Rewriting the Social Contract
The Public Square


by  R.R. Reno

The social contract in America is coming undone, and it will be revised and rewritten in the coming years. That’s to be expected. In the city of man, no governing consensus or established regime lasts forever. As James Piereson points out in the June issue of the New Criterion, although the American constitutional framework has endured, our national life has seen regular “surrogates for revolution.” 

The conflict over slavery shattered the political consensus of the early republic. Founded in 1854, the Republican Party served as a political vehicle for abolitionists frustrated by the old consensus, one pillar of which was the presumptive permanence of slaveholding interests.

After the Northern triumph in the Civil War, the Republican Party dominated for the next sixty or more years, not only by setting the agenda for national politics but also by shaping elite opinion. Literary-magazine editors, college professors, museum directors, high-minded missionaries, pioneering reformers in education, public health, and public housing: They were overwhelmingly Republican, reflecting a confident, moralistic Protestantism that saw the emerging American industrial power as a sure sign of divine providence.

It was powerful but not omnipotent, long-lasting but not eternal. It couldn’t deal adequately with the social challenges of industrial society—labor unrest, mass immigration, and the dislocating effects of urbanization—and the crisis of the Great Depression swept it away.

By the 1950s, the establishment that was once largely Republican had become decidedly Democratic, reflecting the new governing consensus of modern liberalism that an activist government should lead the way in providing solutions to the economic and social problems facing the nation.

There were voices of dissent from the left and the right. In his own way, Barry Goldwater railed against the system with as much vigor as Pete Seeger. But the New Deal consensus worked reasonably well, which is why for more than sixty years it commanded wide loyalty, not only in America but also in Europe, where it predominated under the name “social democracy.” Republicans may have been less enthusiastic than Democrats, but they accepted its predominance, which blunted conservative efforts to “change Washington.”

Beginning with Ronald Reagan, conservative rhetoric could win elections, but it was unable to govern the country.

That was then. As Piereson points out, the New Deal consensus is under a great deal of stress. The global economy brings changes that dislocate workers, and many middle-class Americans, especially white, high-school-educated males, have suffered a significant decline in opportunity and income. Concerns about health, safety, the environment, non-discrimination, and so forth, all worthy in their own right, have created a vast regulatory network that adds friction to the economic machine. There are fewer young workers to sustain entitlement programs for retirees, making it very unlikely that Social Security and Medicare can be sustained without significant changes. The system created and administered by the New Deal consensus seems old, immobile, and unsustainable.

The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession are bringing things to a head. Dramatic government intervention through increased spending and monetary easing may have prevented catastrophe, but it’s not bringing prosperity. Facing a crisis in a world of its own making, the New Deal consensus doesn’t seem up to the challenges.

That’s one reason why Tea Party populism has gained traction.

In fact, the Democratic Party’s populism is also organized around the suspicion that the system is becoming dysfunctional. The battle cry of “income inequality” amounts to the judgment that our economic system can no longer be relied upon to create broad-based prosperity.

Liberals will say that their best efforts have been blocked by conservatives. By their way of thinking, we need to double down on the New Deal consensus, renewing redistributive efforts, protecting unions, extending government subsidies and credits, and increasing public spending. It’s understandable. A governing consensus provided a feeling of safety in times of crisis. We won’t be criticized as “radical” or “outside the mainstream” if we fall back on tried-and-true methods, even if they aren’t all that effective anymore.

However, as Piereson notes, Democrats and the liberal establishment are the “regime party.” This makes them vulnerable. During the Great Depression, Republicans were the “regime party,” and as the economic status quo unraveled, they could not help but be discredited. Something similar may overthrow the New Deal consensus in the near future. It’s Franklin Roosevelt’s world that is coming apart today, not Herbert Hoover’s.

Where does all this leave us? I have no powers of prophecy. Maybe Paul Ryan’s “roadmap” will lead us out of our fiscal woes and usher in a new era of prosperity. Or maybe Marxist dreamers will become relevant again. Or maybe anxious voters will remain loyal to the old assumptions of the New Deal consensus, and we’ll muddle along for a while longer. There’s no law of political science that says crises must be short and resolution decisive. 

That said, I’m willing to wager that whatever view eventually supersedes the now-old New Deal consensus, however different the emphases and new the focus, it will no more destroy or dismantle the main outlines and mechanisms of the modern welfare state than the then-new New Deal consensus signaled the end of capitalism. American revolutions tend to be conservative ones. Thankfully.

The Declining Liberal Establishment

There’s a parallel crisis on the social side of the social contract, one that also threatens to discredit the liberal establishment. The middle-class myth, an extraordinarily powerful vision of social solidarity, has been as important over the last sixty years as the economic prosperity made possible by the New Deal consensus. This myth emerged with the explosive growth of the suburbs, mixing groups once segregated into ethnic urban neighborhoods. It was reinforced by the common experience of television and the consumer culture made possible by widespread prosperity. By 1960, the children of parents born in Little Italy were living in Paramus, and they were listening to the same songs and watching the same shows as were teenagers in Southern California whose fathers had come from Arkansas to work in Lockheed factories.

The middle-class myth was never entirely true to social reality, but it was all the more powerful because it was imagined, creating a sense of common public culture. The invention of the term “upper middle class” for the elastic top end testifies to its grip. The civil rights movement exposed the myth’s racial boundaries, and the new left held its bourgeois morals and manners in disdain, but by and large the consensus held firm. Both political parties promised to be the party of the middle class, each accusing the other of being something else: Republicans are the party of the rich; Democrats the party of welfare queens. Serving the common good meant sending people to Washington to tax, spend, and regulate to promote the interests of the middle class. That’s why, for the most part, our politics differed in emphasis rather than substance.

