Bill Clinton’s ‘Vital Center’ and Integral Consciousness: Is it truly second-tier?

by editor

Vital Center. The term has been often used by many, especially by Bill Clinton, the ex-President of the United States of America. If one digs into the origin of the phrase, one has to go back to the year 1949, when, Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote a book titled, The Vital Center. Though the domestic use of the term has been objected to by Arthur, many use it in the sense of a “middle road” between liberal and conservative thinking. A balance of the Right and the Left. Bill Clinton started using the phrase in a different sense in speeches delivered during his term of office. Schlesinger objected to what he opined to be the misuse of the term in an article on the Slate magazine. In spite of this, Clinton is still believed by many to have a higher level of integral consciousness compared to his fellow politicians. This article explores the depths of Clinton’s integralism.

The Vital Center of Schlesinger:
In his Foreword to the The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, Schlesinger starts with an appropriate quote from Yeats’ “The Second Coming”. What follows is a discussion on the politics of freedom, the New Deal, nineteenth century optimism, mid-twentieth liberalism and so on. He also deals at length about the “Doughface progressivism” of those days. However, in all these, Schlesinger is very clear about his definition of the term “vital center”. Or rather, he is clear of what is not vital center. Objecting to the domestic use of the phrase in his “Introduction to  the Transaction Edition” of Vital Center, Schlesinger opines: “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.”

Bill Clinton’s Vital Center: The ex-President’s mention of “vital center” triggered a volley of attacks from Schlesinger who objected to use of the phrase as a political boilerplate. Clinton used the phrase in several instances, some of which are:

“We proclaim that the vital American center is alive and well.” (On the night of his re-election).
“Our people voted for the ideas of the vital American center” (Two days after his re-election).
“We have clearly created a new center… the vital center that has brought so much progress to our nation in the last four years..let us commit together to mobilizing that vital center.” (In December 1996 speech to the DLC).

In his article on the Slate magazine, Schlesinger argues that while the “vital center” he mentioned was about a “liberal democracy” while the one that the President kept mentioning was a “middle of the road”, which might be somewhere closer to Reagan than Roosevelt. According to Schlesinger, the President was evidently saying, “the United States is facing vital problems that the American people must attack together without reference to shibboleths of the past.” Clinton, by the use of the phrase, opines Schlesinger, means that the “era of big government is over” with the advent of computer-revolution. Schlesinger feels that the President used the phrase in order to suggest that we need to work together to take upon the shift (traumatic that the previous one) from industrial to computer or cybernetic revolution. In his arguments throughout his essay, Schlesinger dismissed the ex-President’s use of the term in the sense he, the author, meant it. Given this conclusion from Schlesinger, one can but say that Bill Clinton’s “vital center” is not a clearly defined “Third Way” nor does it have any associations with integral thinking.

Clinton’s Integral Consciousness:
Though the “vital center” may not have anything “integral” about it, there are other opinions of the ex-President which make him fall into the Ken Wilber group of theorists. In a webcast with the World Economic Forum’s Founder Klaus Schwab, Clinton answered to his a question in an integral, second-tier way. The question: “If you look at the world today, what are the three most important worries which you have?” His first answer: Climate change and global warming as a result of it.

His second concern: “A cluster of issues that essentially relate to the way the global world works to aggravate rather than ameliorate inequality. I don’t think we’ve found a way to promote economic and political integration in a manner that benefits the vast majority of people in all societies… If ordinary people don’t perceive that our grand ideas are working in their lives, then they can’t develop, the higher level of consciousness, if I can use a kind of touchy-feely word, that American philosopher Ken Wilber wrote a whole book about, called A Theory of Everything. He said, you know, the problem is the world needs to be more integrated but it requires a consciousness that’s way up here, and an ability to see beyond the differences among us. So I worry about that.”

This second concern seems to be a possible permutation of integral politics. Quoting Integral theorist Wilber, Clinton expressed concern over the need for a second-tier way of thinking and implementation of ideologies. His focus is on bringing about a “higher level of consciousness”. But is this statement and the use of the word “integration” a clue to Clinton’s integral politics ideology? The answer is yes and no. Some opine that using the lingo of spiral dynamics does not mean that Clinton is an integralist. But this does not also mean that he is not an Integral thinker. The fact to be appreciated here is that, Clinton, a well-known politician, is at least considering these ideas. Since he has the potential to influence different types of people, his entry into Integral politics can trigger integralism in many quarters of the country and the world. On the whole, there is probability of people in power starting to appreciate his “touchy-feely word, higher level of consciousness”.

Reference Links:

1. Vital Center is a book written in 1949 by Arthur M. Schlesinger. An excerpt of the book here.

2. An article on Bill Clinton and Integral Consciousness revealed through his webcast at WEF

3. Bill Clinton interviewed by  World Economic Forum’s Founder Klaus Schwab can be seen in this webcast.

4. Schlesinger objects to Clinton’s use of the phrase “vital center” in this Slate article .

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