Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
The great storm that ravaged the east coast this past week brought into sharper focus than all of the presidential debates combined the central issue facing voters on Tuesday. Those who continue to believe that we are all in this together applauded the non-partisan meetings between President Obama and New Jersey governor Christ Christie. The ideologues on the right saw those same meetings as a cynical betrayal of conservative orthodoxy. Alternatively, they approved the initial response of Rep. Steve King (R. Iowa), who subordinated concern over the needs of the storm’s victims to the question of what budget cuts would need to be made before providing federal assistance. These distinct responses accentuated the fact that the election is not about economic policy or religious freedom or the mess in the Middle East. It is not about climate change or energy independence or immigration reform. And it is not about abortion or same-sex marriage or the rights of public unions. At its core, the election is a referendum on affirming or rescinding the social contract. All the rest is committee work.
By “social contract” I mean the principles which I believe most strongly influenced the Founders, the theory of civil government expounded in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. A civil society is formed, he wrote, “wherever any number of men, in the state of nature, enters into society to make one people one body politic, under one supreme government . . . . For hereby he authorizes the society . . . to make laws for him, as the public good of society shall require . . . . And this puts men out of a state of nature and into a commonwealth . . . . “
In Locke’s view, the purpose and end of government is the preservation of property interests, which he broadly describes as “life, health, liberty and possessions.” He describes civil government as the “proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature.” Locke’s words are echoed in the Declaration of Independence with its references to the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Constitution incorporates Locke’s ideas in both the Preamble and in the division of government into separate legislative, executive and judicial branches.
The political debates over the past four years and the ideological opposition to the Obama presidency can be analyzed under many sub-headings, but taken as a whole, the arguments question the fundamental nature of government. The following examples are illustrative:
A. The personal social contract.
“It is not the public good that matters; it is the personal good.”
-Rep. Allen West (R. Fla.), CPAC conference, 2012
In Rep. West’s view, the social contract is unconcerned with common welfare beyond the requirements of the defense of individual interests. The goal of government is limited to protecting one’s personal rights and, by extension, the independence of the country. Therefore, government is a minimalist proposition. It exists to maintain a strong national defense and the ability to prosecute and punish those who would harm one’s person or property. The only obligation imposed upon the individual is to respect the same rights in others (or suffer the consequences) and to pay the taxes necessary for the common defense. Although adherents to this view acknowledge the additional responsibilities of government described in the Constitution, they regard the social contract as essentially a private agreement between the individual and the state.
B. The exclusionary social contract.
“If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.”
-Judson Phillips, president of the Tea Party Nation (quoted in Think Progress, November 30, 2010)
Although the Constitution does not address the right to vote, and the beliefs of the Founders were certainly a product of prevailing attitudes and values, the fact is that Locke considered consent an essential element of civil society. A commonwealth is formed, according to him, “by the consent of every individual.”
The history of this country has, until recently, been one of expansion of the right to vote, to propertyless citizens, to former slaves, to women and to all those deemed old enough to die in the nation’s wars. Yet universal suffrage has been the subject of political and legislative attack in the last several years, largely, in my view, as a reaction to the election of a black president. The lie that voter fraud compels the enactment of strict voter ID requirements has been too well debunked to warrant further comment. The real motives are to be found in the language of the promoters of voter suppression legislation. Florida State Senator Michael Bennett (R. Bradenton) has declared that voting is a privilege rather than a right. ”This is something people died for. Why should we make it easier?” (quoted in the Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2011). Writing in the American Thinker, Matthew Vadum criticized the efforts of Democrats to register the poor with the observation that “Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn’t about helping the poor. It’s about helping the poor to help themselves to others’ money.” Gov. Romney’s now famous comment on the 47% is a variation on this theme. Controversial New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien unsuccessfully pushed legislation which would have prohibited college students from registering to vote from their school addresses, candidly acknowledging that a college student will likely vote “as a liberal.” (quoted in Think Progress, December 1, 2011). And the Republican mayor of Arlington, Tennessee, upset that President Obama’s Afghanistan speech had preempted a Peanuts Christmas special, expressed his annoyance on Facebook with the erroneous statement that ”Our forefathers had it written in the original Constitution that only property owners could vote. It if had stayed there, things would be different.” (quoted in The KC Blue Blog, December 5, 2009). True enough.
C. The corporatist social contract.
“Corporations are people too, my friend.”
-Gov. Mitt Romney, at a campaign rally
Gov. Romney’s assertion has legal support in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a case which more than any other has contributed to the dominance of wealth in the political conversation. Of course, this definition of corporate personhood did not exist when Locke was alive. Corporations were created solely by grant from the sovereign for specific purposes. In the early years of the republic, corporations came into being through charters issued by the legislature. Now they have been granted standing as persons under the Constitution, but without any of the obligations imposed upon private persons. The notion of corporate free speech has enabled corporate interests to spend money without limitation, essentially controlling commercial political speech on the public airwaves. And the message most prominently promoted is that the interests of capital are more important than the interests of labor, that income inequality is a function of personal resourcefulness rather than political power.
Gov. Romney approved this view when he described concern over income inequality as attributable to envy. ”You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. When you have a President encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus one percent-and those people who have been the most successful will be in the one percent-you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the notion of one nation under God.” (quoted in The Economist, January 12, 2012).
I confess to some confusion over the meaning of that statement, other than its implication that the wealthiest individuals in the world have earned a reserved seat at the table of representative government. In practical terms, it means that those who have most benefitted from favorable policies have no particular obligations to the commonweal. It means that the rights of labor are subservient to the interests of capital. It means that the elimination of unions, of pension plans and of health benefits may be justified solely on the basis of economic freedom. It means that the accumulation of wealth is proof of civic and moral virtue. It means that the economically powerful may continue to reduce the median income of the middle class if that is seen as necessary to protect executive income and shareholder dividends. And it lends support to the social darwinism perhaps best expressed by the comment of former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer that government assistance to the poor is comparable to “feeding stray animals.” (quoted at bostonherald.com, January 24, 2010). It confuses jealousy with the reasoned perception of unfairness. It dismisses the argument that the growth of income inequality is primarily a result of the misallocation of the benefits of increased worker productivity. Most importantly, it ignores the truth that the social contract cannot be fair if the parties lack equal bargaining power. It converts the social contract into a corporate contract of adhesion under the myth of “freedom of contract.”
D. The Christian social contract.
“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly . . . must be denied citizenship.”
-Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (1989)
John Locke regarded civil government as a wholly secular institution. His opinion was explained in A Letter Concerning Toleration, in which he wrote, “Civil interests I call life, liberty, health and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, land, houses, furniture and the like. . . . Now the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to those civil concernments . . . it neither can be nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls . . . .” This principle exists in the Constitution in the form of the First Amendment, which protects both religion and unbelief. Nevertheless, the Christian right has attempted to redefine the Constitution as a Christian covenant borne of American exceptionalism, the idea of the nation as the “shining city on the hill.” Thus the economic theory of capitalism becomes biblically compelled and the social contract becomes a Christian-only agreement, a covenant between the nation and a Christian God.
When the polls open Tuesday morning, those who have not already cast their ballots should understand that we are deciding between starkly different ideas of government and social cohesion. Hurricane Sandy brought many of us to our knees. But it will serve a positive end if it also brought us to our senses.