Two people shaking hands, with lines over the hands distorting it.


The Fraying of the Social Contract

Our trust in systems, government, and in one another is at an all-time low. Is there any hope for our shared sense of sacrifice?

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Misery loves company, as the saying goes. Americans, along with the rest of the world, have endured a miserable time during Covid years. We’ve lost nearly a million of our fellow citizens. Many millions more grieved loved ones, experienced long-term health consequences, missed meaningful family and community events. Yet in our misery, we have not loved company. Americans’ togetherness, never perfectly knitted, is unraveling.

In 1919, William Butler Yeats watched his pregnant wife suffer from the Spanish flu that suffocated so many in the last great pandemic. He wrote about watching everything devolve into chaos:

…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity…

Disasters of mass death tend to leave disorder in their wake. In the U.S., the Spanish flu pandemic was followed by the Red Summer of 1919, which comprised a nationwide wave of lynchings, massacres, theft, and destruction committed by white Americans against Black Americans. The racist terror, along with anti-immigrant violence and brutal crackdowns on organized labor, continued into the 1920s.

The Spanish flu pandemic is an imperfect analogue to the Covid pandemic. At that time, the world had just emerged from an unimaginably cruel and bloody war. Spanish flu was even deadlier than Covid, and less treatable. No vaccine was developed. Yet some of that pandemic’s ensuing tumult, hopelessness, and racial animosity resonates today.

It feels like things are falling apart. Republican members of Congress threaten imminent “bloodshed” and suggest shooting public health officials. Local functionaries who used to have boring jobs, such as school board members and election officials, are being harassed and threatened. Public places have become fraught, with store workers enforcing mask mandates being beaten and even killed while violent incidents on airplanes drastically increased. Police have furiously rejected fairness and accountability. Swathes of the public refuse to take simple steps to keep themselves and their neighbors safe.

Most ominous is the refusal of the majority of the Republican Party to believe the results of the 2020 election. Accusations of election-rigging reached a breaking point on January 6, 2021. At the invitation of then-President Donald Trump, a terrorist crowd ran riot through the Capitol, breaking glass and smearing feces, and busting heads, in an attempt to seize governmental power in the U.S.

An optimist might acknowledge all this, note the increase in murmurings of a second Civil War or the end of the American experiment, but argue that the U.S. is not actually increasingly unstable. Covid is still deadly, but vaccines and treatments have reduced the likelihood of the worst outcomes. Worriers may have whipped themselves up by breathless media coverage of a few viral incidents, but society has not fallen into lawlessness. Though the rate of violent crime has ticked up recently, it is still far below its peak in the early 1990s—a time within living memory of over half the country. Unemployment is as low as it gets. We are not at war. The January 6 riot was incompetently executed and order was restored the same day. Everything’s fine, take a deep breath, they’d say.

The optimist should be more worried. Despite the prevalence of violent crime in the 1990s, we had far greater trust in each other to make wise choices politically. Trust is essential to maintaining our social contract. As flawed as our social contract may be, the alternatives are bleak.

Social contract theory emerged during the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. It sought to show why and how members of a community are better off if they each make some sacrifices that enable the community to flourish. Of course, society and cooperation were not invented by a bunch of European men in powdered wigs and breeches. But Enlightenment philosophers offered a vision of governments that exist not because they were ordained by God or because they were exerted by brute force, but because their people chose it.

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described life in lawlessness as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Other philosophers were less terrified of the brutality of raw humanity, but they agreed lawlessness was not desirable or feasible. People are better off when we create a social contract—that is, when we overcome our differences by coming together and rationally consenting to rules that arrange what we owe to one another.

Not only governments employ formal or informal social contracts. Unions and other institutions employ them. “We live in a society” is an admonishment to the manspreaders and phone-yellers and aggressive drivers who refuse to respect unwritten customs that smooth our co-existence.

Signing on to a social contract requires sacrifice. We can no longer do whatever we want whenever we want. If you have a beef with your neighbor, you cannot simply stab them and steal their horse even though you feel—even though you know—they have it coming. In return for this sacrifice, you will be protected from your neighbors who want to stab and steal. Judging disputes and meting out punishments are reserved for the governing body.

Participation in a social contract demands trust. No party to the contract will always get their way. So each has to be willing to take some hits to their interests, and assume that eventually things will be fair—or, since no social contract is ever completely fair, then fair enough so that maintaining the contract is still better than lawlessness. Once people take the law into their own hands, for good reasons or for bad, the social contract comes apart.

In the U.S., we’ve battled over whether we should expand our social contracts to include Black people, women, Indigenous people, religious minorities, disabled people, and immigrants. We have also battled over what the contract should dictate we owe to each other, including taxes, infrastructure, health care, legal freedoms, and policing.

