The “Vital Center” Versus the “Mushy Middle”

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 06/09/07

Part I of a two-part series on the vital center in American politics

I’m reading James MacGregor Burns’ book The Deadlock of Democracy: Four-Party Politics in America (1963).  I must say I’m impressed with Burns, a political science professor and onetime Congressional candidate (losing 55-45 to Republican Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts in 1958).  His searching intellect and grasp of historical material is astonishing.  Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling his thesis fails to comprehend the success and importance of ideological leadership in American politics.

Burns draws a distinction between what he terms the Madisonian and Jeffersonian visions of American government.  Madison, he argues, saw successful government as a “Swiss watch” of various leaders and factions checking and balancing each other in an intricate dance of compromise.  To Madison, every organized political group was a dangerous faction, to be checked out of serious influence through a proliferation of other factions.

Against this vision Burns poses what he terms the “Jeffersonian” governmental frame.  Attempting to pin down Jefferson on any coherent philosophy is a dangerous game, as Burns well knows: “Jefferson was a complicated man,” he writes, “so mixed and shifting in his point of view as to appear irresolute to his friends, arrantly hypocritical to his foes, and a puzzle to later historians.”  Nevertheless, Burns uses Jefferson’s leadership of the Democratic-Republican party as President from 1800-1808 as an example of a more sweeping governmental style than Madison’s intricately-posed oppositions.  Under the Jeffersonian system, the President and his majority party in Congress acted as if under a mandate from the American people, enacting sweeping policies that needed only a constant majority of the people rather than acquiescence by every major faction or group (as in the Madisonian system).

In addition to setting up a binary opposition between Madisonian and Jeffersonian visions of government, Burns sets up a quarternary opposition among what he views as the four major parties in American politics: the Democratic and Republican Congressional parties and their corresponding Presidential parties.  Actually, Burns devotes most of his time to advocating for the primacy of the Presidential parties, which derive their support from the electorate rather than entrenched bureaucracy and are therefore more amenable to sweeping reforms.  As you may have guessed, Burns sees a correlation between ascendant executive-driven parties and the Jeffersonian model, while he views Congressional government as following the Madisonian model.

So far, I agree with everything Burns says regarding a preference for Jeffersonian over Madisonian government and Presidential parties over Congressional ones.  But when Burns describes in detail the Jeffersonian Presidential government he most favors, I have a lot to say.  I’ll quote at length from Burns’ description, both for its eloquence and its centrality to this diary series:

[In] a healthy and competitive party system…as policy questions move from the possession of a few zealots and attract national concern, one or both parties moves in on them, perhaps filching them from a third party, exploits them, offers “solutions” to them, and ultimately achieves a new political equilibrium.  Such one-time pressing problems as the currency, graduated income taxation, anti-trust, business regulation, and social security have moved across the whole political front from the Socialist party or some other third party, into the hands of the liberal wing of one or both of the major parties, finally to be grudgingly accepted by the Old Guard.  This is how parties, often in a clumsy and half-hearted way, have handled scores of economic and social issues for over a centurl and a half.  The system demands that the parties deal with problems in the early stages, before they have become burning issues, and in a spirit of moderation and conciliation.  Hence sharp issues have their teeth drawn before they cut the nation into warring and irreconcilable camps.

Such an ideal system requires imperatively that moderates control at least one of the parties, in the short run, and both parties in the long run.  A party will of course embrace extremists who refuse to compromise on issues, and sluggards who refuse to act until the problem is almost insuperable, but it must have a “vital center” that deals quickly and sensitively with problems still in their adolescence.  Neither party dares become too radical or too inert for fear of alienating the moderate elements who hold the balance of power in the next election.  This means that each major party comprises conservatives who grumble that it is going too fast, activists who complain about its inertia, and moderate party leaders who seek to hold the two groups together and put the party in the right tactical position for engaging the enemy.  The price of letting any element get out of hand is a harsh one for politicians: defeat.

