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The Vital Center, Then and Now

The Vital Center, Then and Now

The timing is just right for authors Nicholas Jacobs and Sidney Milkis’ reexamination of Schlesinger’s seminal work.

Philip Wallach
What Happened to the Vital Center? Presidentialism, Populist Revolt, and the Fracturing of America
by Nicholas F. Jacobs and Sidney M. Milkis (Oxford University Press, 384 pp., $99)

The epigram of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s, 1949 book The Vital Center comes from W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming:” “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;... The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” That was an acute worry in 1919, when Yeats wrote the poem. It was a worry when Schlesinger co-founded the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1947; and, of course, it remains so today. Schlesinger offered The Vital Center as a manifesto for a “fighting faith” that could resist the twin foes of fascism and communism. The America made by the New Deal could hold its own—if it could find a way to “restore the center,” to “reunite individual and community in fruitful union.”

Schlesinger did not explain exactly which American institutions constituted the country’s “vital center,” and he was seemingly oblivious to the ways in which the aggressive use of presidential power by his hero, Franklin Roosevelt, might have unbalanced this center. Indeed, Schlesinger, all through the 1960s, praised the presidency as the institution best able to “defend the people’s rights” against “whatever body might threaten them.” The historian believed that America’s national government was more menaced by dissipation and distraction than by the top-down dominance of the chief executive.

Political scientists Nicholas Jacobs and Sidney Milkis, in their wide-ranging and original new book What Happened to the Vital Center?, argue that, if we are to understand why America’s liberal democracy finds itself so beleaguered today, we must attend to those questions that Schlesinger neglected. While sharing some of Schlesinger’s appreciation of FDR’s transformative leadership, Jacobs and Milkis argue that the four-time President set American politics on the dangerous path toward “executive-centered partisanship” that it has traveled ever since.

As a result, the kind of party politics that Schlesinger and his contemporary reformists found outdated was “displaced by partisan administration.” This development enfeebled both of the major political parties, which can no longer act as mediating, moderating institutions. Moreover, as the party professionals receded, along with their ability to build coalitions, they left a vacuum that demagogues could and did fill.

Jacobs and Milkis concentrate on the parties’ internal mechanics: their strategies for uniting disparate state and local bodies into coherent national organizations, their ways of promoting active participation by their members, their means of defining policy agendas. When this system worked well—as they think it did for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries—it took up citizens’ concerns and placed them in the context of manageable debates that resulted in acceptable compromises. In this way, waves of populist discontent were absorbed and managed through new mechanisms of central coordination; politics admitted new types of participants but did not drain local party organizations of their vitality.

In one illustration, the authors write admiringly of the way FDR managed the appearance of Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest” from Michigan. The wily Roosevelt first flattered Coughlin, keeping him in Roosevelt’s corner for as long as possible; then, Roosevelt marginalized the priest, not through a public war of words but via back-room maneuvering. This was old-time, old-style party leadership, bringing new demands on government into the fold but leaving more far-fetched claims stranded in the wilderness.

Still, FDR did not remain content to play this limited role throughout his presidency. Instead, after his landslide re-election in 1936, he turned from party-centered coalition management to building a President-centered administrative state. Though his 1938 purge attempt was unsuccessful, it put the Democratic Party on track to become “programmatic” and ideological rather than patronage-based. Even more important was his building of capacity in the White House, creating the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and bulking up the Bureau of the Budget, which mushroomed from fifty staffers in 1933 to five hundred by 1945.

Such empire-building was in service of a “democratically accountable” or “responsible” form of partisanship, in which the President’s performance would be the main basis for voters’ judgments. That same vision enchanted John F. Kennedy, who as a candidate declared that the nation needs a chief executive who is the “vital center of action” in our whole scheme of government, who can “summon his national constituency to its finest hour—to alert people to our dangers and opportunities—to demand of them the sacrifices that will be necessary” to win the Cold War. Lyndon Johnson went further still, deliberately creating a new top-down style of politics in which he joined with outsider-activists, reinventing localism to cut traditional party insiders out of the loop.

These innovations involved plenty of misadventures; party professionals were steady operators compared with the local “community leaders” who often used their federal largesse to harass local government officials. Conservatives would hammer these Great Society programs as undermining the very communities they were supposed to serve. But from Richard Nixon onward, no conservative President would ever undertake a frontal assault on the executive edifice that FDR and his successors built. Instead, they would find their own uses for the administrative state, especially the establishment of “law and order” and a powerful national defense. In doing so, they would fashion their own President-populist connection, which again worked around the traditional Republican apparatus rather than through it.

