A recent Gallup report revealed a paradox of today’s national political debate: While a number of candidates on the campaign trail say more government will help solve the country’s problems, people increasingly believe government itself is the No. 1 problem. Further, Americans’ trust in the federal government’s ability to solve problems is at its lowest point in decades.
This isn’t surprising to those who believe in the power of independent problem solving. In fact, it’s encouraging. For if people rely less on their national government, the more important civil society becomes. It’s our local institutions – schools, churches, voluntary associations – that are most likely to guide behaviors and transform lives, not the wishlist of politicians in Washington.
America’s commitment to civil society has been a hallmark of our country’s exceptionalism. It’s the intangible glue outside of government that binds us as a nation. And we must not take it for granted.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed in early 19th century America that one of the country’s most remarkable aspects was the extraordinary participation of citizens in local governance and civil society. “With much care and skill, power has been broken into fragments in the American township, so that the maximum possible number of people have some concern with public affairs,” he wrote.
Although America today is vastly different, our strong tradition of local control, can-do attitude and service to others remains a seminal characteristic of our country. This never stood out to me more than when I was an ambassador in central Europe. It was very clear that donating money or volunteering time was simply not a natural or expected part of the culture.
This observation is substantiated by research. As author Jeremy Beer has pointed out, the value of American philanthropy is equivalent to 5.5 percent of the national GDP, by far the highest in the world. No other country reaches 2 percent of GDP.
When it comes to volunteering, Americans too, are incredibly generous, ranking fifth among 140 countries in the percentage who had volunteered with an organization. Encouragingly, volunteering in the U.S. has hit a record high, with citizens volunteering nearly 6.9 billion hours, worth an estimated $167 billion in economic value, according to a 2018 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service.
We often see independent problem solving in times of crisis. Take for instance, the Cajun Navy, groups of boat owners who voluntarily assist in search and rescue efforts following natural disasters in the South and have saved thousands of lives. Recently, in my home state of Wisconsin, a farmer formed a “Badger army,” to bring supplies to Nebraska farmers impacted by flooding.
Or take the need to curtail the opioid epidemic, which is prompting private, voluntary solutions to help overcome drug addiction. One Midwestern company facing a worker shortage has started providing drug treatment programs to potential employees who test positive for drugs but still want a job.
Citizens solving problems and improving their communities are at the heart of The Bradley Foundation’s mission. Our founders were successful 20th century industrialists who believed in the richness of community and culture that are the basis of a well-lived life. Today we carry on that legacy by supporting organizations that strengthen the fabric of American society.
Next month, the Foundation will honor distinguished individuals whose achievements reflect the pillars of American exceptionalism, including civil society, when we host the annual Bradley Prizes. We look forward to honoring this year’s recipients: author and publisher Roger Kimball, historian and journalist Jim Grant, and former federal judge Janice Rogers Brown.
It’s worth noting the poignant words of Judge Brown during a speech she once gave to the Federalist Society: “Where government moves in, community retreats, civil society disintegrates, and our ability to control our own destiny atrophies. The result is: families under siege; war in the streets; unapologetic expropriation of property; the precipitous decline of the rule of law; the rapid rise of corruption; the loss of civility and the triumph of deceit.”
It’s tempting for politicians to offer more government programs as a fix to society’s problems. But it’s families, social clubs, churches and the like that have a greater and lasting impact on daily life. We must work to improve and sustain civil society in every way we can by encouraging self-governance and engaging in our communities. American exceptionalism depends on it.
Richard W. Graber is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.