Overcoming the Partisan Divide Through National Service

In the early 1940s, when the forces of fascism in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan threatened to take over the world, the American people rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

It was, in the words of General Dwight Eisenhower, a “Great Crusade”. Millions of brave American soldiers fought their way across North Africa, Western Europe, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The sailors of the U.S. Navy secured the sea channels from German U-boats in the Atlantic and won epic battles in the Pacific. The pilots in their fighters and bombers supported their comrades in the other services and shattered the war production of our adversaries through strategic bombing.

Yet you need not have worn a uniform to take part in America’s war effort. On the assembly lines in countless factories, tens of millions of workers (more than a quarter of them women) toiled to produce the war material that would bring victory. Sailors of the merchant marine manned the vessels that carried the supplies across the seas to the war zones that made the military campaigns possible.  Men not eligible for military service took part in civil defense efforts, enforcing blackouts, guarding bridges, and keeping an eye out for spies and saboteurs. Even schoolchildren did their part, growing fresh vegetables in “victory gardens” at their schools and collecting rubber from tires, aluminum from bubblegum wrappers, and anything else that could help the war effort.

In many ways, World War II brought out the best in our nation. Every person felt a responsibility to contribute to the war effort in any way they could. While we did not fully free ourselves from our internal tensions and contradictions, as our shameful internment of Japanese-Americans and incidents of racial tension in 1943 demonstrated, there was an overall sense of national unity and common purpose between 1941 and 1945 that has yet to be rivaled by any other time in our nation’s history. It was not called the Greatest Generation for nothing.

The nationwide atmosphere and mindset in 2018 could not be more different. We see ourselves in our time, first and foremost, as members of distinct racial, religious, and cultural groups (“tribes”, to use a term currently in vogue among sociologists) rather than as fellow Americans. A liberal from San Francisco feels that he has nothing in common with a conservative from Oklahoma City, and vice versa. The ties that used to bind us have weakened, steadily chopped away by resentments and prejudices - real or imagined - which are pulling us apart. This process has been accelerated by the rise of social media and populist demagogues that act solely in their own self-interest, expertly exploiting our divisions by appealing to fear and anger.

When I look at the problems currently facing America, it seems clear to me that their root cause is the lack of a common American identity. If we are to recover, we need to recapture the spirit of the Greatest Generation and adapt it for modern times. We need to solidify a sense that, though we may have different religions, ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations, though we may speak different languages, though we may have different political beliefs, we are all Americans and we are all part of the same grand experiment of democracy. Like Washington and his men crossing the Delaware River, we are all in the same boat.

I believe that a comprehensive program of national service, to which young Americans would be expected to devote at least one year of their lives, would be the most effective means of rebuilding a common American identity among our people.

I don’t propose in this blog to lay out all the specifics of such a plan, which would obviously require extensive debate and consideration before becoming a reality. Generally speaking, though, I believe that an additional type of educational certificate should be created in the United States, between a high school diploma and a college degree, which one could obtain only by doing a year of national service. In effect, this would add an additional year onto our system of public education, but it would be a year in which our young people would be out in the world rather than behind the desks of their classrooms. Nobody would be required to do this, but young Americans who had earned a national service certificate would naturally have an advantage over those who had not in terms of employment and college acceptance. Tax breaks and tuition incentives could also potentially be included for those who participate. Self-interest, as well as the desire to serve, would draw people into the program.

The idea of national service is nothing new. In the colonial era, all able-bodied men in a community were expected to serve in the militia. Mandatory military service was a fact of life for American men in every major 20th Century conflict until the draft was abolished in the wake of the Vietnam War. In the midst of the Great Depression, millions of young men participated in the New Deal program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), building and improving parks and doing other jobs on government-owned land. President Kennedy introduced the Peace Corps in 1961, and President Clinton launched AmeriCorps in 1993. Fundamentally, Americans are decent people with a strong desire to serve their nation.

In a new program of national service, young Americans should be able to fulfill their requirements through a variety of means. Military service is the most obvious route; even if one does not want to join the military, it is possible to take part in a year-long period of military training and enter the National Guard or the Reserves. Enrollment in already established programs, like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, would also qualify, as would participation in service-oriented non-profit organizations that meet certain requirements. Internship-like programs for professions such as teaching, law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency medical services would also fit into this vision. Even construction work on critical infrastructure, such as highways and bridges, and work in National Parks and local and state parks, might be included. The possibilities are almost limitless.

Enrolling millions of young people into such a program would, of course, be a tremendous undertaking and cost a good deal of money. But the return on investment for something like this would be astronomical. We are constantly told about an overstretched military, shortages of teachers, police officers, and emergency responders, a crumbling infrastructure, and the desperate need for volunteers in our non-profit sector. So much of the work that desperately needs to be done would, with the help of this program, finally get done. Indeed, if we launched a genuine program of national service, our biggest problem would probably be finding enough spots for everyone. If you ask me, that’s not a bad problem to have.

The larger, more abstract benefits for America are impossible to calculate. Generations of young adults would gain useful hands-on experience in a variety of different fields, which might also ignite a spark that pushes them towards their destined careers. During their service year, Americans would meet fellow citizens from around the country, people with very different backgrounds from those with whom they grew up. This would build social tolerance for people of different ethnicities, religions, and socio-political perspectives, thus helping to foster a more cohesive country and rebuild the common American identity that gave the Greatest Generation its amazing strength and fortitude. Research shows that citizens who have participated in national service vote at a higher rate and are more deeply engaged in various forms of civic activism than those who have not. I believe a program like this would go a long way in eliminating the partisan divide that is currently poisoning political discourse in our great republic.

A program of comprehensive national service like this would have to be organized and funded by the federal government because every young American would have to have an equal opportunity to participate. While some may argue that students would dismiss such a program as a waste of time, I disagree. Having spent years working in high school and middle school classrooms, I am convinced that the vast majority of young Americans would not only be willing, but genuinely eager, to participate in a program such as this. They would understand the benefits they would gain, see it as a chance for adventure, and jump at the opportunity to serve their country.

In recent years, some members of Congress have proposed legislation to enact some form of national service, though these efforts have been overwhelmingly defeated or ignored. Retired General Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of American forces in Afghanistan, has launched an effort to promote national service, but it has yet to gain much traction. It is high time that this trend be reversed.  The voice of the people should begin loudly calling for a program of comprehensive national service.

What better group to lead this campaign than the political independents and Unite America supporters who have no stake in perpetuating the tribalism and hyper-partisanship that has overcome the nation?

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Views and opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect those of Unite America.