Monday, March 25, 2013

Finding My Vital Center Or, a Liberal Fever Dream

Riding eastbound on a train from Raleigh, North Carolina I was emotionally devastated by a surprising book: Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom. While I was moved differently from when I read a great work of fiction, I found myself vigorously underlining and exclamatory commenting my way through entire chapters of The Vital Center. I was particularly moved by his criticism of “Doughface” progressivism. Schlesinger’s attacks on the flabbiness and lethargy of progressive sensibility echoed with my own growing dissatisfaction with the naïve optimism in the far left I held in my teens and early twenties. Bouncing by the postindustrial wastelands of Wilson and Rocky Mount I couldn’t help, but wonder if America needed to revitalize its vital center politically and geographically.

Upon finishing the book, I tried to come to terms with why it hit me so hard. I didn’t even have to look past the title to get my answer. Now in my mid-twenties, I have never lived in a time when liberalism has had a center. I am a child of the age of fracture, an orphan of the culture wars. There is a part of me that longs for the perceived harmony of liberal consensus, a return to the simpler times of an imagined past.

As a privileged white male it is easy for me to long for the vital center. Robert O. Self has convincingly demonstrated how the vital center was founded on a white, male breadwinner ethos. Schlesinger admits to his 1997 introduction to The Vital Center that he neither paid sufficient attention to the burgeoning black freedom struggle or the contributions of women to liberalism (xiii-xiv). Still, there seems to be nothing in The Vital Center excluding non-whites or women from its political vision. In fact, a wholehearted embrace of its values – and in particular equal opportunity – could improve the domestic social situation of both groups.

Ultimately, The Vital Center is a relic of a bygone era. America cannot return to the centrist, liberal consensus of mid-20th century. The economic conditions do not exist to support such an optimistic vision nor does America’s declining importance on the global stage. Furthermore, much of the liberal consensus was founded upon injustice; on the sweaty backs of cheap labor abroad and the unpaid work of women at home.

My fever dream of The Vital Center expresses a longing not for the world of the 1950s, but for the values postmodern society is in the process of losing or has already lost: community, respect, trust, empathy, and solidarity. I have seen little of these values in my twenty-five years. I am hopeful I will see more of them in the next twenty-five.


  1. Matthew, great post. I read Vital Center this past summer, and it was something of a revelation, for somewhat different reasons.

    What struck me about Schlesinger's language was how Madmen-esque it was -- all the sneers about effeminacy, the questionable masculinity of liberals, the gratuitous rape joke in the first 20 pages or so, etc, etc.

    I think attentiveness to some of Schlesinger's imagery/metaphors would probably lead to a reading that lines up very well with Self's assessment of "breadwinner" ideology, both liberal and conservative. And I think an argument might be made -- or, I suppose, has been made -- that paternalism/gender hierarchy informed Lasch's view of the world as well. Perhaps you can ditch that baggage as you go, setting an example for Laschian readers who follow. :)

  2. And I don't mean that *you* are carrying that baggage -- just that "the vital center" is, at least as Schlesinger tells it.

  3. LD,

    Thanks for your comments! A really interesting part of the Schlesinger/Lasch comparison is that Lasch was critical of Schlesinger for his elitism. Kevin Mattson wrote a great article in 2004 titled "Christopher Lasch and the Possibilities of Chastened Liberalism" where he fleshes out Lasch's liberalism and why he was critical of vital center liberals like Schlesinger. I can send it to you if you're interested.