Democracy and the Vital Center

Carolyn Edwards, PhD
5 min readJan 6, 2023

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Our democracy is fragile and only the people can assure its future. This is as true today as it has been throughout our history. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a social political philosopher addressed the fragility of democracy in his 1949 book, “The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom.” Some on the political right dismiss Schlesinger as too far left to add any value to discussions on the politics of freedom. Schlesinger accepts debate from all sides by stating that freedom cannot exist without conflict because conflict leads us towards the middle and the progression of the nation. Rather than dismissing other political or social views, we must understand these views and personally embrace our responsibility to ensure freedom for all. Without conflict in society, we are destined to become a totalitarian government. As Schlesinger observes:

So long as society stays free, so long will it continue in its state of tension breeding contradiction, breeding strife. But we betray ourselves if we accept contradiction and strife as the total meaning of conflict. For conflict is also the guarantee of freedom; it is the instrument of change; it is, above all, the source of discovery, the source of art…the source of love. The choice we face is not between progress with conflict and progress without conflict. The choice is between conflict and stagnation. You cannot expel conflict from society any more than you can from the human mind. When you attempt it, the psychic cost in schizophrenia or torpor are the same.

Accepting that a democracy can encompass conflict is not the same as accepting a rejection of the institutions themselves. Conflict must work within the institutions through debates and even protests. While members of Congress expect protests by the people to be peaceful and orderly, there are some members of Congress who do not apply these same standards to the institution they serve.

On this two-year anniversary of the invasion of violent protesters on the Capitol to prevent the orderly transition of our democratically elected leaders, we are faced with another disruptive protest within the House of Representatives. These disruptors continue to state their obstruction represents democracy in action that seemingly reflect Schlesinger’s philosophy on conflict. There is an irony that those on the far right have found justification in someone’s words who has previously been labeled as left.

The right previously invoked Schlesinger’s philosophy of the vital center when conservative Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich told the New York Times in 1995, “This is a time of such profound change that we need a dynamic center that is not in the middle of what is left and right but, way beyond that.” Gingrich was referring to the reliance on outdated divisions that prevented a united America from dealing with the problems of the time. In 1996, President Clinton stated shortly after his re-election, “Our people voted for the ideas of the vital American center.” Schlesinger himself, a former senior advisor to President John F. Kennedy, clarified in 1998 that his 1949 justification for a vital center referenced a liberal democracy standing up against fascism and communism in the face of economic, political, and military attacks.

As of yesterday, three days into the new political year for the House of Representatives, a Speaker of the House was yet to be elected. The democratic party, the minority party by the slimmest of margins, was 100% united in their support of Hakeem Jeffries for Speaker of the House. Meanwhile, the Republicans failed eleven times by the end of the third day to elect a Speaker of the House due to fracturing within their party between those on the far right and their fellow Republicans. Rather than viewing themselves as obstructionists, this minority group of rebels viewed themselves as exercising their ultimate democratic right to upset the institution by disempowering the Speaker and demanding the election of someone who represents all of their minority views. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the House rules and the Speaker role will be drastically changed due to negotiations with the minority outliers. Based on this foundation, if there is no bipartisanship in the House of Representatives, all bills will be dead on arrival to or from the Senate creating total gridlock at best and at worst, a threat to the health of our democracy.

The minority correctly has the right to nominate their own candidate but not to minimize the position for personal gain at the cost of the institution itself. Without presenting a platform of ideas while demanding a minimization of the Speaker’s role and even the ability to hold the position once obtained, their objective has appeared to be more about attacking the institution than the candidate. Schlesinger warns:

The death pallor will indeed come over a free society unless it can recharge the deepest sources of its moral energy. And we cannot make democracy a fighting faith merely by exhortation nor by self-flagellation; and certainly not by renouncing the values which distinguish free society from totalitarianism. Yet we must somehow dissolve the anxieties which drive people in free society to become traitors to freedom. We must somehow give the lonely masses a sense of individual human function, we must restore community to the industrial order.

The country has become divided because political campaigns have pointed fingers at family, neighbors, and politicians as being the cause of our nation’s problems. We have shunned, ignored, or forgotten voices across race, class, gender, and regions that are also part of our country’s fabric. No party can claim superiority or escape responsibility. Instead of focusing on our division, we must focus on our commonality and the future of our democracy. This requires a shift towards the middle rather than the fringes. It does not eliminate debates but makes the debates more inclusive, comprehensive, and civil. This is what the founders sought when they formed an imperfect union based on a flawed Constitution. The founders also allowed for future interpretation of the Constitution based on serving the evolving common good, not the preferences of the few.

It is time for all of us to step back and evaluate our priorities for a living democracy. This does not mean we must stop advocating or protesting for change, but we must understand that it is a high stakes game when one plays for an all or nothing strategy. And if that strategy is pursued by one, it will be justifiably pursued by others until we are a nation of ones which leads to totalitarianism as Schlesinger foresees with the following quote:

People deprived of any meaningful role in society, lacking even their own groups to give them a sense of belonging, become cannon fodder to totalitarianism. And group themselves, once long established, suffer inevitable tendencies towards exclusiveness and bureaucratization, forget their original purpose and contribute to the downfall of freedom.”

May 2023 be the year that the United States reunites to move our country ahead through a secured democracy and may Congress learn to work across the aisle and represent all of us. Happy new year to everyone.

References

Schlesinger, A.M., The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom. United Kingdom: Transaction Publishers, (1998).

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Carolyn Edwards, PhD

PhD in urban education with a research focus on U.S. history, white supremacy, and systemic inequity