Democracy is currently on the ropes in a way it hasn’t been since the 1930s, during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
It wasn’t just Germany and Italy that were falling into totalitarianism. From the United States, where popular demagogues like Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin held millions of Americans in rapture—and where powerful establishment figures like the aviator Charles Lindbergh openly expressed admiration for the Nazi regime—to France and Spain, the idea of liberal democracy seemed universally under siege. Writing in 1997, the historian and liberal activist Arthur Schlesinger Jr. went so far as to suggest that “by 1941 there were only about a dozen democracies left on the planet.”
It’s a warning that resonates today. Democratic backslide poses a very real threat around the globe. In Israel and Turkey, Venezuela and Brazil, the Philippines and Hungary—and in the United States, where states are enacting sharp curbs on voting rights and a large portion of Republican voters and elected officials refuse to accept the very clear outcome of the 2020 presidential election—it is no longer a sure thing that democracy is a self-perpetuating or permanent fixture.
How can we fight back? Two books from the post-war period—The Vital Center by Schlesinger and The Paranoid Style in American Politics by historian Richard Hofstadter—have some answers, offering practical wisdom for liberals, centrists and conservatives who care about reversing democratic backslide. (Hofstadter’s volume was a collection of essays—including an eponymous article—that explored the same central theme.) Writing in 1949, Schlesinger argued that in a world divided between supporters of democracy and supporters of totalitarianism, the need for a muscular liberal party—and for an anti-fascist conservative party—was vital to the preservation of American institutions. Hofstadter’s tome, written several years later, focuses on the conservative movement’s descent into paranoid rage.
Both historians swam in the intellectual currents of their time. They drew on interdisciplinary scholarship in psychiatry, sociology and anthropology and, in a sharp break with the generation of historians that directly preceded them, came to believe that people were motivated by more than material self-interest. Politics, they argued, was as much driven by emotion and tied up with identity as it was an outcome of economics.
They also took a dim view of human nature. Writing in the aftermath of World War II and at the dawn of the Cold War, they cautioned liberals against a starry-eyed faith in human perfectibility. People were fundamentally wired to do bad and irrational things. To combat that tendency, advocates of liberal democracy would need to be tough.
Re-reading both volumes for the first time since graduate school, I was recently struck by their lasting salience—even presience. Both historians foresaw the many ways that a seemingly sturdy democratic society could crumble from within. Over seven decades later, Schlesinger’s and Hofstadter’s work provides a starting place for conversations about our own troubled political era.
By the time he wrote The Vital Center in 1949, Schlesinger was already a renowned public figure. The son of Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., he won a Pulitzer Prize for his second book, The Age of Jackson, joined Harvard’s faculty alongside his father and in 1947 collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, John Kenneth Galbraith and other prominent activists in establishing Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a preeminent liberal advocacy group.
Much like political observers today who struggle to make sense of the structural and psychological drivers behind MAGA conservatism, Schlesinger wanted to understand the root causes of totalitarianism—a catch-all phrase that many midcentury liberals used to capture the violence and authoritarianism of both fascism and Soviet communism.
Unlike his father, whose scholarship downplayed ideology and emotion and instead characterized political behavior as the expression of rational economic self-interest, the younger Schlesinger believed left-wing and right-wing illiberalism were deeply rooted in the alienation and rootlessness of the “modern, industrial economy.” A combination of “impersonality, interchangeability and speed” had “worn away the old protective securities without creating new ones.” In turn, people were prone to experience “frustration rather than fulfillment, isolation rather than integration.”
When confronted with a feeling of dispossession and isolation, many people turned to violent, extremist ideologies that furnished them with a false sense of belonging and safety.
Core to Schlesinger’s assessment was a pessimism about human nature. “The Soviet experience, on top of the rise of fascism, reminded my generation rather forcibly that man was, indeed, imperfect, and that the corruptions of power could unleash great evil in the world,” he wrote.
In a forward to a later edition of the book, he further explained that “my generation had been brought up to regard human nature as benign and human progress as inevitable. The existing deficiencies of society, it was supposed, could be cured by education and by the improvement of social arrangements. Sin and evil were theological superstitions irrelevant to political analysis.”
But what if they weren’t?
Borrowing heavily from the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential mid-century theologian and co-founder of the ADA, Schlesinger agreed that a strong social welfare net was sound policy—even necessary to blunt the dislocating effects of the modern, industrial economy—but not a sure guarantee of democratic durability. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Niebuhr just a few years after The Vital Center was published, Niebuhr and his acolytes believed that in humans were naturally sinful. People would not naturally see the light; to end segregation, they sometimes needed to be made uncomfortable. Such belief was at the core of MLK’s brand of nonviolent confrontation and fundamental to Schlesinger’s work.
