COVID-19 Pandemic / New Works in the Field

Civic Gifts: A History of Voluntarism and Giving as forms of Governance

Editors’ Note: Elisabeth S. Clemens introduces themes from her new book, Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Portions of this essay are adapted from the book’s introduction.

As with so many crises before, the first wave of the COVID pandemic produced a schizophrenic reaction to American voluntarism. Story after story celebrated individual efforts to help: to sew masks, to gather personal protective equipment for health care workers, to contribute to food banks, and to put up signs appreciating the work of mail carriers and all the other essential workers. But alongside all the celebration of goodwill, there was a growing current of doubt. While it was wonderful that so many good people were so generous, wasn’t much of this just a function of an inadequate or incompetent government response?

Many attributed this combination of admirable humanity and inadequate government to particularities of this historic moment, to our current presidential administration or the impotence and irresponsibility of those holding public office at all levels. But these critiques miss a critical point about American political development. Influenced by a fear of standing armies and resistance to taxation, the American state has been built to be inadequate. It requires augmentation – by the contributions of individual citizens, organized associations, and, increasingly, private firms. From this vantage point, the history of voluntarism and philanthropy is not one of alternatives to government but rather of complex, contested, and often unacknowledged complements to governance that defy formal distinctions between public and private.

This critical point has been obscured by the grounding of arguments in binaries. We start with an understanding of voluntary organizations and activities defined by what they are not: non-profit in market-oriented polities, non-governmental where there is a stronger sense of statism. (I develop this point at greater length in my contribution to the latest edition of The Nonprofit Research Handbook.)  Because the academic division of labor is organized around these conceptual distinctions, those who study either politics or nonprofits can easily overlook how the “private” sphere of voluntarism is intertwined with, authorized by, and financially dependent upon government agencies. But while deeply interconnected, the organizing social logics of these domains are also fundamentally at odds. The self-sufficient independence that defines the ideal of liberal citizenship co-exists uneasily, sometimes explosively, with the mutuality of reciprocity and the dependence engendered by charity.

My new book, Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State, begins with the vivid cultural incompatibility of benevolence and liberty in the political discourse of the early republic. Civic associations were central to the process of articulating these conflicting ideals. Although associations had been controversial in the early Republic, understood as threats to individual liberty and freedom of conscience, they mattered centrally for the process of nation-state-building in the United States. When the Boston Tea Party provoked a blockade by the British navy, residents of other colonies-not-yet-a-nation supported those immediately at risk by organizing a “Committee on Donations.” Foreign observers were reliably impressed by the ways in which Americans voluntarily joined collective efforts to produce public goods.  The contradictions latent in these formations would later be crisply diagnosed by sociologist Claude Fisher as a combination of the beliefs that “each individual is a sovereign individual” and that “individuals succeed through fellowship.” Although voluntarism itself embodied this logical inconsistency, reciprocity and the relational geometry of gift-giving nevertheless provided “cement to the union,” as a defender of one of the early post-Revolutionary associations phrased it. But by the time Alexis de Tocqueville visited the new nation in the early 1830s, the cultural construction of civic benevolence and voluntarism was well under way. 

            The tensions between individual liberty and organized reciprocity were amplified by the contradictions between cultural understandings of charity and the democratic dignity of free and equal citizens. That dignity was endangered not by giving, but by receiving, charity. The dual imperatives to act with benevolence toward those in need and to respect the dignity of fellow citizens led to the articulation of practices and institutions that carefully segregated enfranchised men from categories of noncitizens or not-quite-citizens – children, women, the ill or insane, immigrants, Native Americans and slaves (and later former slaves) – as appropriate objects of charity. But this division of labor between the domains of charity and citizenship was soon destabilized. Americans deployed charitable practices in massive support for soldiers during the Civil War and, later, as methods for meeting the social challenges of industrialization and urbanization.

            The significance of voluntarism appeared most clearly in moments of crisis. Although wars, hurricanes and economic depressions tend to figure in separate literatures, those who mobilized recognized how they drew on the same scripts to respond to substantively different crises. In a speech kicking off the 1938 campaign for the Greater New York Fund (which supported private social service agencies), John D. Rockefeller Jr. opened his remarks by drawing an explicit parallel to the United War Work Campaign of 1918:

“The meeting in the old Madison Square Garden represented a cooperative, altruistic endeavor irrespective of race or creed; that is what this meeting represents. The purpose of that meeting was the promotion of social welfare and health agencies; that is the purpose of this meeting. The only difference between the two meetings lies in their fields of activity. That meeting was in the interest of work among the soldiers in the camps. This meeting is in the interest of work among the Citizens of Greater New York.”

