By Bruce P. Frohnen and Ted V. McAllister
America’s public life is disordered; our discourse toxic. Competing lists of scandals and abuses (calls for impeachment, “nuclear options,” attacks on free speech, and so on) are long and shop-worn—and often miss the real issue that something profound, systemic, and dangerous has happened to our nation. A hostile ideology now permeates the institutions that inculcate our children’s values, that shape or manufacture public opinion, and that supply the public with our only menu of political options from which to choose.
In effect, our ruling class has declared a new social contract, and they expect us to accept in silent acquiescence.
A social contract reveals itself in action, not ideas, and the true nature of the new, progressive contract emerges in countless examples of applied tyranny rather than its rhetoric of liberation. If we allow this new social contract to become our national norm, we will no longer be Americans in any meaningful sense. We will descend from a self-governing people into the subjects of social democratic elites who will dictate what kinds of political, economic, and social relationships we have with one another and with our new rulers.
American public life grew from a creative tension between two competing but ultimately compatible visions of who we are and what makes our common life meaningful. In effect, Americans have lived in and between two social contracts, which we have come to call “liberal” and “conservative.”
Our liberal social contract is largely individualistic; it stresses natural rights, political consent, and legal protections that extend from protecting contracts to guaranteeing equality of opportunity. Our conservative social contract, accepting much of liberalism, undergirds it by emphasizing the ties of community—of family, church, and local association—that make economic and political cooperation possible and help give life meaning. Freedom and stability, rights and duties, personal drive and the deeper ties and shared stories that bind us, these seeming contradictions have served as the poles of our common life, allowing us to forge a society of dynamic, ordered liberty.
Things have changed. Whether in the sweeping power grab of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal,” the old-style socialism of Senator Bernie Sanders, or the dogged resistance of “mainstream” Democrats to any judicial nominee who recognizes the duty of judges to follow rather than make law, formerly fringe positions have coalesced into a new consensus on the left more radical than anything we have seen previously in our two-party system.
How did this happen?
Barack Obama’s vapid speechifying about America’s coming “fundamental transformation” sounded sophomoric to many of us but inspired others—activists, academics, journalists, and politicians—to believe their vanguard had finally captured all the important cultural and political high ground. The words were conceptually empty but nonetheless important as they signaled a coming out for this vanguard. Feeling free to use naked power to implement their new social and political model, progressives largely immobilized non-progressive elites whose foolish complicity in the building of the new paradigm left them without a script.
This paradigm owes much to the most radical of American Progressives from a century ago. It is laid out most fully, however, in a work of academic philosophy, the 1971 book A Theory of Justice by Harvard philosopher John Rawls. At one level, Rawls merely restates old leftist prejudices, and his abstruse language hardly conceals the radicalism of a “social contract” demanding that we reject our lived culture, our inherited principles, and the defining traits of our American character in favor of a radical, inhumane, and fundamentally unjust “theory of justice.”
On another level, Rawls offers the purest form of political abstraction that supported a method of analysis perfectly attuned to the desires of a new generation of radicals for moral certitude and for those who cannot tolerate dissent or pluralism. In this way, Rawls crafted a very useful and seductive theory for people who want action. Rawls’ contract begins with the question: what type of society would an individual choose from behind a “veil of ignorance” completely masking every aspect of a distinctive self: gender, class, talents, physical limitations, religious and moral beliefs? Rawls’ answer is a “fair” society, in which the only permissible inequalities would be those that produce disproportionate benefits to the most disadvantaged. The cold abstraction of Rawls’ system produces moral heat against all forms of difference and inequality, and against anyone who fails to parrot the claim that its principles are self-evident. And so, dissent from the new orthodoxy is portrayed as a sign of racist rage and a selfish thirst for power, political majorities are dismissed as brainwashed rubes or mere fictions, and open opposition to the new order is deemed treason. Rawls’ theory effectively closes the mind of disciples in order to prepare them for the long march to power.
If we have learned anything over the last two and a half centuries it is that nothing is so dangerous to real, particular, breathing humans as moralism devoted to abstract visions of the good. Unfortunately, we seem perpetually destined to unlearn such lessons. “Free” college, medical care, and guaranteed incomes, courts determined to legislate against the expressed will of the people, and the poisonous demands of today’s identity politics all share a hostility to the norms of personal responsibility and traditions of due process deeply embedded in our liberal/conservative consensus. They demand rejection of tradition and opportunity in favor of using government and radical pressure groups to redistribute wealth and power according to political standards.
Political conflict is nothing new in America. Nor is all political conflict the product of disagreements over our social contract. For example, much of the tragedy of race relations historically has stemmed from primitive emotions and bad, race-based pseudo-science. But at the core of today’s toxic politics is a battle for America’s soul. We must choose: Are we, as a people, dependents of a central government and those who perpetually run that government, looking for administrators to protect us from all the tragedies of life—including sickness, poverty, feelings of inferiority, and speech we find hurtful? Or are we a free people, possessed of a common story as well as our own stories in our own communities, capable of governing ourselves provided each of us is given fair treatment and room to move in the public square?
The Rawlsian contract demands that every form of inequality—political, economic, and social—pass muster according to rigorous, unrealistic criteria. In effect, every aspect of our lives is to be judged by the most “woke” among us, who will then use the power of the state to enforce their judgement. Promising liberation, the Rawlsian social contract would reduce each and every one of us to a featureless cog in a great machine of constant social reconstruction. This most political of social contracts is the real foundation for the politics of envy and resentment promoted by Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and their enablers.
At its heart, the Progressive social contract is a rejection of society itself in favor of a pervasive, inescapable politics, guided by a permanent ruling class insulated from the people by tenure, lifetime appointments, civil service rules, and a corrupt political system. Real political consent comes, not from behind a veil of ignorance, nor from the kind of mass, national elections called for by those who would destroy our Electoral College. It comes from people within their own states and local communities. National politics and promises must take a back seat to local concerns and loyalties if we are to regain self-government. For this to happen we first must call out those who would shame normal Americans into submission. It is time to call a radical a radical and a socialist a socialist. Most important, it is time to remind ourselves that, whether conservative or liberal, a majority of Americans still believe in self-government and ordered liberty; this is what has bound us together, and what must continue to bind us together if we are to remain a free people.
– – –
Bruce P. Frohnen is Ella and Ernest Fischer Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University. Ted V. McAllister is the Edward L. Gaylord Chair of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. Their new book, Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul (Encounter Books) will be published on May 14.