The very relationship between philanthropy and American democracy is currently at issue. Some recent progressive critiques of philanthropy question whether giving by wealthy capitalists, since it’s so personally and institutionally self-interested and unwarrantedly influential, is good for democracy. Philanthropy, according to this line of thinking, essentially almost moots any meaningful civic engagement by those without as much wealth.

In 2005, the new Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) commissioned several essays for its inaugural conference, including one from William A. Schambra, now co-editor of The Giving Review. His full essay is “The Problem of Philanthropy for Civic Renewal.” Since we think it addresses aspects of the relationship between philanthropy and democracy that are generally not included in the progressives’ current critiques, we offer an edited excerpt below.

— The GR Editors

It might seem particularly churlish of me to suggestin the very midst of its inaugural festivitiesthat the launching of a new philanthropic affinity group devoted to citizenship might be anything other than an unmixed blessing for the Republic. But it has to be said: the record of philanthropy has not been good with respect to the cultivation of citizenship. Indeed, there is a deep theoretical and historical tension between 20th-century American philanthropy and citizenship, reflecting what Ivan Illich describes as “the disabling of the citizen through professional dominance.” Whether Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement is a blessing for the Republic depends critically on the self-consciousness it brings to this irony: the Framers of the Republic would have expected the cultivation of active citizenship to be the first object of civil society’s philanthropy. Yet whenever modern “scientific philanthropy” has systematically deployed its resources over the past 100 years, the retreat of citizenship has often been not just a side-effect, but in fact an intended result.

As foundations now turn their serious attention to a crisis in citizenship that they in part precipitated, will they be genuinely helpful, or will they simply resort to the same civically toxic professional technologies upon which they’ve always relied, disabling citizenship further even as it purports to resuscitate it?

Residue of a romance

The American Founders would have been appalled to find philanthropy at odds with citizenship, because they considered such institutions of civil society to be essential to the success of American self-governance. For our constitutional framers left their work, in a decisive sense, incomplete. They erected the constitutional framework for a large, commercial republic, not only to generate prosperity, but also to cultivate certain civic habits and practices within the new democracy. A people engaged in commerce, the Founders understood, would be too sensible and moderatetoo busyto succumb to the political passions that had torn apart all previous democracies. But as the Founders knew, and as Alexis de Tocqueville reminded us, commerce, while salutary against zealotry, also brings with it the danger of individualist isolationan absorption in narrow, materialistic interests to the exclusion of citizenly, moral, and spiritual concerns. Radically self-absorbed individuals all too readily turn their affairs over to governing elites, who happily meet the material needs of the population, so long as their managerial prerogatives are not challenged. Democracy’s proud self-governance might yield to what Tocqueville described as a soft, narcotized tyranny.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Yet the Founders and Tocqueville were sanguine about America’s ability to avoid this. For beyond and beneath our constitutional superstructure lay a vast multiplicity of local communities, townships, religious institutions, neighborhoods, fraternal and sororal orders, and voluntary associations. These small, local associations molded individuals into citizens, calling them out of their private, commercial interests into larger, public concerns, and immersing them in moral and spiritual communities that lifted their vision beyond mere material gain. Citizens thus taught to be vigilant, vigorous, and personally responsible were unlikely to succumb to egoistic isolation and materialismto become merely passive, self-indulgent clients of elites. The Founders were so confident of the durability of this undergirding of local civic and moral agencies (and so averse to nationalized “soulcraft”) that they left that part of the constitutional design unspoken, unwritten, incomplete.

Completing this important part of the Founders’ project is today largely in the hands of America’s foundations and nonprofitsthe modern descendants of Tocqueville’s voluntary associations. But foundations, especially the larger and more sophisticated, often turn up their noses at the suggestion that one of their primary responsibilities is to fund local civic associations. This is a residue of philanthropy’s romance with early 20th-century progressivism. Our first large foundationsCarnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sagearose at the same time as and were heavily influenced by that immensely influential reform movement. Progressivism’s intellectuals dismissed America’s small, local civic associations as petty, parochial, superstitious, and outdated relics of the past. At any rate, civic associations were considered doomed by vast, community-shattering social forces like urbanization and industrialization. Happily, new social sciences like economics, sociology, psychology, and political science had emerged, capable of analyzing and understanding distant, overweening social forces. Political salvation lay in transferring authority away from the chaotic jumble of local communities, and centralizing it in the hands of rationalist, professional elites credentialed in the new sciences of society.

The 20th century’s new, “scientific” philanthropy understood itself to be very much in progressivism’s avant-garde. Millions of dollars were devoted to upgrading the professionalism and technological sophistication of law, medicine, social work, and higher education, displacing bumbling amateurs with skilled experts. Likewise within politics, the major new foundations aimed to displace amateur with expert, underwriting the development and public-policy application of the social sciences through support for research universities, policy-research institutions, and the development of scholarly associations. Now, philanthropy famously promised to get at the root causes of problems by scientifically tracing them back to the hidden, but potent forces producing them. By contrast, Tocqueville’s paltry local associations had only been able to cope with the effects of such causes through feeble “charity.”

These developments have brought us to today’s moment of peril for American democracy. Our culture today is full of the disabling message that the expert knows better than the citizen. Just as it would no longer occur to most Americans to rely on wise elders or our own reasoned judgments in medical or legal matters, so many of us have come to believe that public life, as well, is best left to experts. The chief exception to this is voting, of course, but that’s only to bestow legitimacy on one or another set of professionally designed, technical solutions to policy problems. The notion that Americans might still govern themselves within small, decentralized associations is dismissed as a wistful, “neo-Tocquevillian” anachronism, long since consigned to the dustbin of history by rationalist, bureaucratic, expert-driven centralism. Meanwhile, of course, popular culture, amplified by the marketplace, beckons Americans toward materialistic self-indulgence and privatized pleasures, ensuring further that our professional elites have the public sphere to themselves. For all his quaint, archaic irrelevance, Tocqueville’s fear of a gentle slide into soft despotism seems remarkably prescient.

Philanthropy did nothing to prevent this, and much to promote it.

Not retreat or reversion, but rebuilding

As far-fetched as this may seem, both the left’s community organizing tradition and the right’s evangelical communities have commonly suffered from, and both are cultural and political insurgencies against, what Industrial Areas Foundation organizer Michael Gecan describes as the “contempt of the progressive elite for ordinary peoplefor their faiths, their speech patterns, their clothes, their hobbies, their aspirations.” Insofar as both of these insurgencies aim to cultivate citizens who are “agents of their own destinies,” they could be critical allies in the struggle to establish a new kind of philanthropy for civic engagement.

Michael Gecan

None of this will be even remotely persuasive to the larger, established foundations, with longstanding investments in professional technologies. After all, isn’t this too humble a task for philanthropy? Isn’t it an abject retreat from social science’s promise to get at the root causes of social problems once and for all? Aren’t we reverting to mere charity?

Consider, though, that after almost a century of spending billions in root-cause philanthropy, it’s difficult to name a single social problem to the roots of which we’ve gotten and solved once and for all. Meanwhile, everyday citizens have continued to form countless community associations to tackle their own problems their own way. One could look at this and see “mere” charity. Or one could see vigorous civic engagement in self-governance. The Founders and Tocqueville clearly saw the latter. Upon this modest, practical, local civic activity they placed their highest hopes for the survival of their experiment in democracy. Foundations supporting such activity need hardly be ashamed, when it’s nothing less than helping to rebuild popular self-governance at the grassroots.

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