By James Dail (CMC ’20)
The thing that makes the United States unique among most nations is that Americans are not united by a common race or culture, but by a shared ideal. As it stands however, there is little agreement over what that ideal actually is. Majorities of Democrats believe that diversity and immigration are central to the United States’ national identity, while Republicans tend to value Christian religious belief and a European cultural tradition. With little agreement about our nation’s ideals and with social media placing everyone in political bubbles of their own making, Americans are adopting a form of tribalism that makes them loathe those who do not hold the same political views as they do. If Americans continue to grow in their hatred for each other, then eventually there will be tenuously little holding the country together. One way to alleviate this is by adopting a program of mandatory national service, which would fight this hatred and partisanship by restoring a sense of community among all Americans. While the concept of national service carries with it the connotation of military service, this does not need to be the case. There are civilian oriented forms of national service that could be implemented as well.
The argument for a national service program is simple: national service is needed because Americans are in need of a unifying cultural force. Over the past two decades, partisanship in the United States has skyrocketed. A large portion of the problem is being caused by political isolation. This isolation can take two different forms. The first is a form of online isolation. Social media is pushing people to ideological extremities. Only being exposed to media that reinforces one’s own preexisting biases means that members of one political party can dehumanize the other by not trying to understand their perspectives. Whenever a political issue surfaces that incenses members of one party, such as gun-control for Democrats or abortion for Republicans, it has become easy for members who identify with that party to type furiously into the void that the other party is full of nothing but disgusting monsters without facing any dissent. The second form is geographic isolation. People want to be surrounded by those who are like minded, and so they seclude themselves in neighborhoods with those who have similar backgrounds and viewpoints. This works in tandem with the online form of isolation to keep people from encountering those who have fundamentally different beliefs than them.
A program of national service could defeat this isolationism by bringing people together from different parts of the country. While there is no universal plan for the implementation of a program of national service, it would probably resemble something such as this: a year of national service would be mandated beginning in July for eighteen-year-olds, shortly after the majority of them graduate from high school. Instead of drawing from local communities, the program would bring together individuals from different parts of the United States, and would have them live and work in a part of the country different than where they were raised in. The work that these young adults would be performing could be anything from helping to conserve national parks to getting rid of urban blight in cities. In order to not cause a financial hardship on any family, the eighteen-year-olds would be paid for the work that they provide.
There are two primary objections to this idea. The first is that a program of national service would violate the American principle of national liberty. People living in the United States should never be forced to do anything. People who object to national service for this reason could consider the program as a supplemental year to the K-12 education that the United States currently offers. Several states have begun mandating high school completion, thus requiring that people attend school even after they turn eighteen. The second objection is that it is doubtful that a group of young adults would be able to work on maintaining parks or repairing community buildings as effectively as a government or privately contracted workforce would be able to. There is truth to this. However, basic tasks such as repairing a fence or planting a tree do not take a long time to learn, and can still be easily accomplished. Furthermore, what will be lost in quality could be made up for by the sheer size of the volunteer corps. A 2012 study found that if a civilian conservation corps was employed to maintain public lands instead of contractors, there would be an 80% reduction in government expenditure. The program of national service would cover more than land conservation, allowing for cost reduction across many different fields.
A mandatory year of national service will not be a quick fix to the problem of partisanship. That will take time, but the United States will see enormous benefit as a result of a program like the one described above. Implementing a mandatory national service program would create a common national tradition. People would overcome their isolation, both geographic and online, and would meet those with different perspectives and backgrounds. This would create a force that would bind people together as Americans. Such a commonality could make people more willing to listen to those of a different viewpoint, or at the very least, to not see them as being morally reprehensible.