The world awaits America’s new social contract      
Watch for Trump’s vision of what citizens and government owe each other and a deeper philosophy of the respective roles of government and society in driving change
       
by: Anne-Marie Slaughter    

     
Donald Trump takes office at a moment of American revival, with the income, wages, home values and retirement accounts — as President Barack Obama pointed out in his farewell speech — all growing again. Yet, by social rather than economic measures, America is in the midst of a Great Disintegration. In this respect, the president-elect faces a nation in deep crisis, much as Franklin Roosevelt did amid the Great Depression.

Roosevelt updated America’s social contract to bring the nation together and help contain social and economic disintegration. What will Mr Trump do?

The bonds that unite America are fraying, according to books such as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, on the right, or George Packer’s The Unwinding on the left. The middle class is disappearing; institutions such as schools, the army and the assembly line no longer create a well of common experience. Prolonged disconnection is deadly; it rips apart the social fabric.

Capturing the magnitude of the crisis confronting the nation in 1932 — with output, employment and global trade down sharply since the Wall Street crash of 1929 — Roosevelt set out on the campaign trail a “greater social contract”. He harked back to the Declaration of Independence as the original contract between the American people and their government, under which “the rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights”. “The task of statesmanship,” he continued, “has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.”

Accordingly, Roosevelt updated that original contract for a time of financial and social turmoil. The right to life he redefined as “a right to make a comfortable living”. The citizen’s “right to his own property”, he read as the right to keep the property you own, and expanded to a citizen’s “right to be assured, to the fullest extent attainable, in the safety of his savings”.

As for liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he said the government has the obligation to maintain “a balance, within which . . . every individual may attain such power as his ability permits, consistent with his assuming the accompanying responsibility”. In 20th-century terms, a right of equal opportunity.

Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives and leader of the rump Republican establishment, understands the scale of the challenge. He defines the “American idea” as a “way of life made possible by our commitment to the principles of freedom and equality — and rooted in our respect for every person’s natural rights”. The task is to preserve “this experiment in liberty”.

The differences between Roosevelt and Mr Ryan are instructive, first in their understanding of rights in relation to government. Both believe in natural rights, but Roosevelt believed that what Mr Ryan calls “entitlements” — to evoke a lazy, pampered citizenry — are in fact the foundation of government power. Citizens give government power to protect their rights — to ensure their ability to make a living and keep their savings.

Second is the classic Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian divide. Where Roosevelt echoed Alexander Hamilton, emphasising a contract between citizens and government, Mr Ryan puts “society, not government, at the centre of American life”. Government exists to support citizens in solving their own problems. They agree on the imperative of genuinely equal opportunity for all but disagree on the scale and scope of government action necessary to achieve it.

Where is Mr Trump in this debate? How will he redefine the social contract for an age in which digitisation, globalisation and artificial intelligence are upending the economy? Will government be catalyst or problem-solver?

Like a latter-day Louis XIV, Candidate Trump took a “l’état c’est moi” approach, telling Americans he would fix the country’s ills. Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, calls for “an economic nationalist movement”, “as exciting as the 1930s”, powered by a “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan”. It is far from Mr Ryan’s “simpler, smaller, smarter” government. Mr Bannon understands social divisions; indeed, he helped fan them through the Breitbart News site he ran. He claims to see them more in economic and cultural than racial terms — in the Hamiltonian tradition of strategic protectionism and infrastructure investment; the emphasis on production not consumption.

As we listen to Mr Trump’s inaugural address, we should be watching not simply for bold promises to make things better, but for a vision of what citizens and government owe each other. Trying to move in two very different directions at once will produce paralysis.


The writer is president of New America and an FT contributing editor

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