Today, the middle-class myth is becoming less and less believable. In his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Charles Murray describes the many ways in which the middle class is being eroded from both the top and the bottom. I wrote about Murray’s book recently (“The One Percent,” March 2012), and I won’t review the details here. It’s enough to report his conclusions. The top 20 percent of white Americans are increasingly drawn to (and from) the same communities, same elite universities, same interlocking professions, and same organic-food restaurants. Meanwhile, the bottom 30 percent live very different and increasingly dysfunctional lives. 

What Murray shows in detail is intuitively felt by most Americans today. We’ve grown apart. In a way unimaginable during the height of the liberal establishment’s dominance in the post-war decades, recent Ivy League graduates and other young elites often unconsciously express a cruel contempt for the social mores of middle America. For many, Walmart is a fundamental threat to civilization. 

At its height, the liberal establishment had three features that helped it superintend and strengthen the middle-class myth: patriotic anti-communism, a bourgeois ethic roughly coordinated with the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, and a vague but real connection to religious institutions. Its greatest accomplishment was to manage the civil rights movement with a deft combination of delay, moderation, and eventual wholehearted commitment. The result was a success. Against many odds, racial equality became a widely accepted part of the social consensus—and a modified middle-class myth—in America.

Today’s liberal establishment is increasingly post-national, non-judgmental, and post-religious, and it would like to redefine our social consensus accordingly.

Some efforts have been successful. One thinks of sexual liberation, aspects of which are now widely accepted. Others have been less so. Patriotism endures, as does religious faith. As a consequence, what used to be the “upper middle” is now often at odds with the “middle middle.” 

The general presumption that we’re all pretty much the same has devolved into cultural mistrust. The remarkable rise of homeschooling in recent decades provides an example; even parents who send their children to public schools often do so with grave misgivings about our common culture. This mistrust is by no means limited to conservatives. Think of the casual reference to everything from Pittsburgh to Sacramento as “flyover country,” or the horror many liberals express at the thought of living in Dallas. This mistrust often turns into outright conflict, as the trench warfare of litigation and ballot resolutions concerning marriage reminds us.

In a democratic society, a strong, functional establishment solidifies and sustains a common culture. The liberal establishment’s ideas, sentiments, and prejudices no longer sustain a middle-class myth that a supermajority can accept. In fact, more often than not, the liberal establishment endorses alternatives (diversity, multiculturalism, and so forth) that are positively antithetical to the development of a broad and comprehensive myth of social solidarity. 

This failure is the deepest explanation for our partisan politics. The liberal establishment, while still very powerful, is no longer the establishment.

On the contrary, today it’s an often angry and bitter faction fighting against a still uncoordinated but increasingly powerful array of voices (the religious right, conservative jurists, free-market libertarians, and conservative TV and radio hosts, as well as other forms of social populism) to maintain its dominant position and presumptive right to define the social consensus.

This became especially clear to me recently. In my youth, I was a regular reader of the New Yorker, then the weathervane of complacent liberal sentiment. In those years, “Talk of the Town” was a breezy section that taught members of the establishment how serenely to oversee, digest, and otherwise take possession of modern American life. 

I’m not a regular reader now, and so I was very struck by the change when I took up a recent issue. The lead item in “Talk of the Town” focused on the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act. Jeffrey Toobin expressed dismay that the Court even heard the case. His gist was: Are you kidding? Don’t intelligent people know that since 1937 the Supreme Court has read the commerce clause so as to make way for the New Deal consensus? The New Yorker is still the New Yorker, and Toobin doesn’t write with the same slashing style as twenty-first-century bloggers. But I was nonetheless struck. Toobin’s political focus and anxious horror seemed alien to the New Yorker of my memory, which sat so confidently above the partisan fray. 

Man cannot live on bread alone. The same holds for politics. A functional democratic society needs an establishment that identifies and articulates the larger purposes—a myth of solidarity—that partisans compete to serve. That’s why, just as an economic consensus that can’t produce economic well-being will be replaced, an establishment that can’t act like an establishment will eventually be replaced. Their successors will not be mealy-mouthed proponents of “bipartisanship” and “cooperation.” The new establishment will be made up of those whose social imaginations are capable of either renewing the middle-class myth or formulating a compelling alternative.

Perhaps we’ll revive our middle-class myth. Or perhaps we’ll revert to older, tribal forms of solidarity. Recent history in Yugoslavia and elsewhere should give us pause if we think that that’s impossible. Or maybe some sort of globalized, post-national myth of solidarity will emerge and compel imaginations, even mine (though I’m skeptical). There are plenty of internationalists in the liberal establishment who’d like to see things go that way. 

But of this I’m sure: We won’t adopt the outlook of an ersatz establishment that promises technocratic effectiveness. Nor will social solidarity be renewed by elites committed to “managing differences.” A unifying social consensus can’t be created by a national conflict resolution team or a therapeutic mentality. On the contrary, for most of human history, religion has provided the most powerful and effective engine of solidarity. Perhaps it will again—not in old ways, to be sure, as it did when the Protestant mainline set the tone for the establishment and gave the middle-class myth its morality—but in new ways that befit a pluralistic, democratic society. That’s a possibility worth working for.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
This entry was posted in MORAL RELATIVISM. Bookmark the permalink.