Revisiting The Vital Center

Revisiting The Vital Center

Sometimes where and when you first read a book matters. In graduate school while I was studying American intellectual history, my adviser, Christopher Lasch, suggested I crack open Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Vital Center. As a young leftist, it was easy for me to scoff at liberalism’s inadequacies. It was even easier in 1990, because Lasch was putting the finishing touches on his magnum opus, The True and Only Heaven, where he ticked off the faults of liberalism. For Lasch, liberalism was naive about progress, had no sense of “limits” or any concept of “virtue,” rejected a “heroic conception of life,” and eventually degenerated into a snotty disdain toward ordinary people. Though I didn’t agree with all of its arguments, Lasch’s book helped my dislike of liberalism move onto more certain intellectual footing. But then I read The Vital Center. The experience was like a blow waking me from dogmatic slumber.

Here was a defense of liberalism that threw out ideas about optimism and progress. Schlesinger had learned from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his pessimism about human nature and sin. Just look at the “Soviet experience” and “the rise of fascism,” Schlesinger told his readers in 1949, and it’s clear that humans are “imperfect” and that “the corruptions of power could unleash great evil in the world.” Considering that I had been reading Lasch, it was ironic to hear Schlesinger speak of “limits” throughout the book. Also strange was Schlesinger’s belief that liberal democracy required certain virtues from its citizens. OK, Schlesinger may not have used the term virtue, but he certainly embraced such characteristics as “intricacy,” “ambiguity,” “a sense of humility,” and Max Weber’s ethic of responsibility-all as an alternative to the mindless certitude and “fanaticism” expected from the subjects of totalitarian political rule. Schlesinger believed citizens of a liberal democracy needed to face the “anxiety” of modernity-a heroic challenge of its own sort. This was no empty “proceduralism” nor was it the liberalism devoid of values that communitarians and “populists” like Lasch derided.

When I went back to The Vital Center recently to write about liberalism, I was struck again by its power. By now, Lasch’s sophisticated critique of liberalism has been surpassed by a nonstop screed from the right’s punditocracy. Liberalism was no longer devoid of virtue but downright treasonous, or so Ann Coulter and Michael Savage bellowed. I dreamed of mailing the right-wing punditocracy copies of The Vital Center accompanied with a note saying, Read this. Of course, I know better than to expect critical self-examination from the right in our sound-bite society. Bu...


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