Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy
The End of the Social Contract
Robert E. Denton, Jr. and Benjamin Voth
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
Hardcover. x+206 p. ISBN 978-3319439211. $129
Reviewed by Mark G. Spencer
Brock University, St. Catharines (Ontario)
The authors of this book—Robert E. Denton, Jr. (W. Thomas Rice Chair in the Pamplin College of Business and Professor and Head of the Department of Communication at Virginia Polytechnic Institute) and Ben Voth (Associate Professor and Director of Debate and Speech programs in the Communication Studies Division of the Meadows School of the Arts of Southern Methodist University)—see their contribution in these terms:
The argument presented is simple and straightforward. The concept of a social contract is an essential element of democracy or self-rule. Its demise leads to the loss of individual freedom, security, and the rise of inequality. Our American culture has become crude, crass, and dominated by psychological egoism, that all interest is self-interest contributing to the decline of civility and our implied social contract. Simultaneously, we witness the erosion of trust and support in government and politicians. However, the role of government continues to grow and invade every part of our social and private lives .
That bleak state of affairs has come about, they maintain, as each generation since WWII has “become more self-centered, entitled, selfish, and independent” . The “Silent Generation” (those born between 1930 and 1945) had been “highly patriotic, believed in traditional family values, and understood the value of sacrifice for the common good” . But not their children, the “Baby Boomers,” who were “buy now and pay later” sorts. The downward decline had begun. Generation X (those born in the 1960s and 1970s) were “shaped by a culture of fractured families and fraying communities” and gave rise to the “Millennials” (those born 1980-2000), a particularly “spoiled, cynical, precocious, rude, overconfident, apathetic, and lazy” generation . The result:
a postmodern culture that is relativistic, nihilist, and even anti-American. There is no right or wrong, good or bad, or moral certitude. Anything goes morally, spiritually, and communally. In short, it is a narcissistic culture of self-enhancement, self-enjoyment, and instant gratification .
That narrative may be simple and straightforward to Professors Denton and Voth, but it will not be so for many of their readers, including this reviewer.
Written during the 2016 Presidential election, this book—as may be becoming clear already—makes grand statements with broad strokes. Some partisans who already agree with its political conclusions may cheer along. But few others are likely to be convinced by a book slight in compelling evidence and lacking sustained argument. It is a volume that makes stock appeals to the value of history in public discourse, but its authors make little effort to engage with history in thoughtful ways. For example, it is foolish to claim, as the authors do, that the doctrine of the separation of church and state was “derived from Thomas Jefferson’s famous metaphor offered in 1802 when reassuring Danbury Baptists that their religious activities would be safe in the new American republic” . That way of seeing things leaves out a centuries-long European context, to say nothing of an American one that predates Independence. Even their grasp of the historical “social contract theory” appears tenuous. A preliminary discussion of social contract theorists Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, is little more than cursory window dressing based on surface readings of select secondary sources. Any informed understanding of social contract theory and its American impact would require much more. It would require better differentiation between those three very different theorists. (There is no mention, for instance, that Hobbes used a social contract theory as justification for an authoritarian regime governed by Leviathan.) It would also need to integrate critics of the social contract, such as David Hume, whose political and historical thought also figured in the American founding. It might even engage with the writings of seventeenth-century jurists Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf, and the English Leveller John Lilburne, among others whose related ideas figured in American debates. Mark Hulliung’s The Social Contract in America : From the Revolution to the Present Age (2007) first tilled many of the fields covered in this book, but in much more scholarly and engaging ways.
Curiously, having introduced the “social contract” of their title, the concept does not much figure in the body of the volume, but reappears in the conclusion. This lack of a unified theme and argument makes for a book that is more a collection of essays than a monograph. Its disparate chapters are uneven, but share a disdain for “postmodern culture” and its consequent “identity politics,” defined as “politics based upon groups who claim to represent the interests of members rather than the interests of all members of a community. The group identity is generally based upon ethnicity, class, religion, gender, or sexuality” . That position—“essentialism” —the authors criticize as one that “virtually ensures the impossibility of integration and becoming part of mainstream society, thus ensuring continual discrimination… This form of cultural determinism rejects the powerful influence of the human spirit, individualism, and free will” . The authors find irony here.
