In My Own Words: America’s social contract by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Social contract: “an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection.” – Oxford Languages

The fundamental basis for American democracy is a social contract. That includes accepting the results of elections, even if the person or party we wanted to gain office does not win. It also means being willing to accept the decisions of our courts and legislators, even if they rule or pass a law we dislike. The social contract does allow us to lobby our representatives to change those laws. It allows us to bring court cases challenging those laws and decisions. We are also permitted to protest those decisions and laws in print, on social media and by peaceful protests or gatherings. What we are not allowed to do is attempt to overthrow those decisions by force or violence. 

In order for our social contract to stand, we must all accept the same reality, something that is not currently happening in our country. The claims of fake news fly through the air about anything people dislike or with which they disagree. Confusion about the difference between opinion and fact makes debate impossible because there needs to be some basic agreement about them before we can have a real discussion. For our social contract to work, we must not equate a theory or meme or conspiracy with fact without checking to see whether it is correct – no matter who posts it. If we are unwilling to do that work, or prefer to accept ideas simply because they re-enforce our preconceived notions, then our democracy may soon be no more. 

The actions of the rioters on January 6 in Washington, DC, scared me. Although there is no solid evidence of fraud, a large group of Americans are refusing to accept the results of the election as valid. Please note there is a different between wanting to show support for the candidate who lost and trying to declare the winner’s victory null and void. Some of those who stormed the Capitol were willing to kill to change our government and they had the weapons with them to do so. Let’s be clear here: they were advocating the violent overthrow of our government. Even worse, they were cheered on by people who should have known better: those asking the vice president of the United States to go against the rule of law by not accepting the election results and the lawyer who suggested that the election should be decided by a trial by combat. 

Democracy is a fragile thing and we can no longer take this precious gift for granted. The beauty of our system is that the exchange of power has never – at least in the past – been accompanied by bloodshed or violence. That was true even when a president was forced to resign. I remember that moment and was so proud of our country because even those of his own party recognized what needed to be done for the good of the nation. Unfortunately, in our day, too many on both sides refuse to consider whether their actions benefit all citizens.

I am writing this column the week before the inauguration. Photos of armed guards protecting the Capitol building and reports of potential violent protests across the nation appear on every news website I visit. This world is a new and frightening place. I can only hope and pray that the January 6 violence is an aberration, but I’m not sure I really believe that. More than four years ago, I wrote that there was a lot of anger in our country and that no matter who won, something needed to be done about that. The events of the last four years have only inflamed that anger and our divisions. 

Our leaders must do something to move us forward. Our social contract is tattered and partly broken. We need to repair it before it shatters completely – before there is civil war in our land, and bombs and violence fill our streets.