Vital Speeches of the Day’s February 2022 issue features Rick Graber’s remarks to the Wisconsin Forum, held last October in Milwaukee. The text of the speech, A Civil Society for the 21st Century, is below.
Thank you, Christine and thanks to the Wisconsin Forum for the invitation to speak this evening. I’m honored to be the first guest of your new season.
The founders of The Bradley Foundation, Lynde and Harry, would have enjoyed the company of the Wisconsin Forum’s own founders. Like many of them – William H. Brady, Burleigh Jacobs, and William Law, to name a few – the Bradley brothers were leading Milwaukee industrialists who encountered and overcame daunting challenges along the way to building a pretty amazing company.
That business, the Allen-Bradley Company, was sold to Rockwell Automation in 1985, but its former headquarters with the famous four-sided clocktower remains an iconic part of Milwaukee to this day.
Before jumping into this evening’s topic, I thought I would share a bit of background about the Bradley brothers, because it is their beliefs that inform how we at The Bradley Foundation approach our giving and how we view civil society.
Not far from here, on Prospect Avenue just north of Brady Street, is where the brothers grew up and where their story begins around the turn of the 20th century. Lynde was a tinkerer and naturally curious. He took a job with Milwaukee Electric Company on the city’s south side after dropping out of high school and it was there that he came up with an idea for improving the performance of controllers that regulate the speed of a motor.
Not too long thereafter, he quit that job with Milwaukee Electric after securing $1,000 in seed money from Stanton Allen, a local doctor who took an interest in Lynde’s earlier, but ultimately unsuccessful venture into X-rays.
Lynde’s younger brother Harry also had an inquisitive mind and innate mechanical ability. Most of all, he shared Lynde’s drive and penchant for hard work. Harry eventually joined his brother at Allen-Bradley.
The brothers made headway together, though progress was painfully slow and even nonexistent at times. They endured years of financial crises, technical setbacks, and a corrupt business partner before seeing modest success.
During the Great Depression, Allen-Bradley’s sales dropped more than 40 percent and the company’s survival was far from certain. On top of everything else, the brothers encountered difficult and deflating struggles with unions, the details of which were splashed across the pages of the Milwaukee Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal. And, of course, they constantly had to innovate to keep up with changing times.
Yet they never gave up. They never doubted themselves and understood what it takes to achieve success. Grit, perseverance, risk, and long, hard work.
But also like the Wisconsin Forum’s founders, they understood that the American dream was only possible because of our country’s foundational and fundamental principles of individual freedom, limited government, and the free market system.
Lynde and Harry had an unassailable commitment to advancing the free-market system, which enabled them to build one of the most successful companies in the country during their time. And they wanted future generations to benefit from the same system.
Lynde and Harry also believed that free enterprise bore fruits beyond material wealth, including a strong civil society. They put this belief into practice, cultivating and nurturing a vibrant and thriving community at the factory. Employees had their own bowling, basketball, baseball, and tennis teams. The company rooftop included badminton courts, a small boxing ring and an area for golfers to fine tune their swings—not sure if there was a net up there or not.
By the mid-1950s, as the company continued to grow, they hosted extravagant Christmas parties for the 7,000 children of Allen-Bradley employees.
The Bradleys valued arts and culture, so they formed the Allen-Bradley Orchestra and Chorus. Employees who belonged to it played concerts at lunch, in the community and even went on the road, performing twelve tours that covered nearly every major city in the U.S. and Canada.
One employee even left his job in the cabinet shop to become the only full-time, paid musical director in American industry.
You’d be hard pressed to find similar examples of such a thriving sense of community within corporate America today.
The Bradleys’ commitment to civil society extended beyond Allen-Bradley to the greater Milwaukee area. Among the city’s leading philanthropists, they gave generously to education, the arts, health care and youth programs.
Describing her husband, Harry’s wife Peg once said, “I realized that his love was Milwaukee and Allen-Bradley. That’s all he cared about. It was just centered right there, with all the people he cared so much about.”
