A half-century after the appearance of The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s spirited political polemic, we have more than sufficient cause to meditate on what might be called Dead Centrism. The sight of Al Gore running furiously against himself, as much as promising military interventions while stumbling against the slightest Republican candidate in generations, alone would be sufficient cause. But the fact that so little has changed since the Berlin wall fell must be the clincher. As another Gore (this one Gore Vidal) reflected lately on National Public Radio, we’ve been stuck with the centralizing bipartisan effects of the security (or post-Republic, imperial) state since Truman, with no apparent way out.
Or is there? In this case, history counts. The hopes of change this season might be measured best not in the political arena at all but in a poignant scene of a new television series, Gideon’s Crossing. In its premier episode, a ruthless venture capitalist with a coronary problem confronts chief of experimental medicine Andre Braugher (best remembered for his haunting performance in Homicide) with a provocation now awfully familiar: "The trouble with America today is that schools teach kids too much about Harriet Tubman and not enough about Harry S Truman." African-American doc Braugher, ever the pro, refuses to dignify this verbal slap with a response, but we get the point. A newer generation doesn’t need the particular myths of brave Indian-killers, demure plantation mistresses or innocent atomic bomb-droppers: It’s a different world and the rules may not be any better, but they aren’t the same.
Rare is the book on liberalism these days that does not trace the story back to Thomas Jefferson, marrying in his Deist faith the freedom of the individual with the need for community. Fair enough, but for Jefferson the expansion of freedom rested upon the perpetual opening of new lands for the yeoman farmer, an expansion of empire obviously requiring conquest and/or removal of everything in the way. Extended onto global terrain, the concept encompassed an "Open Door" for American prospects (i.e., markets) everywhere, a vision more frequently repeated in recent years by Bill Clinton and Al Gore than by their Republican rivals.
That insight into Jeffersonianism, driven home by the late William Appleman Williams (a president of the Organization of American Historians, a favorite Nation historian and Schlesinger Jr.’s veritable bête noire), has been the foundation stone for the rewriting of US history these past thirty years. Long before Presidents bothered to explain that assorted small nations needed to be invaded for their own good, fabled statesmen like James Madison, Henry Clay and James Monroe wrote openly about underlying national purposes. Armed intervention for commercial aims, not only but most especially in the Latin America of our Monroe Doctrine, had been standard procedure for generations when the Russian Revolution rattled imperial nerves.
That’s not the whole story by a long shot. Grassroots Populism and genteel Progressivism, not to mention the stirrings of the labor movement, jump-started the domestic programs of modern liberalism. But Woodrow Wilson’s crusade set its global mission and offered proof positive, from the elevation of Samuel Gompers and the New Republic to the suppression of the Wobblies, of who would benefit and what troublesome dissidents could expect.
Heart-and-soul liberalism, reborn in the New Deal and the antifascist crusade, stalled with the welfare-warfare economy of the early cold war years. Even many Nation readers of 1948, tempted to vote for Henry Wallace, doubtless pulled the lever for Harry Truman out of twinned fears that Republicans would abolish the remainder of Roosevelt’s social programs–and hopes that the Missouri political brawler was only an interruption in the renewed march upward. No such luck. The nomination of business Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952 confirmed the centrist victory over the New Deal legacy, and despite many encouraging moments, the balance of liberalism has never really tipped back again.