Identity politics, they write, “denies the existence of multiple identities” and “demands a singular allegiance to a group and its political goals” . But, “most liberal proponents view roles, identities, and expectations as products of social construction” and “essentialism has been successfully used for radical politics” [70-71]. They explain: “The primary problem from this perspective is that when we develop categories and place people accordingly, there is the assumption that all members have the ‘essence’ of the category” . Of course, there is the additional rich irony in this book’s authors making these claims in light of their own effort to place people in generational categories, assigning them political values with the assumption that all members have the essence of the category. Absurd categorizations of that sort have free run at other places in this book too, such as in its potted descriptions of the American and French Revolutions.
Denton and Voth’s fifth chapter, “The Epistemological Poisoning of America,” sets out to uncover “the corruption” of America brought about by “higher education, the journalistic press, the church, Hollywood, and the federal government” . Readers of Cercles may be especially interested to read about France’s role in all of that:
It is apparent from a variety of sources that the American political founding was highly suspicious of authoritarian control like that embodied in European monarchies. At almost the same political era of the American founding in the late eighteenth century, we find a rival political practice in the French Revolution. Occurring after the American Revolution, the French Revolution established by Jacobin advocates utilized an incredibly violent internal doctrine to establish a more centrally driven view of politics. […] To some extent the rivalry of the French emphasis on equality versus the American political emphasis on individuality remains with us today in contemporary political debate. 
The problem, as Denton and Voth see it, is that modern Jacobins now aim to corrupt America. “As the training pre-requisite of America’s employable classes,” they write of 1960s America, “Jacobin radicals recognized the importance of seizing higher education for their own ideological ends” . Since, there have been Jacobins everywhere in America. Taking aim at “the cynical Jacobin [Saul] Alinsky” , the “anti-American… intellectual choir leader” of “anti-patriotic hymns” Noam Chomsky , and the “notorious Jacobin intellectual Professor Ward Churchill” , among others, Denton and Voth uncover a Jacobin plot “to turn the American dream inside out” .
The subject matter of Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy is clearly relevant. But, it is unfortunate that the authors have done such a poor job with it. When at their tamest, they make some important points. University campuses, they convincingly argue, are places where free speech is paramount and free speech does not always mean that all will be comfortable with what they hear . And there are other insights. “American political identity,” they write, “is, arguably, a juxtaposition between individual human freedom and collective action” .(1) However, such restraint is not much in evidence. At times, Denton and Voth engage in overstatement that verges on the comedic: “Every college student is called to a common Jacobin cause of overthrowing this capitalist nightmare known as America and saving billions of innocent global citizens from the nightmare and ethical harm known as globalization” . But comedy, we find, is also a large part of the problem.
In a chapter on “De-mock-racy: Comic Reaming as Political Wrecking Ball,” Denton and Voth provide details of what they see as “a battle royal between Jacobin fantasies and American populist idealism” . Their most telling case study: “the ridiculing [of Sarah] Palin toward the margins of American political life” . Tracing Palin’s falling approval rates in the polls between 2008 and 2015, they conclude that “She was driven to this reign of contempt by neo-Jacobin forces employing the methodologies of Saul Alinsky” . And the broader lesson to be learned? “The comedic outlets of SNL—John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher—constitute a Jacobin concert of ridicule that makes life in the public sphere unbearable for those who defend traditions of American idealism and populism” . “These comedians are a Jacobin court of jesters who host an ever-rising blue elite and aim their rhetorical barbs at suppressing their political rivals” . (Since this book has been published, SNL has had fun at the expense of President Donald Trump’s press Secretaries too. But that is another story.) Before declaring that left-leaning “mockery is bringing the reasoning process to a grinding halt” in modern American political debate, the authors might want to consider the role played by right-leaning talk radio and television in that decline. And, if history matters, draw comparisons with British eighteenth-century political satire and the cartoons of the American founding era.
In some ways, chapter 7, “Making Black Lives Matter Today,” is this book’s best chapter. Its strength lies in the narrative account it provides of James Farmer, Jr. (1920-1999), “the great debater”. Farmer was an American civil rights advocate and national director of the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE). Denton and Voth praise Farmer’s stance of “non-violence against segregation”  and his advocacy for integration. They are not right to claim the “loss and suppression of Farmer’s memory”  or to argue that Farmer has been erased from American history . He still finds a place in many US history survey textbooks and has been written into America’s history in several other books and even in Hollywood movies. Still, in Farmer’s example, Denton and Voth find hope: “His model is viable today. It worked for decades. It worked for tens of thousands of young people of all colors. Its tenets should rise again and begin to heal the broken conversation and turn the wheels of justice forward and not backward. Without this recovery, racism will recover, grow, and fester within our nation” . By tapping into the American civil rights movement’s “civic notion” of “Beloved Community” , America might find its way forward, or so they argue.