At the Bradley Foundation, we take donor intent very seriously. Unlike many of the country’s largest foundations today - such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie - our giving has always reflected our founders’ philosophies and values. That is not going to change.
While we wish we had more guidance and insights into their core beliefs, we know the brothers would approve of the many groups we support who advance free-market ideals.
And we know they’d be proud that their legacy of civic giving continues today, most recently through a combined $52 million gift with the Uihlein family towards the renovation of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s new home on Wisconsin Avenue, the Bradley Symphony Center. If you are not aware, David Uihlein and his sister Lynde are Harry and Peg’s grandchildren.
Yet we are also clear-eyed that today’s problems are vastly different - and in many ways, far more daunting - than a half century ago or longer, when the Bradleys, Laws, and Bradys were building their businesses and leading the community.
During foundation meetings, we often ask ourselves, how would Harry and Lynde have tackled the current challenges facing our city, state, and country? How can civil society address them? And to that end, how can the Foundation help to strengthen, rebuild and restore our civil society, which itself has buckled under the weight of bureaucratic largesse?
I think first and foremost, we must instill an understanding and appreciation among all citizens and particularly younger citizens that America truly is unique and exceptional.
Let me share a story that makes this point.
I often get asked what it was like to serve as the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic. For me, the experience really crystalized what it means to be an American in ways I hadn’t appreciated before.
During our family’s time in Prague, I probably had more conversations with my driver Karel Sedlak than anyone else. We often talked about his life in what was then Czechoslovakia before the fall of communism. Karel - a very humble, uncomplicated man, often spoke about listening to Radio Free Europe on a transistor radio under the covers of his bed as a child and young adult.
How many of you remember those little hand-held, battery operated radios? I can’t imagine any of the Brookfield Academy students watching tonight do.
That radio was his only link to what he thought could be a better way of life. He believed that a free and open society would be a better society for himself and his family. And ultimately, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Czechoslovakia, it’s why he applied to work for the US Embassy and stayed there for more than 20 years driving US ambassadors.
It’s so easy to take our freedom and liberty and choice for granted when we have never known anything else.
But something that also struck me while serving there and later working in many other countries all over the world, is that donating time, talent, and treasure simply isn’t a natural or expected part of other cultures, even in the western world.
Add it turns out, this observation has been substantiated.
Over the last decade, the United States has consistently been rated as the most generous country in the world, according to the World Giving Index. America has more citizens per capita who report helping others, than any other country, whether that’s through volunteering time or donating money.
Recent findings from the Corporation for National and Community Service show volunteering in the U.S. is at an all-time high, with citizens volunteering nearly 6.9 billion hours, worth an estimated $167 billion in economic value. Pretty amazing.
Indeed, we’ve witnessed America’s giving nature during the pandemic. I’m sure all of us here tonight have stories of neighbors helping neighbors, and communities coming together to help those in need.
This all exemplifies what philosopher Edmund Burke famously referred to as the “little platoons” of civil society that are fundamental to human flourishing – family, churches, schools, neighborhoods.
In early 19th century America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that these platoons were one of the nation’s most remarkable aspects. “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.
The extraordinary participation of citizens in local governance and civil society is uniquely American.
However, I fear that we are losing some of that today. Yes, Americans are still generous with their resources, as I highlighted, especially in times of crisis. But we can’t rally together only when pandemics or natural disasters occur. We can’t ignore the steady erosion of trust and participation in the institutions of civil society that have occurred over many decades. While I am an optimist at heart, we simply cannot hide from some disturbing trends. Conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet forewarned of this problem all the way back in the 1950’s in his seminal book Quest for Community. He made the case that families, neighborhoods, churches, schools – the vital organs of civil society - are essential to human flourishing.
Nisbet wrote that, “The major moral and psychological influences on the individual’s life have emanated from the family and local community and the church. Within such groups have been engendered the primary types of identification: affection, friendship, prestige, recognition. And within them also have been engendered or intensified the principal incentives of work, love, prayer, and devotion to freedom and order.”
