David Moscrop is the author of Too Dumb for Democracy?: Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.
The social contract in the United States is no more. The tacit agreement between its people and its government on which the country’s democratic order is based – the exchange of consent by the people for rights, protection and the institutions necessary for a country to operate – has eroded to the point at which it is almost meaningless.
Then again, the theory behind a social contract assumes that people would agree to certain reasonable terms to establish and maintain a government; by any measure, those reasonable terms have long been lacking in the U.S. for millions of Americans. The United States was founded on chattel slavery and Indigenous genocide. Racial segregation, formal and informal, is embedded in the country still; poor and marginalized Americans have long been abandoned in the absence of a robust welfare state. Today, the state’s apparent disdain for the people with whom it is contracted is impossible to ignore.
But even this contract has fundamentally collapsed. And now the country finds itself at a point where it can either remake itself – or die.
Deep inequality; unaffordable and inaccessible basic needs, including health care and education; structural state and individual violence against racialized people; endemic racism and prejudice; catastrophic and routine gun violence; cruel and unusual punishment in the prison system; a coup attempt backed by some political elites, including the president; gerrymandered electoral districts and voter suppression; a partisan Supreme Court whose majoritarian/countermajoritarian balancing capacity has fallen apart as it strips away fundamental rights supported by the majority, such as the right to an abortion. These are just some of the U.S.’s failings, and each of them is a major violation of the state’s very purpose, according to the theoretical basis on which the country exists.
At its most basic level, the U.S. has abandoned its fundamental duty to protect its people. That function is central to the social contract; it’s the fundamental point of the thing. Social contracts are primarily meant to establish order. The Declaration of Independence, written during the Revolutionary War to make the case for why revolution by the Thirteen Colonies against Great Britain was necessary, makes specific mention of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as “unalienable Rights.” Great Britain had failed to uphold those rights, the revolutionaries claimed, and thus had lost its right to govern. According to such reasoning, if the state no longer serves its fundamental purpose, the social contract is void – or, at least, people no longer need to abide by the terms of their agreement with it. Citizen exit from the contract may follow, a return to a precontract state or establishing a new order by way of revolution. Neither of those options is on the U.S. agenda right now, and revolution would be its own vector of catastrophe.
Just this month, decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court on abortion, gun control and Miranda rights, for instance, will make the country far less safe and far less just. In the wake of the decision to leave abortion laws up to the states, several states immediately banned it; more will follow. Former vice-president Mike Pence called for a national ban. This is the stuff of theocracy. The court’s decision not only limits the rights of people who may become pregnant, it will lead to deaths. It is a fundamental violation of the right to life. So is the lack of adequate gun-control measures in a country where more than 45,000 people were killed by guns in 2020. A recent effort to impose some control resulted in a bipartisan bill – shocking, of itself – but it leaves much to be desired.
If the country continues on its current course of decline, the U.S. will face violent revolution or oblivion – maybe even both. A mix of plutocracy, theocracy and juristocracy – rule by courts – is no way to govern, nor is it sustainable. Eventually, people will have had enough. Eventually, certain functional states will no longer see the value in being part of a federal union. Eventually, it will all fall apart.
The alternative is radical renewal through structural change, driven by protest, civil disobedience, mass strikes, new candidates for office at every order of government – candidates who understand the needs of the moment and what it takes to meet them – and a refusal to take any party or politician at their word, no matter what their latest fundraising e-mail blast may say. Tepid centrism that plays by the rules of the insiders and politics-as-usual won’t cut it. This approach calls for a country that protects majorities and minorities across markers of ethnicity, race, faith, ability, gender, sexuality and more. Radical renewal calls for the provision of fundamental needs, including personal security – a value that would comprise the right to safe, accessible abortions and not being killed by gun violence.
Renewal is much easier said than done. The United States is marked by deep partisan polarization that is baked into the very identities of millions of Americans, led by cynical political and media elites who seem only too keen to lead them down the primrose path to doom. That makes renewal a battle for, as the country’s generals might put it, hearts and minds. Those who wish to preserve the country have no choice but to engage in and win such a struggle. The alternative is worse – its logical, long-term conclusion unthinkable, perhaps, but long known by history. That alternative is utter collapse and destruction. So Americans must fight for a new social order as if their lives depend on it, because they do.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.