The American Public and the Next Social Contract

policy paper | February 25, 2008

    Cliff Zukin Rutgers University

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 and detailed appendices, please download the PDFs below: 

The American Public and the Next Social Contract 

Appendix 1: Sources and Data Collection 

Appendix 2: Further Statistical Evidence


  • Photo of Cliff Zukin

    Cliff Zukin

  • Photo of Rutgers University

    Rutgers University