This argument turns on a key assumption: that the nation is operating under two coherent, stable, highly competitive parties — the Jeffersonian system.  With each party embracing both extremist and centrist elements, power will focus more in the latter than in the former.  Voters in the center, independent of either party, always have an easy alternative: they can shift over to the opposition party if extremists get control of their own.  Extremist voters, on the other hand, find the opposition party even more obnoxious than the dominant elements in their own, so for them to desert their party or to sit on their hands would be suicidal: they must go along with their own party as the lesser of two evils.  To such extreme rightists or leftists, politics must always be the strategy of the second best.

I hope that my use of the terms moderate and extremist, or centrist and radical, do not carry any disparaging implications.  Quite the contrary.  It would be a dead society that had no radicals or extremists of the right or left.  I assume that a free society generates a competition of ideas and interests among leaders and among sub-leaders, that on major issues divisions will appear within the leadership clusters and within their followings, that a rough spectrum of attitudes will result, and that in a mixed and reasonably affluent society enough leaders and their followings will be found between the polar positions to provide support for various middle ways.  The problem is not one of radicals versus centrists — we need both — but of how a political system can harmonize these differences by finding a middle way that has a vitality of its own.

Most notable in this passage is Burns’ use of the term “vital center,” a phrase popularized by his contemporary Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and glorified today by all the minions of the DLC and similar organizations.  It’s safe to say that the term meant something different to both Schlesinger and Burns than it does to Al From and Bruce Reed today — after all, these scholars were closely allied with the decidedly un-centrist Presidencies of JFK and LBJ.  However, I still have a bone to pick with Burns here on his glorification of a set of positions that, in my opinion, aren’t all that worth cheering about.

Despite their individual astuteness, the men and women who idealize the vital center are glorifying mediocrity.  They’re eulogizing voters who are incapable of taking concrete positions on anything, who look at two such ideologically-divergent candidates as Bush and Gore and can’t make up their minds which one they agree with.  The fabled “swing voter” who makes up the core of the vital center is no reasoned moderate; he/she is an indecisive sop who hasn’t the courage of his/her convictions.

Furthermore, by advocating for a system of government that makes the indecisive comfortable while dissatisfying the decisive and intellectually consistent, Burns is doing more than making politics “the strategy of the second best” for “extreme rightists and leftists” — he’s supporting a system that, like our current government, leaves nearly all Americans cold and cynical about politics.  Politics that play to the undecideds and the mushy middle play to the least common denominator of American ideals — to those who seek neither change nor succor from the people’s government; when those who want to use government to achieve something constantly have to defer to those who choose the middle out of ignorance or disdain for politics in general, only cynicism can result.

Much of this can’t be laid at the feet of Burns, who’s clearly advocating for stronger partisan programs with broader achievements instead of deadlocked Congressional government.  But I do think Burns misses the point when he argues that a successful government must only “deal with problems in the early stages…in a spirit of moderation and conciliation.”  With this turn of phrase, he is essentially advocating reactive politics — a government whose job is to fix existing problems, not propose new methods of progress consistent with a set of bold ideals.  It is the President’s job, in my judgment, not merely to react to the problems of the day, but to provide decisive leadership for the problems as yet undetected by most Americans.  This is the essence of “vision” — an absolutely essential quality for Presidential leadership.  It’s the difference between Jefferson’s reactive purchase of the Louisiana Purchase — accepting only after Napoleon had proposed the sale — and the more proactive leadership of someone like Woodrow Wilson, who came up with the visionary League of Nations before the majority of Americans even cared about its existence or nonexistence.

In today’s Presidential race, only one of the three Democratic frontrunners, John Edwards, is running a campaign based on vision rather than reaction.  His forward-thinking issue proposals — college for everyone, expanded voluntary national service, federal help for the poor — serve to advance issues that he, in his foresight, has deemed important to America’s future, not simply those issues that poll the highest or that the American people show the most concern about.  The other two leading Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are following Burns’ Jeffersonian model of leadership.  Obama, a bona fide liberal on nearly all issues, and Clinton, an authentic liberal on at least some domestic issues (like health care), are nevertheless running toward the center in the hope that doing so may secure their election in a country still dominated by the mushy middle.  Doing so may well get them elected, but it will not restore the American people’s faith in a politics that has all but abandoned most Americans, right and left, in a quest for the elusive soccer-mom swing voter.  It’s no wonder I support Edwards for President.

Tomorrow, I’ll connect Burns’ ideas with the notion of the Overton window.


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