Politics Symposium: Why Political Scientists Should Study Organized Philanthropy

PSC“‘Philanthropy” has a warm and fuzzy ring to it—bringing to mind the year-end checks that local notables write to community causes and the small monies that millions of ordinary men and women give each week at their place of worship. Perhaps because such gifts do not seem to be the central stuff of politics and public policy, most political scientists—until recently—have left this domain to sociologists, anthropologists, and students of nonprofits based in centers focused on studying philanthropy. In the media and, to a lesser extent, in academia, whenever philanthropy is discussed, it often is touted uncritically as a quintessentially American form of beneficial civic action.

Our discipline’s reticence about philanthropy is especially ironic for students of US politics. Not only have Americans always stood out for their voluntary giving to churches and charities; since the early 1900s, the US government also has given enormous tax benefits to wealthy philanthropists—in effect, magnifying the impact of their values and choices in public affairs. Many public efforts undertaken by governments elsewhere occur in the United States, if at all, only at the behest of wealthy people who make donations amplified by taxpayer dollars. Subsidized philanthropy is literally at the heart of American public policy…”

Theda Skocpol’s article in PS: Political Science and Politics has been recently featured in both the Washington Post as well as the website Inside Philanthropy. Read the full article here.

PS: Political Science & Politics / Volume 49 / Issue 03 / July 2016, pp 433-436 / Copyright © American Political Science Association 2016

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. Her research interests include comparative politics and American politics. She has previously been published in Perspectives on Politics, PS: Political Science & Politics, and the American Political Science Review. She can be reached at skocpol@fas.harvard.edu.