Many important questions have recently arisen again about the roles of the public and private sectors in securing societal well-being—including the nature and scope of those roles, the extent of authority exercised by those filling them, the degrees to which the sectors can and should interact with each other, and the standards of accountability to which they should be held as they do so.

University of Chicago sociology professor Elisabeth S. Clemens’ comprehensive Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State impressively details how all of these questions have been asked, and answered, throughout U.S. history.

In Civic Gifts, which my Giving Review co-editor Dan Schmidt and I have reviewed, Clemens thoroughly examines how civil society has related to the state, and whether they can stand apart even if they want to do so. She explores whether they—whether we, really—can together develop and sustain a shared sense of nationhood despite all the differences with each local community, state, and the nation as a whole.

Clemens was kind enough to speak with me earlier this month. In the first of two part of our discussion, which is here, we talk about how politics is embedded in social life, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the March of Dimes, and the power of volunteerism.

The 21-minute video below is the second part of our conversation, during which we discuss the political construction of philanthropy and charity, current strains on that construction, a potential revival of mutual aid, and what it might mean for our us all as a nation.

Clemens and Hartmann

“[T]here are a set of legal constraints and advantages that come with this political construction of charity  and philanthropy in the contemporary world,” Clemens tells me.

I think we’re seeing that under strain in many ways in the U.S., but also around the world. We won’t effectively address those strains unless we recognize that there is a politics to constructing that distinction, to constructing charity and philanthropy as a field of activity that is legally constrained and legally advantaged.

Moreover, she says, “I think that it’s important for philanthropy to recognize that it is by definition, ‘ademocratic,’ not necessarily anti-democratic, but it operates on very different principles and it’s important to recognize the implications of that.”