It concerned him that Americans were not engaging enough in community. And he presciently warned that the rise of the state would lead to the erosion of those important sources of community. He worried that the result would be anger, isolation, and resentment. As such, the human desire for belonging would lead more people to look to government to solve problems.
A half century after the publication of Nisbet’s book, his cautionary words were proving to be true - Americans were in fact turning inward and becoming more fragmented. In Bowling Alone Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam sounded an alarm when he concluded that the bonds that hold us together were deteriorating. Bowling leagues, religious organizations and neighborhood associations were no longer staples in peoples’ lives.
Putnam’s work was published twenty years ago, before the advent of social media. If what he had documented was a steady decline in community, we most certainly have witnessed a precipitous descent in the two decades since. Many statistics support this. Church membership has dropped by about ten percent over the last ten years. Community groups such as the Rotary Club have seen their numbers dwindle. Little League participation has declined between 1.5 and 3 percent per year. And the impact of local chambers of commerce continues to fade.
In an age where everyone is digitally connected, the sad reality is, we have never been more disconnected. That’s disheartening and even dangerous.
People are more inclined to turn to a screen, than the baseball field, the classroom, or houses of worship.
It’s no wonder then, that politics has become the new religion.
A recent study found that political affiliations are influencing every aspect of American life, from jobs, to purchases to relationships. As a result, people are less likely to engage in meaningful relationships with those whose views they don’t share.
And the left has wasted no time taking advantage of the void left by a weakening civil society.
As President Biden entered office, he signaled his intent to surpass Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as the most progressive president in American history. Nine months into his presidency, a series of crises have raised serious questions about his leadership.
Yet he may succeed in achieving his goal of a vastly expanded entitlement state that insists that government is more capable than citizens to make decisions that affect their lives.
According to the New York Times – and you almost never hear me quote the New York Times – Democrats are undertaking, “the most significant expansion of the nation’s safety net since the war on poverty in the 1960s, devising legislation that would touch virtually every American’s life, from conception to aged infirmity.”
From cradle to grave, it seems there is no part of American life that progressives intend to leave untouched. A dependency on government has seemingly replaced a dependency on family and community.
And most Americans seem to have accepted this expansion, even though ironically, trust in the federal government remains consistently low. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans believe government is the number one problem facing our country, more so than race relations, immigration, the economy or COVID.
Philanthropy on the left has weaponized the view that individuals, families, and communities cannot solve their own problems and are perpetuating a culture of victimhood. Billions of donor dollars are fueling the false premise that racism and inequity are systemic in America. This only further weakens the institutions that our society needs to thrive, ceding more and more power to the state.
Since joining The Bradley Foundation, I’ve followed the work and writings of many of the people and organizations that the Foundation supports. Former federal judge Janice Rogers Brown is one of those individuals. In a speech she gave to the Federalist Society years ago, she said the following:
“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.”
During the past year and a half, those words have never been more true. As our government has encroached on freedom and stripped away human dignity through arbitrary lockdowns and senseless mandates, chaos, despair, and anger have indeed followed.
Was anyone surprised when the FBI announced a few weeks ago that homicides in the US have reached their highest levels in 30 years? Or that Milwaukee is experiencing historic levels of violence, the majority of which is occurring a very short distance from us tonight? Or that life expectancy rates in rural areas and along the Rust Belt are going down for the first time since 1918 because of the opioid epidemic?
Government intervention and entitlement culture are only accelerating societal problems and preventing the progress that has been made through the institutions of civil society.
Perhaps no one is doing a better job making this case right now than Jason Riley, a Wall Street Journal columnist and author of several books, including Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed. He is another exceptionally talented individual that Bradley has honored and whom I follow.
Riley argues that the Great Society programs left a destructive legacy on black communities. He points out that between 1940 and 1960 the percentage of black families living in poverty declined by 40 points as blacks migrated north and advanced in educational attainment.
No welfare program – let me repeat, no welfare program - has ever come close to replicating that rate of black advancement, which predates affirmative action programs.
Moreover, in the wake of Great Society interventions, we have witnessed slower progress and outright regression. Black labor-force participation rates have fallen, black unemployment rates have risen, and the black nuclear family has largely disintegrated. In 1960, fewer than 25% of black children were being raised by a single mother. Four decades later, it was far more than half.