Beyond strong social welfare policies, someone would have to stand up forcefully for democracy. But who?
Certainly not the business class. Schlesinger was scathing in his assessment of American business leaders who, “when the chips were down … have always been bailed out by radical democracy.” In the 1920s capitalists hid behind protectionism and minimalist government. The business community then “responded to the challenge of Nazism by founding the America First Committee. It responded to the opportunities opened up by the Second World War by rushing to dismantle instrumentalities of American military and economic influence in the name of tax reduction.”
Referring to the nation’s premier business lobby, he found that “without exception the measures favored by the [National Association of Manufacturers] provided some sort of aid to business and industry. Without exception rigid opposition was maintained against similar assistance to other groups and against all other regulatory measures pertaining to industry.” In the end assessment, Schlesinger did not expect that the business community would “go fascist in the next few years,” but his overview of recent American history left him confident that the private sector “will probably not produce the leadership to save free society either.”
Schlesinger didn’t hold the Communist left in higher regard. Several chapters in his book catalogued in detail the horrors of Soviet Russia and the duplicity and credulity of American communists. They posed a threat to this liberal revival, he wrote, given their frequent infiltration of labor unions, advocacy organizations and even Democratic political machines. They were, in Schlesinger’s mind, an immediate threat.
It was easy for readers to mistake his volume as a broadside against the left. The very title of the book—The Vital Center—led some commentators to assume he advocated a squishy center in politics. On the contrary, as he later explained, “‘vital center’ refers to the contest between democracy and totalitarianism, not to contests within democracy between liberalism and conservatism, not at all to the so-called ‘middle of the road’ preferred by cautious politicians of our own time. The middle of the road is definitely not the vital center; it is the dead center.” The vital center would capture a broad spectrum from the ant-fascist right to the anti-communist left, residing in the space between both totalitarian extremes.
Not unlike today’s calls for—but tragic absence of—a Republican Party more loyal to the country than Donald Trump, Schlesinger both believed in the necessity of a non-fascist right but also despaired that in its current state, American conservatism was not resilient enough to rescue itself from the grips of its “Neanderthal” wing. Contrasting the Republican Party, with its vociferous rejection of the New Deal state, with British Conservatives, who accepted and helped build out a welfare state after the war, he took a dim view of the GOP’s capacity to lead responsibly. He argued that “we desperately need in this country the revival of responsibility on the right—the development of a non-fascist right to work with the non-Communist left in the expansion of free society.” But he wasn’t holding his breath.
And moderates? To Schlesinger, they hewed to so cautious a middle path that they were incapable of fighting totalitarianism on either the left or right. Seeking to please everyone, they stood for nothing.
If anyone were to preserve democracy, it would have to be a hard-shelled left—liberals fashioned in the mold of FDR, Harry Truman and the ADA. To be sure, the argument betrayed Schlesinger’s liberal bias. There was, after all, a strong moderate wing of the GOP that would, in subsequent years, work constructively with liberals on issues like civil rights and health care. But overall, the party’s shrill rejection of measures that blunted the effects of industrial capitalism made him skeptical of conservatism’s ability to address the conditions that gave rise to totalitarianism.
The Vital Center was a warning shot, but its pages nevertheless reflected the author’s belief that a liberal, technocratic elite of the variety that had staffed New Deal and war mobilization agencies could shore up democratic institutions, if that elite corps was uncompromising in confronting and defeating the forces of illiberalism.
Though Richard Hofstadter formally introduced the idea of a “paranoid style in American politics” in an article published by that name in Harper’s Magazine in late 1964, he had explored the theme in earlier works. In sweeping histories of American populism and progressivism, and essays on the contemporary “paleo-conservatism” of the early Cold War, Hofstadter—like Schlesinger—found that “people not only seek their interests but also express and even in a measure define themselves in politics. … Political life acts as a sounding board for identities, values, fears, and aspirations.”
Unlike Schlesinger, who in 1961 became a staff member in John F. Kennedy’s White House, Hofstadter devoted his career to teaching and scholarship and remained at arm’s length from practical politics. From his perch at Columbia University, he came to believe that the “rationalistic bias” inherent in earlier political histories had “broke[n] down under the impact of political events, partly because of what had been learned through public-opinion polling and depth psychology.” Historians, in other words, could draw on other fields in the social sciences to draw a richer portrait of political culture—one that extended past the two-dimensional view of people as rational actors who prioritized their most obvious economic interests.
With a broader tool set in hand, Hofstadter provided a sweeping overview of the “paranoid style” in politics, a strain of political behavior that stretched from the earliest days of the American republic to modern-day conservatism. Marked by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” the paranoid style dealt in “grandiose theories of conspiracy.”
