Book Profile

Conservatism, philanthropy, and The Dying Citizen

A work to read in “the Wilderness.”


Beginning in the 1990s, the conservative Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation framed its mission as helping to develop and implement an anti-progressive “New Citizenship” agenda. Hoover Institution senior fellow and nationally prominent conservative commentator Victor Davis Hanson’s new The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America shares the New Citizenship’s underlying themes and trenchantly underscores the need—probably more urgent, given establishment philanthropy’s current overwhelming progressivism—for similar thinking now.

Bradley president Michael S. Joyce boldly introduced the “New Citizenship” language and set out to broadly define it, and how it would be reflected in the conservative Bradley’s grantmaking program, while speaking to top Heritage Foundation officials on December 1, 1992—less than one month after Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush for president. An incumbent had been turned away by the voters, in the wake of which conservatism was likely going to be refined or even redefined itself.

“Americans are ready for what might be called ‘a new citizenship,’ which will liberate and empower them,” according to Joyce, in remarks published in The Giving Review as “Conservatism, the Imperial City, and the Wilderness” last November, after what many conservatives also considered a dispiriting national political outcome (all emphases in original).

Premises

“What might be the dimensions of such a ‘new citizenship’?” he asked. “At the heart of this approach must be the determination to treat Americans as self-governing citizens, willing and able to seize control of their daily lives once again and to make critical choices for themselves. Consequently, Americans must not be dismissed as helpless victims or passive clients” in the way progressive elitism treats them. The premise’s populist tinge, in retrospect, was actually presaging.

Declaratively—as per usual—Joyce described other aspects of the Tocquevillian thinking, which understands an active citizenship to be much more than a merely formal civic or legal status evidenced by just being able to vote.

Hanson’s historically informed The Dying Citizen notes that citizenship, even if considered in terms of the status it confers, “is not an entitlement; it requires work … [T]oo many citizens of republics, ancient and modern, come to believe that they deserve rights without assuming responsibilities ….”

In encouraging this kind of required work and assumption of responsibilities, Joyce continued, “we must seek to restore the intellectual and cultural legitimacy of citizenly common sense as a way of understanding and solving problems” and “reinvigorate and re-empower the traditional, local institutions—families, schools, churches, neighborhoods—that provide training in and room for the exercise of genuine citizenship, that pass on folk wisdom and everyday morality to the next generation, and that cultivate and reinforce personal character.”

Two more: “[W]e must encourage the dramatic decentralization of power and accountability away from the centralized, bureaucratic, ‘Nanny state’ in Washington, back to the states, localities, and revitalized ‘mediating structures,’” the then-Bradley president went on, evoking Catholic social teaching’s notion of subsidiarity, and “be willing to challenge on all fronts the political hegemony of the ‘helping’ and ‘caring’ professionals and bureaucrats who have penetrated so many aspects of our daily lives, and who profit so handsomely from the ‘Nanny state.’”

Concerns

So regular citizens are and should be actors in both the workings of the democratic republic and the larger civil society, and they should be accorded more respect by both government in policy and their fellow citizens in the polity.

The agenda Joyce outlined thus “means directing financial support, both private and public, to initiatives that work from the bottom up, rather than the top down,” as onetime Bradley program-staff executive and current Giving Review co-editor William A. Schambra describes it in First Things in 1996. “This agenda arises from our mounting concern that Americans today tend to play an ever smaller role in public life,” Schambra told Independent Sector in a 2001 speech. These Americans are too often just plain forgotten, someone else later said, and should be forgotten no more.

“The everyday, local civic institutions by which they once governed themselves—associations rooted in religious affiliation, neighborhood, ethnicity, or voluntary impulse—have gradually been displaced by experts sporting scientific credentials in public policy, located in the remote, bureaucratic reaches of government, corporations, and the non-profit sector,” he continued.

“[C]itizenship can wax and wane—and abruptly vanish,” Hanson writes in The Dying Citizen. “History is mostly the story of non-citizenship.”

There was a waning, and Bradley wanted to do something about it, tried, and did. As applied by its policy-oriented grantmaking, the reasoning specifically—and successfully—furthered parental choice in education and work-based welfare reform, among other things, first in Wisconsin and then nationally.

Dignity

While not about philanthropy per se, a lot of The Dying Citizen overlaps substantially with the same concern about the great “dangers to citizenship posed by a relatively small American elite,” as Hanson incisively characterizes it in the new book. To Hanson, this elite includes the unelected federal bureaucracy and Americans who are conceptually transitioning into “citizens of the world”—and, and here’s the connection, “the unapologetic grand architects of dismantling constitutional citizenship, inordinately represented by political activists, media grandees, the legal profession, and academics.”

One could certainly easily also include progressive and politicized establishment philanthropy, which directly and indirectly funds so much of this dismantling—of the “constitutional citizenship” to which Hanson refers as well as the active New Citizenship in civil society supported by Bradley, on whose board of directs Hanson currently serves.

Lamentably, big philanthropy really has a lot to do with the dying citizen in America.

More than merely philanthropic, however, according to Joyce’s ’92 Heritage remarks, “‘the new citizenship’ agenda is intended to be a very broad, expansive, and inclusive general agenda for American conservatism.” It provides “a general image of what we consider a decent, dignified, and worthy way of life—a broad understanding of the way we believe human beings as human beings deserve to be treated, whether by our economic, cultural, or political systems, whether at home or abroad.”

He concluded,

If we put something like ‘the new citizenship’ at the heart of the vision we develop in our sojourn in the Wilderness, I cannot say that it will ‘insure’ conservative victories …. It would, however, mean that our time in the Wilderness will have been well and nobly spent. And it would also, I suspect, mean that our time in the Wilderness will be brief.

Citizenship is dying, Hanson’s typically discerning book shows, with very negative ramifications for all of us. Conservatism and conservative philanthropy should consider placing citizenship—and probably now more aggressively, given the urgency—back “at the heart of the vision we develop in our sojourn in the Wilderness.” It should, of course, fully evaluate and understanding all of the ramifications first, but then use all of the typical tools available to givers—principally, perhaps singularly?, including checks that clear.

The Dying Citizen should definitely be part of this analysis. It’s a work for the new Wilderness—which the briefer it be, the better.

 

This article originally appeared in the Giving Review on September 22, 2021.

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