Fresh Ideas: America’s social contract holds us together as a nation
We are a nation of immigrants and by definition a plural society. Our ancestors came here from every continent and culture, every race and religion. That diversity has made America strong, supplying both the warp and weft of our cultural tapestry. However, fear, hatred and incivility can cause the fabric of America to weaken and unravel.
If you studied United States history in school, you probably learned about the social contract, an agreement by the people on a set of rules by which they would be governed. That is, in exchange for compliance with laws, we enjoy relative freedom and security in our day-to-day lives.
America’s social contract is the Constitution. In fact it reads in part, “To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed.” We may not see eye to eye, nevertheless we consent not to kill each other. We consent not to overthrow the government. In short, we consent to follow the rules.
The Constitution also provides for the orderly transfer of power, freedom of speech, fairness – all kinds of stuff that we take for granted most of the time. In troubled times, however, it becomes clear why the framers addressed those issues.
Those of us who vote elect representatives to act on our behalf and to make laws. Sometimes we don’t like what they do, so we demonstrate, we write letters, we sign petitions. We make phone calls and donations. We file lawsuits. We vote for someone else next time.
The process has never been easy or fast or pretty. The settlers in the original colonies didn’t agree. The founding fathers didn’t agree. The Union and the Confederacy didn’t agree. But slowly, painfully they worked out some basic agreements. Laws now spell out how we resolve differences in a civilized way and in the best interest of the country as a whole. And without another revolution.
Yes, it’s horribly tedious and frustrating to wait (and wait) for Congress to act or the next election. But it’s the American way. And it’s worked – more or less – for over 200 years.
What we don’t do is break the social contract. We don’t throw eggs and insults at lawmakers or rocks through their windows. Neither do we try to intimidate them with cut gas lines or threats on their lives. We just don’t. It’s simply … well, un-American.
Living in a plural society means not always getting our way. Nevertheless, if now and then we step back to look at the big picture, we’ll see more than the challenges. We’ll also see the strength inherent in our diversity. And that’s what America is really about.
• Lorie Schaefer is a retired teacher.
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