Quoting at length from unrelated documents—a speech by Joseph McCarthy in 1951, a Populist manifesto from 1895, an anti-Catholic broadside from 1855, a sermon by a Massachusetts clergyman in 1798—Hofstadter found striking through lines in American politics: a fear of cabals and secret societies, a sense of dispossession, an insistence that invisible actors were driving the course of events. One could easily update his essay with a present-day sampling of delusional and obscene Q’Anon conspiracies.
Like the Arizonan who traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify against a bill to control the sale of firearms in 1964, and who warned of an “attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government,” political paranoiacs throughout time were seemingly incapable of viewing the world through a rational lens.
Hofstadter acknowledged that the “paranoid style” was not specific to the United States, nor to conservatism. World history was replete with “notions about an all-embracing conspiracy on the part of Jesuits or Freemasons, international capitalists, international Jews, or Communists.” But in his own time, American conservatism was uniquely gripped in its vice.
Thomas Kuchel, the liberal Republican senator from California, estimated in 1959 that of the 60,000 letters his office received weekly, ten percent was “fright mail—indignant of anguished letters about ‘the latest PLOT! To OVERTHROW America!!!’ Some of the more memorable ‘plots’ that come to mind include these: 35,000 Communist Chinese troops bearing arms and wearing deceptively dyed powder-blue uniforms, are poised on the Mexican border, about to invade San Diego; the United States has turned over—or will at any moment—its Army, Navy and Air Force to the command of a Russian colonel in the United Nations; almost every well-known American or free-world leader is, in reality, a top Communist agent; a United States Army guerilla-warfare exercise in Georgia, called Water Moccasin III, is in actuality a United Nations operation preparatory to taking over the country.”
As in earlier eras, the paranoid style was in part a function of “status anxiety.” People who were used to being on top suddenly felt the ground shifting beneath them. The “literature of the American right,” Hofstadter observed, was now “a literature not of those who felt themselves to be in possession but of those who felt dispossessed—a literature of resentment, profoundly anti-establishment in its impulses.” What’s more, it was tribal. “What seemed important was not only the wrongs the McCarthyist right-wingers thought had been committed but who committed them.” Today’s villains are the Clintons, the “globalists,” Antifa, Critical Race Theorists, Socialists. In Hofstadter’s time, it was “‘striped-pants diplomats’, Ivy League graduates, high-ranking generals, college presidents, intellectuals, the Eastern upper classes, Harvard professors …”
Though Hofstadter noted that the paranoid style was traditionally the preserve of political minorities, by 1964 ideas that had once resided in the “curious intellectual underworld” had become alarmingly mainstream, with Barry Goldwater’s nomination for president. Unlike Schlesinger, though, he offered no sure prescription to stop the illiberal right in its tracks. Like paranoid movements that preceded it, it would have to run its natural course until subsequent events or political realignment caused the fever to break.
There’s a lot to criticize in these two accounts. Writing at the dawn of the modern civil rights movement, both historians had almost nothing to say about race—particularly, whiteness—as drivers of political identity. Religion figured into both works, but only in passing. Critics have noted that Hofstadter overplayed his hand in describing turn-of-the-century Populism as a retrogressive movement, ignoring its constructive aspirations including the movement’s advocacy of policies that would return economic power and autonomy to small farmers, and its early experiments with interracial political and economic organizing. Schlesinger, for his part, painted the American left wing with a broad brush, failing to distinguish between hardline Communists and those “fellow travelers” who tolerated communists in their unions and political organizations as a means to an end. At times, both historians took extreme license in applying psychological concepts to broad political movements. Paranoia and anxiety are, after all, defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DMM), and neither Schlesinger nor Hofstadter was a trained mental health professional.
But in the summer of 2021, The Vital Center and The Paranoid Style in American Politics still pack a bold punch. Both volumes urge recognition of illiberalism for what it is: a clear and present danger to constitutional democracy—not a loyal opposition with which one breaks bread and compromises. Both take a realistic view of American conservatism’s peculiar susceptibility to conspiracy theories and toxic identity politics. Both implicitly reject the idea that the fever will break if only the forces of liberal democracy extend their hand in a show of good will. People are sometimes rational. Often, they are not.
If the parallels are instructive, the takeaway is clear. Democracy is supported by a frail scaffold. It can collapse, and in other places at different times, it has. The vital center is not the dead center, where bipartisan Gangs of 20 go to talk themselves blue in the face. It’s the bulwark against democratic backslide. Defending it is imperative, and in the absence of a functioning anti-authoritarian right, it will require unapologetic liberal grit, and determination.