The American Social Contract

Vote Here Sign Photo by Erik Hersman via Flickr

This past Tuesday, the American people ventured out to their respective polling stations and exercised their right to vote. In doing so, they expressed their various opinions regarding which politicians they believe should be elected into office. These voters took part in the most fundamental aspect of our democracy and completed their obligations as citizens. However, recently our Congress has shown that they are not upholding their duties as representatives and are not taking action to improve the lives of the American people. Constant fighting between parties is common in American politics and has become the focal point of many politician’s efforts. This has lead to the American people developing negative attitudes and a disappointed attitude towards how Congress is being run. The results and aftermath of the 2014 congressional elections that took place on November 4th directly reflected this and showed how Americans desperately want the way our Government is run to change, or to simply get things done. Our Government has broken its social contract with the American people and needs to take action in order to re-establish this trust.

Photo via Wikimedia
John Locke Photo via Wikimedia

English philosopher John Locke wrote a social contract theory that greatly influenced the United States Government and its founding documents. As we discussed in discussion and lecture for Polsci 101, Locke stated that in the state of nature, people are free, equal, not harmful, rational, independent, and seek self preservation. Now according to Locke, Governments are formed by a social contract between the people and the Government. This Governing body is an unbiased judge who essentially keeps the peace and derives its power from the people. Like the United States, Locke’s form of Government centers around the collective majority and functions based on their opinions. Since the social contract formed here is between the people and the Government, each side has obligations which they must uphold in order for this system to function properly.

Now in the United States, politicians are not keeping their social contract they made with their citizens. By constantly arguing and competing with opposing political parties for power, these politicians are in a sense breaking the social contract that they agreed to when they took office. By taking their oath of office, these politicians vowed to effectively represent the citizens that elected them, which they are not doing. Politicians on both sides are constantly trying to bridge the gap between the two political parties, as seen in President Obama’s statement after the congressional elections. Working together is easier said than done in the President’s situation. Constant criticism and blame has been placed on President Obama for the Democrat’s loss in this most recent election and for the inaction of Congress and our Government as a whole. The President defended his previous policies and called for agreements to be made on several others, but whether compromise will actually occur is questionable. These attempts at compromise and collaboration have been shut down by both parties and have proven that something needs to change. New York Times Op-Ed contributor Frank Luntz went as far as saying, “Washington doesn’t listen, Washington doesn’t lead and Washington doesn’t deliver.” This delivery of policies that benefit the American people is how these representatives are upholding their side of the social contract. Clearly Washington needs some reworking and a new Republican Congress and existing Democratic Executive branch may do more harm than good.

Photo via Wikimedia
The Capital Building Photo via Wikimedia

The midterm election has been declared a win for Republicans, however, elections should not be considered a victory or a loss for any side. If the tables had been turned and this election was a win for Democrats, the same issues would be present. If all our politicians value is whether their political party is in power, how can we trust them to do what is best for the people they are representing and not their party affiliations? This sense of mistrust is the driving force behind American’s discontent with how their political system is being run. The Government of the United States has clearly broken their agreement with the American people and needs to repair this contract to not only get things done, but to also improve the lives of Americans and regain the trust of the people they are representing.


3 thoughts on “The American Social Contract

  1. Interesting point made here, the US government is clearly supposed to hold a social contract with the American people if any form of effective government and policy is supposed to emerge. My only question however, is whether or not the American people can truly be considered as upholding their end of the contract as well. In order for democracy, in Locke’s view to work, people must be rational, equal, and manifest all these qualities by being involved and voting in elections. Even if we assume that all people indeed are equal and rational (which personally I sincerely believe is not the case), they need to get out their and vote in alignment with their preferences. In recent years however, voter turnout has decreased, people are finding the costs of engaging in voting to be greater than the benefits of representing their policy preferences. The voters who are most passionate about given issues are the ones coming out to vote regardless of the costs, because they find the benefits to be greater, while the middle-ground policy preference voters are staying in from the polls. As a result, we are seeing the drastic disparity and increasing polarization between political parties, that then makes it nearly impossible for the government to accomplish passing any kind of legislation by majority vote. I don’t think it is simply the government that has broken its social contract with the people, but the American people who have alienated the government from the social contract.

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  2. This is a great point about the state of our government, and it fits in perfectly since the 2014 elections have just taken place. According to Locke’s social contract theory, the government should focus solely on the people and act according to the opinion of the majority. Now It is clear that the United States government is failing to work under this theory, since the political parties are focusing on the power their party holds, and this is starting to be shown in the voting results. If we try to maintain our system according to Locke, this would require a change in the way our government is running, mainly the focus of our representatives. The only way this can be achieved is greater voter turn out and the voice of the public to be heard by the leaders they choose to elect.


  3. I think that this post is awesome. It is also very interesting to note how many people were unaware of this election taking place. Going to a prestigious university, you would think that most of the students would be aware of the election taking place and actually wanting to vote to make a difference. When I asked a few of my peers if they were voting, they said voting for what and looked at me like I was crazy. How can we as a university help our students to become more aware of the world around them? Do they truly just live in a bubble? What if a certain class was offering extra credits on an assignment if you voted? Would that help encourage the students to vote? It is a huge issue that people here are unaware of their surroundings here and we need to make a difference. It goes against social contracts to not be involved in our world.


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