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The New Social Contract

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I may be asked whether I am a prince or a legislator that I should be writing about politics. I answer no: and indeed that that is my reason for doing so… Born as I was the citizen of a free state and a member of its sovereign body, the very right to vote imposes on me the duty to instruct myself in public affairs, however little influence my voice may have in them.

-          Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

Long before the French and American Revolutions, Jean Jacques Rousseau thought deeply about what a republic required of its citizens to survive as a viable form of government. While Rousseau had his reservations about man’s capacity to be the ideal republican citizen, The Social Contract makes it clear that citizens must participate in and be informed by a healthy republic for it to thrive. As Americans, I fear that prosperity and false patriotism have led to a new social contract, one where civic apathy is acceptable. 

Americans are clearly fed up with the current state of the American republic. In the last two months, approval ratings for the executive and congressional branches of government have dropped as low as 37 percent and 20 percent, respectively.[1] But in a republic, the state of government is by definition a public matter – power and sovereignty lie with the citizen. Still, Americans do not participate, and the average citizen is terribly uninformed.[2] Issues like gerrymandering, two-party politics and polarization can contribute considerably to political apathy. But these are poor excuses for complacent citizens who have forgotten that their very citizenship imposes a duty to participate and be informed.

It is easy to look at the founding fathers with awe and forget that much of the framework, philosophies, and principles that shape the American republic were borrowed. Over two decades before our founding fathers wrote The Federalist Papers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau completed The Social Contract, just after Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. European political thought produced governmental constructs like separation of powers and representative democracy long before Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense. The budding of 18th century French political philosophy was as important to the crafting of the American republic as France’s military contributions were to the American victory in the Revolutionary War.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau dared to ask a simple question: What burdens, rights, and responsibilities are implicit in a man’s very citizenship in a republic? 

Without established social conventions, man is subjected to a world in which the only right is that of the strongest.  Rousseau was a bit ahead of his time in denouncing all slavery, despotism, and subjugation as “inexplicable nonsense,” incongruent with republican principles.[3] Surely then, this state of nature in which men are ordered only by what luck they have stumbled upon by virtue of birth is undesirable.

Since the state of nature where men are ordered by the right of the strongest is despotic, men form societies, or social contracts, as a way of combining forces to combat the state of nature.[4] Rousseau highlights the civic nature of the social contract saying, “each giving himself to all, gives himself to no one.”[5] The social contract substitutes a moral and lawful equality for the physical inequality that nature imposes upon men – making them equal by convention and legal right.[6]

This egalitarian nature of governance becomes a burden placed on all men. It is here that Rousseau’s idea of republican citizenship becomes problematic in the context of the capabilities of man, saying “People always desire what is good, but do not always discern it.” The implications that result are two-fold: citizens must participate; and citizens must be informed enough to discern what is “good.”

By most measures of civic or political participation, Americans are not taking practical steps that have tangible effects on their country. Voting is the “go-to” measure of political participation and only 36.4 percent of the voting-eligible population voted in the 2014 midterm elections, the worst turnout since World War II.[7]

It’s not just about voting, however. Volunteering and community service are down, particularly among the 20-something population.[8] Less than 1% of the American population serves in the military and there is mounting evidence that our civil-military gap is widening. Millennials appear uninterested in government as a sector of career interest; only 7 percent of government employees are under the age of 30.[9] 

Decades of civic disengagement have negatively impacted our ability to understand our communities. Since 1995, Robert Putnam has argued in his Bowling Alone theory that technological advances allow American citizens to become more easily isolated and less engaged in their communities. The result? To use his example, a generation of Americans who used to bowl on teams or in recreational leagues now go to the bowling alley alone. The effects of this decline in social capital are citizens less interested and less empathetic towards the needs, issues, and concerns of those around them.

There is mounting evidence to suggest that Americans are moving into like-minded ideological communities physically in their neighborhoods and on television with 24-hour “news” that fits their political leanings. Bill Bishop describes this clustering of similar-thinking people and the deleterious effects it has on our ability to empathize with those who hold different ideas in his book The Big Sort. The result is a more judgmental America, more susceptible to groupthink and political views on extreme ends of the spectrum. Moderates are left feeling isolated and less-inclined to seek political office.  

Moreover, most Americans are civically uneducated and woefully uninformed.[10] Students at our top institutions – some of our smartest young adults – struggle with simple questions about the structure of our government, naming who represents them in Congress, term lengths, or even what century the American Revolution took place in.[11] Those of us that do pay attention get more information than ever before through social media links we do not even click on.[12] In the event that we are watching or reading the news, most of us deeply mistrust it as biased.[13] Furthermore, 76 percent of us admit we do not use a variety of different sources to get our news.[14]

Where Americans do choose to participate and seek information is on social media. But social media algorithms are designed to feed you what you already like to read, talk, and hear about.[15] Bill Bishops’ Big Sort has simply moved online and given us yet another chamber to echo in, making political discourse completely unproductive. Furthermore, Americans consider their social media feeds to be an increasingly negative and depressing place.[16] This can contribute greatly to feelings of political apathy and the futility of civic participation.