But one salvageable chapter cannot save a doomed book. Even this book’s worthwhile insights run the risk of being lost in hyperbole and rant. Surely, more subtle arguments and fewer absolute positions would foster debate that might better approximate historical truth of a mitigated sort. Sadly, this volume is also unprofessionally slack on points of basic scholarly convention. Scholars’ names are sometimes jumbled and sources are misquoted. References are faulty and often incorrectly documented. Grammatical and typographical errors abound—so much so that the authors’ meaning (remember, both are Professors of Communication) is frequently lost. Here are a few examples of those types of errors. In fact, deciphering these examples may also serve to provide this review’s readers with a better sense of the book’s content:
“However, within its [the Declaration of Independence] few short paragraphs provided a political ideology for the new nation” .
“However, it is also the very gift of life makes us equal” .
“As individuals we actively collect, store, modify, interpret, and incorporate new information with what they already know about the world” .
“The general consensus is that exposure to mass media content three broad aspects of a young person’s political socialization” .
“. . . Congress, in the aftermath of the Democratic control of 2006, did not lived up to their promise of spending constraints and bringing the forces home from Iraq” .
“When we only focus on what separates us encourages a ‘tribalistic mentality’ where only differences are praised and highlighted” .
“Among Democrats, 38 percent view Republicans unfavorable with 27 percent view the Republican Party as a threat to our nation’s well-being” .
“John Freie argues that with today’s social fragmentation forces presidents finding it difficult to present broad national programs dependent upon political consensus for support” .
“In essence, we have come to believe that having religious liberty depends upon having none” .
“In some ways, it [Jimmy Carter’s ‘Moral Malaise’ speech] was a ‘Charlie Brown’ moment as the nation would begin to accept the limitations of a political culture than could not deliver an improving social, cultural, or economic situation for its people” .
“Empirical models that seek to test this enhanced deliberative model shows positive results as well” .
“If were to take a 30,000 feet view of politics today, what would we find?” .
“According to Steven Schier and Todd Eberly, over past several decades the gap between the two major parties has widened in terms of ideological orientations” .
Many similar frustrating examples could be cited. Unfortunately, this same sloppiness infects the book’s quotations. At one point Thomas Jefferson is said to write: “that whatever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends […]” . (For “whatever” read “whenever”.) And, in a key passage, the authors write that the First Amendment “plainly states: ‘The Congress shall make no respecting an establishment of religion or abridging the free exercise thereof […]” . (They missed the important word “law” in there.) For a book that supposedly puts so much emphasis on America’s founders and the Constitution they created, one might expect more care in quoting them.
In short, the starting point of this book is arguably false, both empirically and philosophically. And because social contract theory is so often absent from view, the book’s central argument is blurry too. We should all expect more from scholarly books, and demand more rigor in their writing and prose. As Denton and Voth point out in their concluding chapter, well-functioning democracies require educated people and good information. “Naturally,” they write, “as our undereducated generations reach voting age, as citizens they become easy prey for political half-truths and misinformation. An essential requirement of a democracy is an educated and well-informed public. Education and wide dissemination of knowledge is the antidote to mob rule” . Perhaps with better measures of both, today’s youth will approach the informed citizenry that Jefferson and John Adams envisioned.
(1) The book exhibits its own tension related to individualism. Sometimes the authors trumpet the value of the individual, other times they see individualism as the root of America’s political problems. At one point excessive individualism is argued to be the cause of group politics: “Out of the growing trend toward psychological egoism is the emergence of individualism. Such focus on self not only makes us selfish but also ignores the equal value of every individual. In the end, the mighty will satisfy their desires at the expense of the weaker. Group identification and demands for ‘rights’ or ‘privileges’ from government replace responsibility for the welfare of all and the common good. Without the consciousness of the responsibility and hence the understanding of the common good, we become an unthinking, uncritical mass open to political manipulation. Group interests clash—it becomes the rich versus the poor, the haves versus the have nots, or the young versus the old” .
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