In this vision, civic benevolence was a source of sustained coordinated capacity for action. It was also an inoculation against the appeal of radical statism. Voluntarism enabled the very rich to be transformed into leading citizens through their acts of philanthropy. But the limits of this model were exposed in the effort to repurpose wartime and emergency models of action to the extended domestic crisis of the Great Depression. Here, the contradictions between benevolence and democratic standing were not cushioned by invocations of military service or by the obvious demands of natural disasters. Herbert Hoover, who had campaigned for the presidency with a well-founded claim to be the “Master of Emergencies,” was defeated by his deep commitment to a social technology of voluntarism that was overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis.

            In many tellings of U.S. political history, Hoover represents the end of voluntarism.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt ushered in the modern welfare state, centralized federal government, and citizen entitlements. But the story is not so simple. On a personal level, FDR discovered that his own philanthropic efforts for polio victims could be sustained by mass civic giving; what we now know as the March of Dimes began as the “Committee to Celebrate the President’s Birthday” and this national exercise in gift-giving was a form of reciprocation that addressed the sting of dependence felt by those receiving government relief. Nor were federal financial resources sufficient to meet all the demands. Steadily over the course of the 1930s, changes in tax law and the regulation of government spending opened up the channels through which private resources flowed to service-providing civic organizations, augmented by federal and state tax subsidies.

            World War II saw a last full flowering of this form of civic benevolence.  In the wake of the war and Roosevelt’s death, his allies attempted to institutionalize this civic mobilization for peacetime purposes while Republicans and business elites sought to dismantle the linkage of patriotic philanthropy to presidential politics. The result, with a new label, was a nonprofit sector with far fewer obvious political overtones, one that facilitated both care for those left out of the nation’s incomplete welfare state and the self-provisioning of communities in areas such as the arts, higher education, and medical services. In the process, the charities that entered the decade of the 1930s emerged as nonprofit organizations after the Second World War.

            Although federal revenues continued to expand for decades after the Second World War, restrictions on the growth of the federal workforce meant that privately managed organizations became ever more important for the implementation of policy and ever more dependent on public funding. Increasingly, publicly authorized and funded but privately managed organizations acted in the name of the public good. The capacity of government expanded while its identity was blurred. The result was a distinctive state form in which many public activities take place under private auspices decoupled from mechanisms of electoral accountability. Even as the era of mass membership and patriotic giving waned, this method for mobilizing governance left behind an open architecture of legal possibilities and policy models that would be inhabited – hermit crab-like – by new waves of social movements, philanthropic initiatives, and profit-making enterprises.

            The consequences of these entanglements have been thrown into sharp relief by the multiple crises of this moment. As protests against policing practices and institutionalized racism have filled the streets throughout the spring and summer, activists in the movement for Black Lives pressured foundation leaders to shift both their priorities and their budgeting practices to provide greater support for transformative change. These demands came on the heels of demonstrations against federal immigration policy, often directed at buildings that housed nonprofit organizations with contracts to manage those detained along the border or swept up in raids throughout the country. Because governments in the United States operate through private organizations – through tax subsidies to foundations and contracts to nonprofits – the targets of political protest multiply and lines of accountability are blurred. These cumulating crises have illuminated both the capacities and inadequacies of firms, philanthropies, and governments as they collectively work – or fail to work – at meeting the conjuncture of crises that deeply mark this year and beyond. Above all, the moment calls into question whether the deeply-rooted practices of civic generosity might still generate collective capacities and some sense of national solidarity.

-Elisabeth S. Clemens

Elisabeth S. Clemens is William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Her research explores how politics has been organized across the boundaries of formal institutions whether in the invention of interest group politics (The People’s Lobby, University of Chicago, 1997) or through collaborations between public agencies and voluntary organizations (Politics and Partnerships, co-edited with Doug Guthrie, University of Chicago, 2010). She has now turned to the politics of contracting, seeking to understand the co-evolution of government, industries, and firms that profoundly marks the development of the modern American state, and indeed that of states around the globe.

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