Of many adjectives that one could apply to America’s present political climate, “accessible” is probably not one.
The frustrations of many American citizens with the elite and bureaucratic tangle of the political process came to the fore in the last presidential election, enough to determine that election’s results. Unfortunately, the success of these voters in pushing through their Voice-of-the-Overlooked seems to have had little effect on the operations of a machine the size of the federal government.
Karl Zinsmeister, Vice President of Publications at the Philanthropy Roundtable, does not candy-coat the current state of American political affairs in his essay “What Comes Next? How private givers can rescue America in an era of political frustration.” Yet, turning quickly aside from America’s “parched, harsh, and unproductive” political process, Zinsmeister presents a hopeful picture of social and cultural change through the non-political charitable efforts of the community and the individual.
Dysfunctional politics and social turmoil, he points out, are not anything new in America. Yet, throughout her history, the difficulty of making change through political means has not stopped citizens from enacting change by private means.
“When it was almost impossible to make progress through government,” he writes, “men and women poured their energy and money into repairing our culture in other ways: through charity, voluntary associations, mass movements, business innovations, and grassroots action.” (8)
Zinsmeister catalogues some of the most prominent of such movements, private causes and projects that had unparalleled effects on American culture and character. He tells the story of America’s Second Great Awakening, the rise of Sunday School programs for the poor, and the Abolition and Temperance movements. Though we can pick and choose which of these we like, it is a fact that each of these historical movements has had a deep effect on the American character, and was pioneered not through the political process, but through private philanthropic efforts and hard work.
In addition to these historical case studies, Zinsmeister points to the “personalization revolution,” the contemporary trend toward the local and personalized, as a context in which philanthropy is even better poised to thrive. Because of its private and dispersed nature, localized philanthropy has a power to provide case-by-case, local solutions to local problems in a way that a more sweeping government program, even at its most efficient, cannot do.
Uniformity, Zinsmeister argues, is not the best model for building a society. Philanthropy’s unique power to provide for the specific and local has not only brought about major movements throughout American history, but it provides the most effective means of supplying the kind of personalized aid that contemporary social reformers are looking for.
It is easy to bemoan the difficulty of social and cultural changes in an era of political dysfunctionality. But that the greatest historical social movements and reforms in American history were brought about not through the political process, but through the charity and motivation of private individuals in the private sphere. Philanthropy, not politics, is the strongest and most effective catalyst for this kind of change. Particularly in a social climate so interested in personalization and localization, private citizens have the power and the duty to repair American culture, in spite of, and in many ways completely regardless of, the mess of American politics.