Current Events and Philanthropy / New Works in the Field

A History of Voluntary Action and Political Frustration: Soskis on Zinsmeister’s “What Comes Next?”

Editors’ Note: HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis reviews Karl Zinsmeister’s What Comes Next?

Over the last half century, whenever a Republican assumed the presidency after a stretch in electoral exile, you knew it was only a matter of time before Alexis de Tocqueville appeared on the scene. That is, calls to cut the size and scope of government were almost always accompanied by celebrations of American voluntarism—which would presumably pick up the slack. “With the same energy that Franklin Roosevelt sought government solutions to problems, we will seek private solutions,” Ronald Reagan announced in 1981. “What federalism is to the public sector, voluntarism and private initiative are to the private sector.”

So it is not surprising that our current moment of transition brings Karl Zinsmeister’s latest offering, What Comes Next?, a historically rich paean to America’s philanthropic tradition. (You can read a condensed version here). Zinsmeister, who served as President George W. Bush’s chief domestic policy adviser, currently oversees all publishing at the Philanthropy Roundtable. In that capacity, he is perhaps best known as the author of the Almanac of American Philanthropy, an impressive and somewhat imposing doorstop of a tome that celebrates the philanthropic sector in all its richness and variety. It’s a fitting reference work for a new Gilded Age, literally boasting gold-leaf trim around its pages.

What Comes Next? can’t claim similar ornamentation or heft, but it certainly embellishes Zinsmeister’s earlier theme, holding up the voluntary sector as a place where the nation’s highest virtues flourish. But this slim book delivers a particular twist on the idea of philanthropic renewal, one suggested by the volume’s subtitle: “how private givers can rescue America in an era of political frustration.” Civil society is presented as a refuge from the political realm, which is characterized primarily by its inability to get anything done, and only secondarily by its post-New Deal progressive partialities. “If you are a successful, public-spirited American disappointed by today’s political possibilities,” Zinsmeister writes, “you should consider pouring yourself into savvy philanthropy and working the levers of civil society to solve gnawing problems.”

Of course, any call to redirect energies from politics is itself an act of politics, and so it’s impossible not to read What Comes Next? in the context of recent partisan warfare. This is especially the case considering that the manufacture of a public sense of political dysfunction had been a key element of Republican strategy during the Obama administration, centered around the obstruction of the president’s agenda. Yet the politics of this book is muddied by the fact that much of the inspiration and research for it was likely conducted with an alternate electoral outcome in mind. The counsel to turn away from politics to sow the grounds of civil society would have sounded very different if it came out during the opening months of a Clinton administration. How it sounds now, in the opening months of the Trump administration, depends largely on how one understands the current and historical relationship between politics and voluntary action.

In fact, Zinsmeisters’s turn to civil society is accompanied by a turn to the past—and particularly, to a nineteenth-century United States, to the time of Tocqueville, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Given the political climate, his historical reflections occasionally carry the whiff of an effort to “make America great again,” to re-affirm the moral authority of white Protestants and to celebrate a prelapsarian America that had not yet had its notions of legitimate governmental authority warped by Progressivism. Yet the history within What Comes Next? also compels a reader—and especially a progressive one—to consider what elements of Zinsmeister’s critique of contemporary politics and what elements of his celebration of the tradition of American voluntarism can bridge the partisan divide.


The bulk of Zinsmeister’s book is comprised of four historical case studies: the early nineteenth-century evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening, the anti-slavery and temperance movements, and the establishment of Sunday schools throughout the nation. Zinsmeister means these mini-narratives to serve as reminders that at moments of “dysfunctional politics,” when it was “almost impossible to make progress through government, men and women poured their energy and more into repairing our culture in other ways: through charity, voluntary associations, mass movements, business innovations, and grassroots action.”

The key characteristic of these reform movements was their voluntary spirit, which was in turn reflected in their champions’ approach to reform; they sought to change individual hearts and minds and not to reshape legal or political structures. Children of the Second Great Awakening, these reformers hoped to transform American society through individual regeneration and through local, intimate ministrations.

Each of these worthy attributes of voluntarism offers a corresponding critique of government-directed approaches to reform, which Zinsmeister portrays as overly centralized, controlled by impersonal elites, and blind to local particularities and to the human frailties and needs at the root of most social ills. Yet even in the face of this indictment, the precise nature of the relationship Zinsmeister sketches out between voluntary action and politics is not entirely clear.

On the one hand, he acknowledges that most of the great reform movements of the nineteenth century appreciated the importance of political activism—so long as it was subordinated to the tasks of religious regeneration and individual moral suasion. And at one point he insists that he does not mean for readers to give up on efforts to improve government. But his meagre faith in the progress possible through such efforts and his unrelenting attacks on government’s record in addressing the nation’s social ills undermines these moderating caveats. Ultimately, he seems to be setting up a zero-sum contest between two modes of social engagement, the voluntary and the political.[1]

Take the creation myth with which he begins his historical narrative: the idea that in Jacksonian America, evangelical Christians were pushed toward voluntary reform through their “disgust with ugly politics.” But this move was not merely aesthetic and moral—a principled recoil from sordid partisanship. It was as much about an elite’s perceived loss of power. It wasn’t dysfunction alone but defeat that motivated them: the rise of Jacksonian Democracy made the ballot box seem a less secure means of exercising authority than it once had.

