Civility, Violence, and the Social Compact

Democracy is the worst form of government,” Winston Churchill famously remarked, “except for all those others that have been tried.” What makes democracy better than “those others” is that differences of opinion are settled through peaceful elections, a process of order agreed upon by all parties before the results are known. The spirit of compliance that makes this process of order possible is known as civility.

Last week we were treated to two frank acknowledgments by mainstream Democrats—not fringe leftists—that incivility and violence are perfectly acceptable as means of attaining political ends in America today.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder justified violence against Republicans because “they have used the power that they have gotten for all the wrong things.” And Hillary Clinton—the Democratic Party’s nominee for president two short years ago—informed us that civility is due only to those who agree with “what you care about.” These are political salvos that—“like a fire-bell in the night”—should wake us to recall that rule by force is the historical norm and always much closer than we imagine.

All this leads to a clear inference. We have begun to disregard the very foundation of our civil society, the agreement we have all made with one another—at least tacitly—to abide by the will of the constitutional majority. I speak of the social compact.

As America’s Founders understood, the social compact is an agreement between all members of society (not just between the rulers and the ruled, as is sometimes assumed). As John Locke explained, “When any number of Men have, by the consent of every individual, made a Community, they have thereby made that Community one Body, with a Power to Act as one Body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority . . .  and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority.” The definitive and solemn statement of the American majority may be found in the ratification of our Constitution. Through it, the authority of the majority is preserved down to the present day. Per the Constitution, elections are supposed to be final. (At least until the next one.)

Of course in order for “the act of the Majority” to pass authoritatively “for the act of the whole” it must be premised on acknowledgment of the equality of the members in their natural rights, evident “by the Law of Nature and Reason” or “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” This acknowledgment limits what the majority may do without delegitimizing its own authority.

In the American context, another fact must be acknowledged: we are a federal republic composed of states. When considering the will of the majority, we recognize that our Constitution comprehends the geographic as well as the demographic will of the American people. That’s why it’s perfectly just that the president is elected through a process that recognizes and integrates the equality of states as well as the equality of citizens. No matter how inconvenient to the Left’s agenda that may be, states are an essential feature of the American regime.

Today, however, violence is breaking out and patience is wearing thin. The fact that we are now arguing over what truly composes a mob is clear evidence that we are getting ever closer to a breaking point. Our cold civil war is getting warmer. The Democratic Party is allowing its most extreme elements—radical communists and anarchists—to lead its opposition to the Republican agenda, oblivious of the fact that these elements will turn on the rest of the party eventually. If the few remaining moderate Democrats want to preserve their party, they should unequivocally condemn these revolutionary elements. As for everyone else, they should pay careful attention. As John Batchelor points out, we are already witnessing canings like that of Charles Sumner and terrorism on an order with that of John Brown.

The American revolutionaries broke their social compact with England only after a “long train of abuses and usurpations” made evident “a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.” Does the “new Democratic Party” believe that conditions are so intolerable today that it has reached the point of abandoning the social compact that permits us to abide peaceably by the will of the constitutional majority?

What “long train of abuses” can they point to that justifies breaking this social compact?

Clearly, their fury has something to do with the election of Donald Trump. The issues of illegal immigration and the rule of law arguably were the most important in his 2016 campaign. Oddly enough, these issues pertain to two unequivocal and indisputable purposes for forming a social compact and establishing civil society to begin with. So if anyone has legitimate reason to complain of “abuses” it is the citizens who rightfully protest that government has been failing to fulfill its duties regarding these most fundamental functions.

In 2016, the constitutional majority voiced that protest by voting in the candidate who—however unconventional—best persuaded them he would direct the government toward the fundamental ends of protecting the border and restoring the rule of law; in his words, putting “America first.” Accordingly, the “abuses” or “wrong things” that Eric Holder claims the Republicans have been pursuing with their constitutional power are precisely the things that any legitimate government must do to maintain the society it exists to serve.

A more immediate cause for alarm and further evidence that the Left is gradually abandoning the social compact is the political kabuki theater seen in the recent Brett Kavanaugh circus. Bumbling imitations from “Spartacus” aside, it was a horror show. Because the Left’s political aspirations have been stymied by gradual Republican majorities in all levels of government, the Democrats have become more and more reliant on the Supreme Court to legislate in the place of Congress. Hence it is no surprise that they viewed Kavanaugh’s nomination as an existential threat that had to be stopped by any means necessary. Be assured, given the chance, his impeachment in the House of Representatives is not beyond the reach of their indignation.

It is high time that we restore a right understanding of social compact theory in American politics if we want to avoid civil war. Ballots can replace bullets only so long as people acquiesce to the results of elections and fight out their differences of opinion in the public square through rational persuasion, not through force. But the minimum amount of agreement that we must maintain is adherence to the fundamental assumptions of social compact theory.

Because of its Lockean foundation in voluntarism, even some conservatives today have found reason to jettison the social compact theory. And yet they have failed to present a feasible alternative. Experience has shown that social compact theory is a useful explanation of the basis of civil society that defies the cold collectivism of the radical Left as well as the racially charged “blood and soil” of the radical Right. Social compact theory is neither liberal nor conservative, but solidly American. We abandon it at our peril.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

About Clifford Humphrey

Clifford Humphrey is a Georgia native currently living in Michigan where he is a Ph.D. candidate at the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. His interests include the American Founding, federalism, and political philosophy.

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