The new social contract is that of complacency. However, this complacency is not just acceptable, it’s normal. America has made it easy for the common citizen to not have to think about her affairs. Many Americans do not even feel like elections affect their everyday lives.[17] We have created a system where Congress does not actually have to pass a real budget, and rarely does. Unlimited national debt has given us a country where more entitlements and decade-long wars are paradoxically accompanied with tax breaks, not tax hikes. Thus, Americans who do not fight in America’s wars feel no financial repercussions from them. Our government simply writes checks that immediately bounce right onto the top of a debt pile no one wants to talk about.

And yet, America and her citizens exist in a period of unparalleled prosperity, both at home and abroad. The American economy is growing. By several metrics, literacy, education, and health conditions are at all-time highs while crime is actually relatively low.[18] We remain safe thanks to the largest, most technologically-advanced fighting force the world has ever seen.

But this is only part of what makes America truly exceptional. Part of what makes this country great is that we as informed citizens are allowed and even encouraged to be excruciatingly self-critical. Over the 2017 July 4th holiday weekend, Americans spent an estimated $800 million on fireworks to celebrate.[19] And over 100 people were shot on the streets of Chicago that same weekend.[20] Real patriotism is critical thought; that self-examination that juxtaposes our greatness against the work we still have to do.

Red, white and blue apparel and fireworks are cheap substitutes for actual participation in a republic. False patriotism is waving the flag without knowing or even thinking about why. We cannot mistake the words of the Declaration of Independence as propaganda and still pose as informed citizens on social media.

The American social contract should not be one of complacency and ignorance, but of participation and education. All three branches of government should give sincere consideration to implementing Stanley McChrystal’s call to provide at least one million opportunities each year for young Americans to spend a service year alongside a diverse group of their peers. Universities should take pledges to pursue true liberal education, inviting an assortment of guest lecturers from across the political spectrum to speak at their schools and encourage their students to respectfully engage in new areas of political discourse.

As for everyday citizens, we must consider where our national pride stems from. Is American exceptionalism defined by our ability to critically think through problems together? A willingness to participate with one another for our own governance? Or does our greatness simply stem from our prosperity and militaristic superiority?

These are not existential questions for our long term alone. They have significant relevance to the here and now. Recent militaristic provocations have some Americans advocating for war with North Korea. Despite the fact that even victory in a North Korean conflict would mean certain death for thousands of servicemen, Twitter and Facebook warriors talk tough behind keyboards and smart phones, prodding Kim Jong Un to “bring it on!” That is not patriotism. That is stupidity.

Our greatness ought to stem from our ability to deftly avoid wars as much as from our ability to fight them. This republic needs citizens with the intelligence and courage to do both.


[1]Gallup, Inc. "Congress Approval Drops to 20% After February High." April 11, 2017.  

[2] Meyer, Jared. "The Ignorant Voter." Forbes. June 27, 2016.

[3] Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (New Haven and London: Yale University Presss, 2002), 158.

[4] Ibid, 163.

[5] Ibid, 164

[6] Ibid, 169.

[7] Montanaro, Domenico, Rachel Wellford, and Simone Pathe. "2014 midterm election turnout lowest in 70 years." PBS. November 10, 2014.

[8] "Volunteering in the United States, 2015." U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. February 25, 2016.

[9] Curry, Kevin. "America's public sector has a big problem - it's not getting any Millennials." TheHill. April 07, 2017.

[10] Meyer, Jared. "The Ignorant Voter." Forbes. June 27, 2016.

[11] Cole, Jonathan R. "Ignorance Does Not Lead to Election Bliss." The Atlantic. November 08, 2016.

[12] Mitchell, Amy, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel, and Elisa Shearer. "Pathways to news." Pew Research Center's Journalism Project. July 07, 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] "The Reason Your Feed Became An Echo Chamber - And What To Do About It." NPR. July 24, 2016.

[16] Duggan, Maeve, and Aaron Smith. "The Political Environment on Social Media." Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. October 25, 2016.

[17] Shearer, Elisa, and Jeffrey Gottfried. "Half of those who aren’t learning about the election feel their vote doesn’t matter." Pew Research Center. March 04, 2016.

[18] Gavin, Francis J. "Wonder and Worry in an Age of Distraction: Notes on American Exceptionalism for My Young Friends." War on the Rocks. July 07, 2017.

[19] Kiernan, John S. "4th of July Facts & Figures." WalletHub. June 26, 2017.

[20] Nickeas, Peter, Elvia Malagon, Elyssa Cherney, and Jeremy Gorner. "Chicago police express frustration after more than 100 shot in violent Fourth of July weekend." July 06, 2017.