In the years shortly after the Second World War, a new idea caught fire in the North Atlantic: consensus. The postwar settlement had divided the world into two spheres. In the West, liberal democracy—sometimes more social democratic, sometimes more laissez-faire—dominated; in the East, various forms of socialism and communism. Many intellectuals on the right and left decried this new age of conformity. Liberals, on the other hand, celebrated it. It marked their arrival: They had won the war of ideas, if not control.
Consensus soon caught on within the historical discipline. In the first half of the 20th century, a group of Progressive Era historians—Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, V.L. Parrington—had argued that the history of American politics hinged on a series of social and political conflicts. In the prosperity and calm of the postwar years, historians embraced the opposite view: The American past was defined not by a contest over ideas and power but by ideological agreement—a long-standing fidelity to the liberal tradition.
Some within this consensus school made their case more critically than others (Richard Hofstadter acerbically observed that liberalism’s dominance had created “a democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy in fraternity”). But a more popular school found in it the resources for a newly assertive Cold War liberalism: America’s ability to find common ground was its “genius.”
One of the few dissenting voices against the idea of consensus in these years was a young Harvard professor by the name of Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger was an outspoken liberal, and so he was not, like Hofstadter, critical of liberalism’s ascendance. But as the son of a Progressive historian, he also argued that it had arrived there through conflict, not consensus. In his first major works of history—The Age of Jackson and his three-volume epic, The Age of Roosevelt—he set out to prove his thesis, documenting how a bellicose view of politics had created and sustained the Democratic Party, first with its rise under Andrew Jackson and then with its revival under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Schlesinger went even further in his 1949 Cold War treatise, The Vital Center: If liberals and social democrats were to beat back communists abroad and right-wing conservatives at home, they needed a more realistic view of politics. History and human reason alone would not do the work for those on the side of progress. Social change required the tactics of war: intrigue, argument, duplicity, and confrontation. This is what he meant by a vital center—not a politics of accommodation, but one of all-out attack.
Over the years, Schlesinger’s vital center hasn’t often been remembered this way. Because of his strident anticommunism and his close ties to postwar Democrats—in 1961, he was appointed special assistant to John F. Kennedy—many of his critics saw Schlesinger as the avatar of consensus. Later, when a young cohort of “New Democrats” and neoliberals (yes, they used the term) began to push the Democratic Party to the right, The Vital Center was invoked to justify their triangulations and compromises. (Shortly after signing welfare reform into law in 1996, Bill Clinton declared before an audience of DLC members: “we have clearly created a new center…the vital center.”)