The evidence speaks for itself. When individuals are in control of their own lives, they are far more likely to make decisions that serve their best interests. And during those inevitable times when some of our fellow citizens endure hardship, it is families, neighbors, and communities—and not government-- that are most capable of providing help and assistance.
If we truly want to progress, then we must take a hard look at the gaps in our civil society and seek a course correct.
Domestic policy expert Howard Husock recently examined this issue and found that wealthier, more educated communities have a greater presence of civil society groups compared to low income, less-educated communities. I guess that’s not a surprise.
Those who need support the most are also more likely to be deprived of it, leading Husock to conclude that in America, civil society isn’t dead – it just might have become another luxury good.
But it shouldn’t be.
So how do we revive civil society, especially for people that need it most? Is it even possible in an environment where big government and big tech have an outsized influence on our lives?
If I’ve been a bit gloomy so far, it’s to present a picture of the gravity of our challenges. But I’m really an optimist at heart. I emphatically believe that we can restore civil society. The human spirit demands it. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. It will never be perfect. But we can make progress.
The Bradley Foundation has always taken the long view, understanding that meaningful change never happens quickly. Having worked in the political and now the philanthropic world, I couldn’t agree more with this philosophy.
Take for instance, school choice. The Bradley Foundation provided funding for the research that advanced the idea of choice and supported the first-ever choice experiment in the country, right here in Milwaukee.
More than thirty years later, we are only now seeing the fruits of that sustained support—and the story is far from over. About half of Milwaukee’s students now go to non-traditional MPS schools. We are starting to see signs in some schools that the academic achievement gap is narrowing; that students who attend choice schools are less likely to be incarcerated and are more likely to lead productive lives; and that school choice is now an established part of Wisconsin’s education landscape.
The results are still far from great—but there has been progress and we should celebrate that and build upon it. Our team at Bradley often gets asked how we decide what to fund. I believe our approach to civil society is part of our secret sauce.
Bradley’s program team and our board go to great lengths to ensure that the groups we support are having an impact. We don’t necessarily seek out the biggest or most well-funded groups or those that are totally beholden to models or measurement.
Our objective is to identify organizations that are animated by passionate and driven leaders-- leaders who have an insatiable 24-7 need to solve the massive challenges facing our community. They understand the problems and the solutions better than anyone because they have experienced them or have lived them themselves. We often say we fund chefs, not restaurants—and that’s very true.
Many of these leaders – maybe even most of them – may not share Bradley’s ideological perspective. But they do share our commitment to individual and societal flourishing. And they don’t let politics get in the way of solving problems.
One example of an organization that fits this description is Running Rebels. The Foundation has supported this organization for more than two decades. When our team first encountered it, one man - Victor Barnett - had organized a basketball program to keep juveniles out of the justice system. He needed to raise some money because the team he was coaching made it to the playoffs but couldn’t afford uniforms or transportation. Bradley made an investment in getting those kids to the tournament and the rest is history.
It was clear that Victor, and later his wife Dawn, had dedicated their lives to solving tough problems. In the years since, they’ve built Running Rebels into a complex, interdisciplinary organization serving thousands of kids. All of that organic growth happened for one reason: Victor and Dawn Barnett’s dedication to saving the lives of troubled kids in Milwaukee.
Another group, Hope Street Ministries, helps broken men, women and children cultivate hope through a faith-based approach. Located on Milwaukee’s north side, it’s home to about 40 men, women, and children whose lives have been profoundly affected by the toxic environment they grew up in, their own poor choices, or drug and alcohol abuse. Staff and volunteers of Hope Street create a nurturing community that helps its residents develop new habits and ultimately become contributing members of our community.
One of our newer grants is for a prison seminary program at the Waupun Correctional Institute. It’s the nation’s third accredited seminary program inside a maximum-security prison. The program provides a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies for inmates—many of whom are serving life sentences. Upon graduation, these men become mentors to other inmates either at Waupun or elsewhere.
