Civil Society

You Could Make a Radical Push for Grassroots Empowerment, Or You Could Just Cut a Country-Pop Record

The "Points of Light" program and the path not taken

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The president embraces volunteerism by setting aside a day each week to read stories to young delinquents.

John McClaughry, a contributing editor here at Reason and a longtime stalwart of the GOP's small libertarian/decentralist wing, has been serializing his memoirs at the Front Porch Republic site. In his latest (and final) installment, he covers President George H.W. Bush's rhetoric about volunteerism and "a thousand points of light." McClaughry met with C. Gregg Petersmeyer, who as director of the White House's Office of National Service was in charge of the points-of-light program, and he concluded that Petersmeyer's "concept of that role was to organize the power and majesty of the White House to bestow tributes upon the (politically acceptable) volunteers and organizations working for good causes." This prompted McClaughry to write a memo to the director, drawing on his experience in past "civil society" efforts:

"Voluntary Action/Private Sector Initiatives" (or whatever it is labeled) means different things to different people. To oversimplify:

a) Well-meaning Republicans favor a typically upper middle class view: those who have should take up a collection for those who don't. The collection finances Christmas turkeys and other benefits. This is the "Lady Bountiful" approach: the gift can be given and the recipients forgotten. Republican voluntary action efforts have been plagued with this myopic perspective. Republicans typically do not understand what life is like in a lower-income or minority community, and are uncomfortable with spontaneous grassroots efforts which seem to them to be potentially subversive of the existing order, of which they general approve.

b) Liberals tend to think of using tax dollars to finance institutions to assist the poor, thereby making themselves feel good while sending the bill to an otherwise uncaring "society" through taxes. This attitude gives rise to the "welfare-industrial complex", with the government financing an elaborate institutional structure which employs liberals to take care of the poor. The idea that their tax-financed institutions as often as not defeat the self-help efforts of the poor rarely if ever occurs to liberals.

Are you sure these people are Republicans, Muffy?

c) People at the grassroots, faced with collective problems, usually want the tools, resources and opportunities to solve their problem themselves. They almost invariably view government and other institutions as part of the problem (usually true) and hate paying taxes to finance their oppressors and pay for programs which don't really do them any good. They lean Democratic because of income and class characteristics, but will vote Republican when the right candidate comes along who speaks their language.

McClaughry's memo went on to identify an alternative approach to fostering volunteerism, which would focus on identifiying and removing "specific barriers to organized grassroots self help." It also warned that "Almost every 'barrier' was put there for a reason," that "Some interest or institution will oppose almost every proposal of any merit," and that fighting those battles "without the President's clear understanding and blessing is for you to call down much grief upon yourself with little chance of a payoff."

And there the memorandum ended. "Not surprisingly," McClaughry tells us, "I never heard from him again."

So the Bush administration ignored McClaughry's advice. What did it do instead? So glad you asked:

The song reached #3 on the Billboard country chart. (1991 was not Nashville's finest hour.) According to The New York Times, the songwriters and a Bush flunky "smoothed out the lyrics in a meeting." Elsewhere in the White House, a "Point of Light coordinator" helped "the President pick his 'daily point of light,' a group or individual chosen every day but Sunday for outstanding volunteer service."

Bonus links: Past posts about McClaughry's series can be found here, here, and here.