The Social Compact

While restocking the bird feeders in the garden, I found myself thinking about trust.

Climate change has shocked New York with spring—early and erratic, some 60-degree February days were sliced apart by 18-degree nights and snowstorms. As I unwrapped suet packs and scattered seed before the next storm, I saw the birds assemble from nowhere, perch on branches, watch, and wait trustingly—the way we humans trust that spring itself will return each year, to reward us with those first green shoots that pierce the snow.

So I got to thinking about trust—and in turn about the social compact. You see, earlier that day, I’d been mulling over different levels of our reactions to Trump, and realized that there were three, for me at least. There’s the at-times irresistible temptation to rise to each of the tantrums and tweets, which keeps one in a chronic state of adrenalin seepage. Or, preferably, one can sort of pan back to a wider screen yet stay focused on what he and his regime are doing instead of what he’s tweeting; this approach avoids the deliberate distractions he dangles like shiny objects before us to control the news cycle and our attention; instead, it inspires us to strategize. The third level, which you might say is wide-screen with I-Max depth, is where we parse what this might mean—a somewhat philosophical approach (sandwiched, you understand, between bouts of furious activism).

I admit I sometimes get dizzy when I feel myself teetering on all three levels simultaneously, which I bet is a not-uncommon experience. For example, I was (first-level) venting my spleen about Trump’s accusation that President Obama had wire-tapped him—especially offensive since Obama’s administration was for his entire two terms corruption and scandal free, the first to accomplish that in decades. It took effort to shift my scrutiny (second-level) to the regime’s assault on healthcare, fake-new attempt at the Muslim travel ban, escalating raid-and-deport sweeps of undocumented immigrants, and ever-unraveling Russia revelations. That was better. What’s more, it led me to the third level, the social compact.

We’re living at a time when established norms for behavior by the powerful are intentionally violated, and we have to seek protection under the law. Ours is defined as a government of laws, not of men (and certainly not of women—yet). But law requires political will to animate and exercise it. There are glorious moments when “a government of laws” still rings true—as when Attorney General Doug Chin of Hawaii immediately filed suit against Trump’s pretend-revised travel ban. Our judicial system needs major improvement but deserves real respect. Yet laws still rely on those, like AG Chin and his colleague AGs who followed suit, who are willing to employ those laws in the service of justice. Tragically, such people seem to no longer exist in Congress’s dominant Republican Party, which was created as the party of anti-slavery abolition and women’s suffrage but is now populated by people who embody profiles in cowardice.

This erodes trust in the law itself. Such erosion eventually atrophies unused law. And that’s catastrophic, because civil society depends on the social compact, the mutual assumption that we agree to observe fair laws and change unfair ones. We even agree on certain bargains we make when the limits of law can’t reach into every corner. Bargains like precedent, protocol, standards, traditions, all of which, like the law itself, have to remain open to growth and revision, or else they too atrophy and become part of the problem (as they often have been).

This spoken and unspoken law, the social compact, is analogous to a vast honor system. It’s the expectation and expression of civilized trust in each other. It relies on so-called norms that constitute a thin membrane between us and the eruptive chaos threatened by our primitive selves. That, in effect, is “civil society.”

The norms range from humble to major. They define your simple but important trust that the plumber did her job so when you turn on the faucet marked Cold you won’t get scalded, and your trust that when the light turns green at the corner, you can cross confidently because cars won’t run you down so long as they’re facing the red light. That kind of mutually agreed-on trust—which we unthinkingly exercise 100 times a day—is, when you dwell on it, quite miraculous.

Most people once extended that kind of trust to include leaders and institutions.

Oh, my kid is safe; he’s with the priest (or rabbi or minister).

Well, I saw it on the TV news so it must be true.

Even if they don’t have to, presidential candidates know they must always make their full health records and tax returns public.

Today, public trust in our institutions is severely damaged—rightly so. Religious institutions have been (properly) exposed as corrupt, abusive to children, and more interested in prohibiting behavior than in promoting ethics or spirituality. Many journalists were snoring during the rise of Trumpism, and their cynical, ratings-obsessed corporate-ownership bosses actually aided his rise. Government has allowed the shrinkage of our middle-class, the fracturing of our infrastructure, and the polarization of our politics.

But wait! Government is not only by and for the people, but of the people—so that’s also on us.

We need to look deeper, to understand that those tarnished institutions have betrayed us for a reason. They were and still are patriarchal. Depleted, they need the infusion of vision that the other half of humanity has been offering all along. And women keep on offering, as just a few days ago on International Women’s Day. One recent difference: more men are finally coming on board, as The Women’s March proved.

But not in Congress. Though the GOP currently enjoys a monopoly of power, Republicans still seem unwilling to challenge Trump. You have to wonder what it will take for them to act like citizens, much less like elected representatives—unless retaining temporary power at any price is after all more important to them. It’s still possible that one Republican won’t merely express discomfort now and then but will boldly denounce the regime for what it is, and vote accordingly. Those moments have occurred down through time, and they make history.

But we can’t wait for them. We have to make history ourselves.The fate of what the Framers termed This Great Experiment, this Republic, rests in our hands. It’s our mission to disrupt Trump’s construction of a Fortress America and an ethno-state.

So we need to deliberately withdraw our trust that, for instance, presidential conduct relies on a relatively sane foundation of established, approved behavior. Such a withdrawal will save us from crouching in a permanent state of shock. Better yet, follow the practice unflinchingly and it might lead to a withdrawal of trust from all male authority figures, from the clergyman to the battering husband who is so sorry and swears not to ever do it again.

But peeling off illusions doesn’t mean rejecting trust itself. On the contrary. For myself, once I tug trust free from where it’s been embedded in those who hold authority over our lives, I can’t help but look around at what’s left.

And there I see most women and some men doing everything they can, quietly, doggedly, to save this country.I—we–can trust them. We can trust ourselves.

The 18th-century Framers who formed this country would, I believe, recognize us across the centuries. They would be shocked at how much further we have pushed their ideas, at how much further we intend to push, toward an Enlightenment inclusive in ways they barely dreamed. I believe that they would see us as we are, their heirs: today’s Framers of The Great Experiment.

Let that be a fresh Declaration of Independence from those who’ve proved unworthy of our trust. Let that forge our new social compact.