With so much power accumulated within the national government itself, the old party systems inevitably had to change as well. The kingmaking conventions of yore gave priority to local bosses and their affiliates, but that system was swept away with startling rapidity around 1970. The McGovern-Fraser Commission, convened after the 1968 debacle in Chicago, repudiated the old power brokers and insisted that the Democratic Party better respect the diversity of its voters. That was understandable and admirable, Jacobs and Milkis avow, but it had unintended and largely malign consequences for American politics. Because old-fashioned party leaders need to win and thereby acquire patronage to dispense, they were for big tents. But the issue groups organized at the national level that took over their influence were primarily interested in getting the federal government working on their particular projects. Their prime objective was defining their coalition so as to facilitate bold action on their issue whenever their party got the chance—that is, whenever they helped put a President in the White House.

Jacobs and Milkis extend their portrait through the present. They are clear that it was the 2016 victory of the ultimate party outsider, Donald Trump, that prompted their exploration; but they are equally clear that Trump was building on a preexisting trend. By the time Trump’s “unmediated” connection with raucous crowds redefined the meaning of Republican politics, Barack Obama had already built a non-party political apparatus that allowed him to defeat Democrats’ inside-track candidate in 2008.

As Milkis wrote in a previous work, rather than disbanding after 2008, Obama for America became Organizing for America, a “grassroots arm” of the Democratic Party; and after Obama’s 2012 re-election it became Organizing for Action. Nominally part of the Democratic Party, in practice the group existed to pressure the party on key progressive priorities like climate change, LGBT rights, and gun safety. Executive-centered partisanship was a well-established pattern for Trump to inhabit, then, even if his followers pushed its cult-of-personality aspect farther than ever before, to a point at which the Republican Party decided not to offer a platform at all in 2020. Jacobs and Milkis earnestly hope Joe Biden might bring a return to normalcy, but they are clear that the pattern is now deeply enough set so that one President is unlikely to reverse the pattern, no matter how impeccable his party-insider credentials may be.

What, then, is to be done? Jacobs and Milkis offer a few strategies for promoting a healthy politics. First, rather jarringly, they endorse making quadrennial elections into national holidays, the better to celebrate voting as a great act of collective choosing. Given their denunciation of a politics that makes the President alone the center of the universe, it is hard to parse why they feel presidential elections need even more setting off from the rest of ordinary politics.

Next, more consonant with the rest of the book’s message, they emphasize the importance of rebuilding party organizations and forcing them to play a serious role in shaping the political agenda. Like a young Woodrow Wilson, and like the famous American Political Science Association Committee of 1950, the authors really believe that parties can be a force for responsible government if they find ways to coalesce around sensible governing programs.

Thus, they want to see serious investments in platform-drafting—the more time and effort spent working through difficult intra-party differences, the better. More ambitiously, they would like to see parties hold conventions at the front end of the presidential nomination process. Delegates would engage in something like a straw poll, but would also seek to set the parameters of the debates in which candidates would engage during primary season. Their hope is that such an intervention might nudge the primary electorate in sensible directions; they cite Congressman James Clyburn’s (D-SC) intervention on behalf of candidate Biden as a precedent.

This idea is appealing, but the authors do not explain who the participants in this newly empowered convention would be, or how they would derive the authority to resist harmful flights of populist fancy. As they have so convincingly shown, the problem is precisely that party structures today are shot through with interest group operatives and single-issue advocates. The bosses of the old days are long gone, and Jacobs and Milkis are in any case insistently ambivalent about the old order those bosses facilitated, built as it was on a Faustian bargain with Southern segregationists. Today, policymaking power has migrated to Washington (and especially 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue); so, it is not clear how state and local officials could assert themselves as party power brokers even if they wanted to do so.

The authors therefore offer a third avenue of change: taking an axe to the chief executive’s accumulated powers. They would shrink the EOP and perhaps disband the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the White House’s regulatory nerve center. They would also like to see “policy czars” eliminated entirely. In this vein, they are channeling a Schlesinger who has been educated by Richard Nixon on the perils of the imperial presidency.

Of course, neither Schlesinger’s 1973 book by that name nor the anti-presidential zeitgeist that it deftly captured made much of a dent in the long-term trend toward presidentialism. Jacobs and Milkis supply one reason: Just as the country needed them to act as stabilizing ballast, America’s political parties were hollowing themselves out. But a fuller account requires looking at the most natural federal policymaking counterweight to the presidency: Congress, which figures in this book as something of a peripheral character.

If the promise of parties working issues out internally is limited by the architecture of contemporary political power, the ability of the nation’s representatives in Congress to act as engines for compromise remains intact, if somewhat atrophied. Elected legislators have constitutional endowments that party officials never did, giving them tools should they ever seek to escape the maw of executive-centered partisanship. But as Jacobs and Milkis show so well, that is a deep maw indeed. We should consider emetics of every variety.

Philip Wallach is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies America’s separation of powers. He is author of To the Edge: Legality, Legitimacy, and the Responses to the 2008 Financial Crisis (2015).

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