The first premise of the New America Foundation’s initiative
on the Next Social Contract is that the structures that
help American workers and their families balance economic
security and opportunity involve much more than a set of
government programs. What we call the social contract is a
set of formal and informal systems and assumptions, involving
individuals, employers and government, that provide, as
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. put it, “security in the context
of freedom and freedom in the context of security.” These
assumptions have evolved through the course of American
history, shaped by the crises and historical accidents from which they were born. Together, they are rooted in the deepest
ethical and social principles of our founding and our
sense of American identity.
But the social contract is not merely a creation of the past.
It depends on the continuing consent of the governed in
the present. Every political battle over domestic or economic
policy has been in some sense a measure of public
attitudes about those aspects of the social contract that we
are ready to change and those that we still consider important.
Public opinion both reflects the evolution of the social
contract (as in, for example, the abiding support for Social
Security, both as a program and a symbolic legacy of New
Deal reforms) and maps out what is possible in the next
evolution of the social contract.
However, the relationship between public opinion and
public policy is neither literal nor direct. We live under
many laws that, if put to a direct vote, would be resoundingly
defeated. Others reflect a general preference, such as
for tax cuts, but are implemented in ways that fail to represent
the views of the median voter. Some represent the
strongly held views of a minority, along with the reluctant
consent of the rest, while others protect critically important
minority rights. Many laws simply reflect the temper
and political mood of another era, which have yet to be
challenged or changed. Our political institutions are not
entirely democratic, and the idiosyncrasies of the Senate,
the federal budget process, and the winner-take-all nature
of our elections all distort policies.
At the same time, we often find policies that seem to enjoy
majority support suffer defeat, even without the intervening
distortions of political institutions. For example, ideas
that perform well in polls are often defeated in ballot initiatives,
when opponents are able to tap into underlying
values that lead voters to fear change.
So in looking at the relationship between public opinion
and the social contract, we have sought not to look at public
support for particular programs, but instead at the deeper
values that would animate public debate about change.
For example, we know that a majority of Americans would
strongly favor measures to provide access to health care for
all, but we also know -- from experience -- that if a universal
health policy is described as expanding government’s role
in health care, it will provoke a backlash.
So the task of rebuilding the American social contract for
the future will require a deep understanding of the deepest
attitudes of Americans -- attitudes about community, government,
and family, about our obligations to one another,
and about the mutual responsibilities of employers and
workers. Rather than commissioning original research on
public opinion about policy proposals that are so new that
voters are unlikely to have a view on them, we decided that
the first step would be to look at what we know from existing
research about the underlying attitudes that will shape the
reaction to policy proposals when they do come forward.
While analysts sometimes look at two public attitudes and
say that they are contradictory, in fact there is usually a way
to understand the complex of opinions and see how they
can fit together. That fit often illuminates the policies that
will win public support and provides a guide for how to talk
about those policies. So, for example, in this paper Cliff
Zukin and his colleagues note that there is an increasing
acceptance of the need for mutual support and an active
role for government, coupled with continued skepticism
of government programs. But as he points out, the data
show a deep commitment to the “golden value” of equality
of opportunity. Americans favor self-reliant entrepreneurs
over gargantuan corporations, but they mistrust the government
to set a level playing field. These tensions shed light
on a perpetual interplay between the enduring American
values of independence, opportunity, and security.
One of the paradoxes of public policy in recent years has been
the wide public support for tax cuts and other policies that
principally benefit a small percentage of households. Some
attribute this result to political misdirection or the use of social wedge issues; others detect a belief by most Americans
that they might soon be rich themselves. Zukin and his colleagues,
however, employ data to argue that Americans
accept inequality as part of the normal order in a dynamic
economy. This finding serves as a warning against a kind of
populist model of the social contract, emphasizing the illegitimate
gains of the wealthy. Any social contract -- and really
any market economy with any set of rules -- is redistributive
by nature. But instead of redistribution for the sake of equal
outcomes, Americans prefer to guarantee a minimum quality
of life and a basic platform of opportunity.
But public opinion is not static, and the project of rebuilding
the American social contract is not going to be completed
tomorrow. The values driving public opinion will evolve in
three ways. First, they will evolve as generations shift. The
New Deal generation is passing on, the Baby Boomers moving
into retirement, and a younger generation with very different
values -- more tolerant, more open to collective action,
but also skeptical of large institutions and employers -- are
moving into voting-age adulthood. Second, as the economy
changes, whether through a wrenching recession or because
employers continue to reduce health benefits, Americans
may change their basic perception of the role of government,
responsibilities of individuals, and expectations of employers.
And, finally, leadership and language matter. A president
or other public leaders who speak about the social contract
in compelling ways that connect to Americans’ basic
values can also guide those values in a new direction.
As the initiative goes forward, we will set out to learn more
about the first two of those three, looking more closely at the
emerging generation -- the “millennials” -- and at changing
attitudes about the workforce and employment. As to the
third, no research can help us predict whether that leadership
or language will be found, but it is our hope that the
solid empirical research of the Next Social Contract initiative,
together with pathbreaking policy ideas, will help shape it.
-- Foreword by Mark Schmitt, Senior Fellow, New America Foundation.
For the full text of Zukin's research paper, or the detailed appendices, please see the PDFs attached below.