     What happened to the activist cycle that seemed about to begin in 1992? My guess is that it was derailed by the Cybernetic Revolution. Even as the country prospers in the present, it is filled with foreboding about the future. This accounts for the otherwise inexplicable coexistence in America today of relative contentment with pervasive and deep-running anxiety. Political leaders have failed to allay these anxieties. Voters were mad at George Bush in 1992 and defeated him. They were mad at Bill Clinton in 1994, humiliated him, and elevated Newt Gingrich. By 1996, Gingrich had become the most unpopular politician in the country. Because “big government” has seemed impotent before the structural transformation, it has become a favorite scapegoat.
But if anyone really thinks that turning national and international problems over to state governments and the private market will end our troubles, they are due for further disillusionment. The very character of our problems–from race relations and the reform of education to the extension of health care and the provision of jobs for people thrown off welfare–calls for public initiatives.
     The cycle, though derailed, is not necessarily dead–and the vital center from which to navigate the mysterious future does not lie in the middle of the road.
Links If President Clinton cares to probe the original meaning of the phrase “vital center,” he can read an excerpt from Schlesinger’s 1949 book. To see Clinton’s own twist on the term, read his speech to the Democratic Leadership Council. Is the DLC closer to Reagan than to FDR? Check out the DLC home page to find out. The Industrial Revolution may have gone easier on people than the Cybernetic one. Here’s a wrap-up of the I.R. and a definition of the C.R. The journal cy.Rev probes the Cybernetic Revolution. Read up on your fate. So the age of direct democracy is upon us? For an example of government by referendum, see California’s recent election ballot, loaded down with scores of initiatives. And read Federalist 10 for a taste of what James Madison thought of such notions.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a historian, writer, and former special assistant to President Kennedy. A new edition of his book, The Vital Center, will be published by Transaction at Rutgers University later this year.

Illustrations by William L. Brown