A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Recently, the United States went through the longest government shut-down in its history; with hundreds of thousands of government employees furloughed or forced to work without pay for more than a month. More than a quarter of the government was affected; among them the homeland security agency; the FBI; the coast guard and FEMA.
The right-wing Republican agenda since the turn of the 21stcentury has been to reduce “big government”, and most of the tea party politicians were elected by vowing to stop tax increases and funding that supports government agencies. The Trump government shut-down, when seen in light of the Republican agenda, seemed like a good idea: government is superfluous, so why not shut it down? Trump’s political appointees to the EPA, the state department, and the department of education had already done a good job in making these agencies underfunded, understaffed, and dysfunctional. The shut-down was a further attack on government and a logical consequence of the Republican party’s strategy.
But throughout January we have seen the consequences of the undermining of our government institutions. Suddenly it became apparent that “government” is not an anonymous, secretive, malicious enemy that sucks money out of our pockets. Government is actually millions of workers who staff agencies that make sure that farmers get paid; that airplanes have a safe airspace; that the baggage is screened at the airport; that Americans get support when disasters strike; that firefighters get paid to fight the devastating wildfires that rage across parts of the country; that our borders and waters are protected; that our parks and monuments are cared for and protected for future generations; that we generate the numbers and statistics that help steer our economy; that our air is breathable, water drinkable, and food edible; that we have an informed and sophisticated diplomatic presence in other countries; that our federal prisons keep the worst criminals locked up; that our federal judges maintain the legal fabric that safeguards our rights; that we have winter storm and hurricane warnings to be prepared when disaster strikes. One of the lessons from the shut-down is that many of the things that guarantee a good life in America depend on the functioning of our government. The myth of “big government” was not much more than a convenient scapegoat for rallying the conservative base while at the same time creating fewer regulatory practices that limit business profits.
The government shutdown also has made clear that the basic fabric of our social contract in the United States is in the process of being undone. The social contract, which is a foundational requirement of modern, democratic states and was articulated by Hobbes and Rousseau in the 17thcentury, is an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, which requires that they sacrifice some individual freedom for state protection. The social contract applies to our civil agreement to obey the legal code and the judicial system, but it also applies on a deeper level to the daily practice of civil encounters with other members of our society. On the simplest level, American drivers trust that other drivers drive on the right side of the road and obey important road signs. If our city streets were a free-for-all where nobody obeyed traffic lights, we would have constant gridlock and stand-still. Because we give up some of our freedom as drivers we can all move through heavy traffic relatively unscathed and get where we want to be going. The code of laws is the more explicit articulation of the social contract, but the unspoken and free agreement to be “civil” in our daily lives and to trust that others will do the same is the foundation of free movement and free speech in the United States. Trust in the everyday decency of the majority of citizens is the foundation of free societies. The assumption that we can trust the people who work in our government and that they keep the social contract safeguards our society against corruption and graft. So far we don’t have to bribe our officials to get a business license or a passport or to get our trash picked up. But all this is now in doubt.
We have a president whose word cannot be trusted, who changes his mind based on whims, and who gives contradictory messages from one day to the next to his staff and to the public. His closest advisors and confidants have all pleaded guilty to serious crimes. The social contract, which allows the branches of our government to function, consists of the people’s basic trust that our officials in senate and congress have the best interest of their constituents in mind and do their best to negotiate and work with each other to find compromises. The president, even though he is nominated by a party, does not have a constituency: he is the president of allAmericans.
And our current president is untrustworthy: he is campaigning all the time, telling lies that get him applause from his minority base; he is influenced by media personalities who care for appearance, but not the factual truth; he does not value expertise and a knowledge of history when making important political decisions. The Democrats cannot negotiate with him because he does not follow through on agreements. The Republicans uncomfortably sit by and hope that he furthers their agenda without their having to be too closely allied with his political postures.
Trump is a symptom of a foundational malaise with our social contract: if we are unwilling to give up our some of personal freedom to guarantee the functioning of our society, if we follow every one of our whims and desires and ignore the injury it causes other members of our society, we are in deep trouble and on the way to losing the foundation of our democracy.
Eva-Maria Simms is Adrian van Kaam professor of psychology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Copyright 2019 Eva-Maria Simms