This isn’t to suggest anything nefarious about the rise of nineteenth century voluntary associations or the establishment of the “Benevolent Empire,” an old historiographical term that Zinsmeister favors. It is to say that what constitutes political dysfunction or appropriate grounds for political frustration are matters of perspective.

And Zinsmeister’s perspective is clearly that of the Benevolent Empire’s “colonists,” not its colonized. We are assured that nineteenth-century evangelical businessmen, many of whom had once been poor themselves, “knew what was needed by our strugglers, and how it could best be gotten”: individual moral regeneration, which their ministrations would spark. But the voice of the “strugglers,” many of them immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, is absent. There is little in the book on the charitable organizations they formed, many as a response to the domineering attention of the evangelicals, which Catholic leaders perceived to be a front for proselytism. (Similarly, in his chronicle of the anti-slavery movement, there is little place for free blacks and escaped slaves, whose activism has been foregrounded in much recent scholarship).[2] In Zinsmeister’s narrative, ugly contests over power might have tainted the political realm, but did not intrude into the associational sphere.

The issue of power arises again when considering Zinsmeister’s attitude to elite philanthropy. He makes much of the fact that the Benevolent Empire was funded largely by relatively small donations. But Zinsmeister’s audience clearly includes today’s large donors (the membership of the Philanthropy Roundtable is limited to those who give more than $100,000 annually to charitable causes) and the heroes of his book are Lewis and Arthur Tappan, wealthy New York entrepreneurs at the center of nearly every major reform effort of the nineteenth-century. Arthur Tappan served, for instance, as the head of the American Anti-Slavery Society, while Lewis helped bankroll William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator as well as the Amistad trial.

Zinsmeister tells the harrowing story of how the Tappans braved anti-abolitionist mobs, which, on one occasion, nearly torched Lewis’s New York residence. In these confrontations, it’s clear where our sympathies should lie. The Tappans’ cause was just; the mob’s hideous. And so we can easily reject the caricatures of the Tappans, developed by pro-slavery demagogues, as out-of-touch elites.

But because the disempowered “strugglers” have such little place in What Comes Next?, the question of the appropriate sphere of power of elite philanthropists lingers. Zinsmeister seems to believe that that the spirit of voluntarism provides a democratic imprimatur to philanthropy, immunizing it against charges of elitism. He counsels that “devolving authority to groups of Americans so they can chip away at problems in their backyards” can serve as the antidote for the sense of powerlessness that fueled the campaigns of Trump and Sanders. But who gets to call the shots in these backyards? As a contemporary example of a situation in which philanthropy stepped in when government failed to act, Zinsmeister cites education reform. Yet how “benevolent” is the empire established by what Diane Ravich has called the “Billionaire Boys Club,” and who gets to decide? Certainly, there are those whose feelings of powerlessness have been stoked by the interventions of the ed reformers. Why should unaccountable plutocratic power feel any less threatening to citizens than governmental overreach?


We can find an answer to this question in Zinsmeister’s conflation within his book of two lines of analysis, one historical and the other ideological. He locates in the record of nineteenth century reform many examples in which government offered little help in addressing social maladies and in which what we’d now call civil society shouldered much of the burden. The early anti-slavery movement fits this bill, though there were certainly national political figures, such as Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner (neither of whom get much play in What Comes Next?) fighting the good fight. Often, though, the fact that government has failed is used to suggest that government must fail, and to demonstrate the absolute superiority of private organizing over governmental action.

This is a belief that one must bring to the historical record in order to find it there. After all, politics seems dysfunctional until suddenly it isn’t. Hyper-partisanship is a sign of political rot until it becomes the marker of the high stakes involved, presaging some consequential shift in policy. In other words, political frustration is both historically contingent as well as personally subjective. Certainly the history of the anti-slavery movement suggests as much. It was ultimately the power of the state—primed by abolitionist agitation but also by the accretive political activism of the “quixotic” (Zinsmeister’s term) Liberty Party, Free-Soil Party and then the nascent Republican Party—that delivered emancipation.

One could just as easily mine the historical record of nineteenth century reform for proof that the answer to the failure of government must be reinvigorated political organizing. Or one could reflect on the present moment. Sure, civil society seethes with political frustration. But it has led many to a rekindled political engagement and an appreciation of what government, when wielded responsibly and wisely, might accomplish.

In any case, in light of these progressive protests and of the Tea Party agitation that came before them, the most consequential split in American life these days seems less the one between voluntary and political action than between institutions that affirm citizens’ sense of power and those that diminish it. The history of the nineteenth century suggests that politics and philanthropy have found themselves on each side of this divide. That record should provide both a warning and a measure of hope.

–Benjamin Soskis

[1] For a refutation of this zero-sum relationship, see Theda Skocpol, “The Tocqueville Problem: Civic Engagement in American Democracy,” Social Science History vol. 21 (Winter 1997).

[2] See, for instance, Manisha Simha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

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