Writing decades ago, Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. knew what it was like to feel democracy slipping away. Here are their lessons for today.
By Político – Joshua Zeitz
Jul 10, 2021
Democracy is currently on the ropes in a way it hasn’t been since the 1930s, during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
It wasn’t just Germany and Italy that were falling into totalitarianism. From the United States, where popular demagogues like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin held millions of Americans in rapture – and where powerful establishment figures like the aviator Charles Lindbergh openly expressed admiration for the Nazi regime – to France and Spain, the idea of liberal democracy seemed universally under siege. Writing in 1997, the historian and liberal activist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. went so far as to suggest that “by 1941 there were only about a dozen democracies left on the planet.”
Re-reading both volumes for the first time since graduate school, I was recently struck by their lasting salience—even presience. Both historians foresaw the many ways that a seemingly sturdy democratic society could crumble from within. Over seven decades later, Schlesinger’s and Hofstadter’s work provides a starting place for conversations about our own troubled political era.
By the time he wrote The Vital Center in 1949, Schlesinger was already a renowned public figure. The son of Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., he won a Pulitzer Prize for his second book, The Age of Jackson, joined Harvard’s faculty alongside his father and in 1947 collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, John Kenneth Galbraith and other prominent activists in establishing Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a preeminent liberal advocacy group.
Much like political observers today who struggle to make sense of the structural and psychological drivers behind MAGA conservatism, Schlesinger wanted to understand the root causes of totalitarianism – a catch-all phrase that many midcentury liberals used to capture the violence and authoritarianism of both fascism and Soviet communism.
Unlike his father, whose scholarship downplayed ideology and emotion and instead characterized political behavior as the expression of rational economic self-interest, the younger Schlesinger believed left-wing and right-wing illiberalism were deeply rooted in the alienation and rootlessness of the “modern, industrial economy.” A combination of “impersonality, interchangeability and speed” had “worn away the old protective securities without creating new ones.” In turn, people were prone to experience “frustration rather than fulfillment, isolation rather than integration.”
Core to Schlesinger’s assessment was a pessimism about human nature. “The Soviet experience, on top of the rise of fascism, reminded my generation rather forcibly that man was, indeed, imperfect, and that the corruptions of power could unleash great evil in the world,” he wrote.
In a forward to a later edition of the book, he further explained that “my generation had been brought up to regard human nature as benign and human progress as inevitable. The existing deficiencies of society, it was supposed, could be cured by education and by the improvement of social arrangements. Sin and evil were theological superstitions irrelevant to political analysis.”
But what if they weren’t?
Borrowing heavily from the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential mid-century theologian and co-founder of the ADA, Schlesinger agreed that a strong social welfare net was sound policy – even necessary to blunt the dislocating effects of the modern, industrial economy – but not a sure guarantee of democratic durability. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Niebuhr just a few years after The Vital Center was published, Niebuhr and his acolytes believed that in humans were naturally sinful. People would not naturally see the light; to end segregation, they sometimes needed to be made uncomfortable. Such belief was at the core of MLK’s brand of nonviolent confrontation and fundamental to Schlesinger’s work.
Beyond strong social welfare policies, someone would have to stand up forcefully for democracy. But who?
Certainly not the business class. Schlesinger was scathing in his assessment of American business leaders who, “when the chips were down … have always been bailed out by radical democracy.” In the 1920s capitalists hid behind protectionism and minimalist government. The business community then “responded to the challenge of Nazism by founding the America First Committee. It responded to the opportunities opened up by the Second World War by rushing to dismantle instrumentalities of American military and economic influence in the name of tax reduction.”
Schlesinger didn’t hold the Communist left in higher regard. Several chapters in his book catalogued in detail the horrors of Soviet Russia and the duplicity and credulity of American communists. They posed a threat to this liberal revival, he wrote, given their frequent infiltration of labor unions, advocacy organizations and even Democratic political machines. They were, in Schlesinger’s mind, an immediate threat.
It was easy for readers to mistake his volume as a broadside against the left. The very title of the book – The Vital Center – led some commentators to assume he advocated a squishy center in politics. On the contrary, as he later explained, “‘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.” The vital center would capture a broad spectrum from the ant-fascist right to the anti-communist left, residing in the space between both totalitarian extremes.
Not unlike today’s calls for – but tragic absence of – a Republican Party more loyal to the country than Donald Trump, Schlesinger both believed in the necessity of a non-fascist right but also despaired that in its current state, American conservatism was not resilient enough to rescue itself from the grips of its “Neanderthal” wing. Contrasting the Republican Party, with its vociferous rejection of the New Deal state, with British Conservatives, who accepted and helped build out a welfare state after the war, he took a dim view of the GOP’s capacity to lead responsibly. He argued that “we desperately need in this country the revival of responsibility on the right – the development of a non-fascist right to work with the non-Communist left in the expansion of free society.” But he wasn’t holding his breath.
And moderates? To Schlesinger, they hewed to so cautious a middle path that they were incapable of fighting totalitarianism on either the left or right. Seeking to please everyone, they stood for nothing.
If anyone were to preserve democracy, it would have to be a hard-shelled left – liberals fashioned in the mold of FDR, Harry Truman and the ADA. To be sure, the argument betrayed Schlesinger’s liberal bias. There was, after all, a strong moderate wing of the GOP that would, in subsequent years, work constructively with liberals on issues like civil rights and health care. But overall, the party’s shrill rejection of measures that blunted the effects of industrial capitalism made him skeptical of conservatism’s ability to address the conditions that gave rise to totalitarianism.
The Vital Center was a warning shot, but its pages nevertheless reflected the author’s belief that a liberal, technocratic elite of the variety that had staffed New Deal and war mobilization agencies could shore up democratic institutions, if that elite corps was uncompromising in confronting and defeating the forces of illiberalism.