Several benefits to this approach have already become clear. The program cultivates personal, moral, and spiritual transformation, which leads to healthier behavioral patterns. It also has proven to reduce violence in prisons and recidivism. That’s transformational for affected families.
One more grant recipient that I’ll mention is the Sherman Phoenix because it’s relevant to the civil unrest the city has experienced. You may recall the violence that broke out in the Sherman Park area several summers ago, which led to the destruction of local businesses. Residents of that community took matters into their own hands to revitalize their neighborhood. The result was the transformation of a local bank building into a bustling space for small businesses and community gatherings that continues to thrive even during the current difficult times.
These are just a few examples of the many grassroots groups that are doing the most impactful work in Milwaukee. They are led by unsung heroes who take a bottom-up approach to solving problems. They are meeting people where they are, whether that’s providing a commercial kitchen space for budding restauranteurs on the city’s north side or offering a home for men seeking to turn their lives around on the city’s south side.
I am convinced that if we fully arm these little platoons of civil society, we can win the battle for the soul of this country.
As I mentioned earlier though, it all starts with instilling a love of country. Our liberties are secure and will endure only insofar as Americans value freedom.
Whether you’re from rural, suburban, or urban America, you live in the greatest, freest, most prosperous country on earth. But when children see American institutions failing or are taught that this country was built on the premise of slavery, we can’t expect them to feel pride or gratitude for the amazing gift they’ve been given to live in the United States.
As such, we must support educational efforts to give citizens the character, habits, and knowledge needed to succeed in a free society.
The good news is that intellect, firepower, and truth are all on our side.
The pandemic has given us a real opportunity to make strides to ensure that civics is a core part of every K-12 curriculum. Thankfully, parents are more engaged than ever in their children’s education after watching what’s being taught—and what’s not—during the past year and a half of virtual education.
And they’re putting well deserved pressure on school boards to prevent kids from being taught that America was founded on slavery, not freedom. They are demanding alternatives to the left’s defeatist version of our nation’s history, as embodied in the 1619 Project.
They’re yearning for optimism and an acknowledgement that although America’s past has not always squared with its ideals, we have made tremendous progress as a country. In many significant ways, this is not the same country I grew up in—and that’s good.
Where schools are incorporating the 1619 Project or critical race theory, my suggestion for parents is to push back, and if that’s unsuccessful, do an end run around them. What do I mean by that? Find alternative narratives to share with your children. There are many wonderful textbooks and programs available that offer an unvarnished assessment of America’s unforgiving history of slavery and racism. But they also describe the lessons learned and progress made and offer a path forward.
Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story is a wonderful example of such a textbook.
An excellent program that has expanded into Wisconsin is the Jack Miller Center’s Founding Civics Initiative. It was designed to respond to a fundamental problem: our nation’s civics teachers haven’t had the chance to study America’s founding principles in depth.
Founding Civics provides courses for teachers that deepen their understanding of foundational texts and helps them translate that knowledge into their classrooms.
Young America’s Foundation, The Fund for American Studies, and America’s Future are all great organizations that cultivate young hearts and minds to love America. I know the Milwaukee chapter of America’s Future is represented here tonight.
Finally, make sure good people get involved at the local level. We should encourage those who love this country but aren’t civically active to engage in their communities.
Despite the importance of local government and the budgets they oversee, hundreds of local government races across the United States see incumbents running without competition. Ballotpedia’s analysis of races in 2020 found that an average of 40% of local seats were uncontested.
If you or someone you know is hesitant to participate in the school board, local governance, or civic groups, now is the time to do it. Our country needs people who care about defending American principles.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this.
Despite our many serious challenges, we are still an exceptional country. Every day, thousands of people are fleeing their countries to come here. Why? Freedom. Opportunity. A chance at a better life. They share the dream of my Czech driver Karel who lived through communism and for a good part of his life, had never experienced liberty.
Our values are on trial. But we will prevail so long as we fight for our beliefs and fully engage in those “little platoons” of civil society.
Thanks again for the chance to be with you this evening.