American social contracts—most notably our government but also other institutions and communities—have never been fair, impartial, and equitable. Many of the disputes we have now are longstanding. Yet there are several reasons to think now is an especially dangerous time, that our social contracts may fray still further.

The first reason is that a political party has been co-opted by the forces of animus—hostility toward Black folks, Latinos, Muslims, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized groups. There have always been forces of such animus in the U.S. It is written into our Constitution and into the works of the Enlightenment social contract theorists who inspired the founders. Animus against the marginalized has been at the root of our bitterest and deadliest fights. Republicans have been, for over a generation, more hospitable to animus, but Democrats had their racists too. Trump, however, was a magnet that attracted the racist Democrats and strengthened the racist Republicans. He managed to coalesce the racists into a single political movement in a single political party.

The Republican Party is now committed to representing those who believe that people who are not like them should have no say in their government. At Trump’s repeated urging, Republicans also represent those who do not trust the results of the 2020 presidential election. Elections help make our social contract responsive to the rational choices of citizens. If people believe the other parties to the contract are not holding up their end of the contract, that they’re cheating—there is little reason to honor the bargains struck. Without buy-in from all parties, a contract dissolves.

The Republican Party has sanctioned its members who want to investigate the social contract breakdown that took place on January 6, and has refrained from sanctioning the members calling for further violence. One of the nation’s two political parties is no longer a serious partner in government by compromise, and that does not look to change anytime soon.

Another reason to worry is the fury of Trumpist Republicans at being asked for the smallest self-sacrifice. Citizens have balked before when they feel the demands made by the social contract are too great, such as riots protesting taxes and military drafts. Yet Trumpists are resisting masks, a mere piece of cloth over the face—and are taking violence into their own hands as a solution. Maintaining the social contract requires commitment and a willingness to acquiesce. We are not seeing that.

Republicans are no longer as interested in hashing out what we owe each other in any practical sense—kitchen table issues that lend themselves to compromise by legislation. The policies that concern them most are the ones that aim to restrict the parties to our national contract: voting rights and immigration. They are less interested in specific policy positions unless those positions are associated with their partisan identity. Most of the Democrats’ plans and proposals are actually popular with Republicans, at least until they come to have a strong association with Democrats.

What animates Trumpists is the exclusive rights to the story we tell ourselves about who we are. They want to defend Confederate monuments, outlaw admitting the racism in our past in K-12 schools, outlaw admitting to children that gay couples exist, not use preferred pronouns, outlaw parents accepting their trans kids, refuse to countenance non-Christian holidays, have superheroes be white men, make racist comments without being shunned. None of these issues involve creating infrastructure or distributing resources. Trumpists want to craft their own historical national narrative, for themselves and for all our children.

If it were, say, taxes that lit a fire under them, a compromise could be struck. But the narrative creation of a national identity cannot happen through legislation alone, despite Trumpists’ vigorous and dangerous efforts. Nor is it amenable to compromise—what is the appropriate give-and-take supposed to be when the “take” is tearing trans children from their families?

Governing Democrats are left without a serious partner to debate the rational choices we need to make to run the country.

At the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Republicans quizzed her position on teaching critical race theory in schools, the books she would permit children to read, her definition of “woman.” What they did not coherently articulate were their fears about actual legal shifts that would occur were she to be on the Supreme Court. Their preoccupation was with national identity. Charlie Kirk, executive director of the right-wing youth organization Turning Point USA, put his objection to the nomination in frighteningly simple terms, saying that Jackson “is what your country looks like on critical race theory… your children and your grandchildren are going to have to take orders from people like her. And what’s amazing is that she kind of has an attitude too.”

Republicans have proven how much they will sacrifice to maintain their identity in opposition to Democrats. They risk their lives rather than wear the mask or get the vaccine they associate with their enemies. And in the end, counties that voted for Trump had a higher death rate than those that voted for Biden. They are literally dying to maintain their political identity. These are not people willing to go in with Democrats on deciding the future of our country.

We are unlikely to have a second Civil War similar to the first, if only because the current state of our military and the geographic distribution of partisans prohibits it. But our social contract can fray still further, permitting more cruel laws, more sporadic violence, more destabilization.

To the degree that their fury over our national identity is coherent, Trumpists are infuriated that the left acknowledges our social contract—our ground rules, our Constitution—may not be a set of perfect ideas that were sadly and briefly imperfectly applied, but have inherent problems. That animus against the marginalized may be baked in. The Trumpists demand we refrain from criticizing the origins of our social contract, and yet it is they who are dancing up to the edge of tearing it apart.

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