National service can unite America

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Washington is a divided town in a very politically divided nation. From the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, to the extreme rhetoric on social media, to the bombs mailed to public officials, to the mass shooting in Pittsburgh, to the inability of our elected leaders to reach consensus on nearly all major issues facing the country, it is not easy to see a way out of this mess. Our partisan divide is a flashing danger sign for the future of a strong United States. The midterm elections demonstrate our divisions in a profound way, highlighting just how far apart we are on many issues.

Most Americans deplore this current state of our politics. Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters want a system of government that works for them and in which public officials to treat them and speak to them respectfully. What American voters really want are good role models for how to be a good citizens and human beings. They want this to start with our leaders. But like most big changes in American society, this will have to emanate from the grassroots and rather than from the top.

{mosads}The current incentives in our national political system do not encourage civil behavior, and there are too few role models and validators who encourage it. But there are institutions in our society which encourage people to come together, to get to know and respect their fellow human beings who are often different from them, and to work together as high performance teams. Our military is the great example of an organization that breaks down barriers and rebuilds people into cohesive units committed to one another and to a common goal.

But so are our first responders in fire and police departments, as are the folks who work for the Peace Corps and other voluntary charitable entities. These institutions are founded on the principle of a diverse group of Americans working on noble projects that benefit the whole, rather than the self. The United States military is the finest in the world for this simple reason. Even private sector institutions use this model, taking varied groups of individuals to build high performance teams.

One compelling answer to our current dysfunction is to implement a system of mandatory national service for young people, carried out soon after high school or college. National service can be a way to get people, especially young people, together working on common cause. For a brief time in their lives, national service gives young Americans a chance to learn how to improve their own circumstances, work together with others from different backgrounds, and implement what John Kennedy famously articulated when he asked young Americans to consider “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

National service, be it in the military, Peace Corps, or other public or private sector opportunities, breaks down the barriers of race, class, income, geography, and even language. Young adults are granted the opportunity to see their peers and fellow Americans as a member of their team. Moreover, national service teaches participants skills that are vital in the modern workplace, such as relationship building, communication, coordination, and quick thinking. Not only does this benefit the individual, but helps our national community move away from division and towards a more cohesive society. Groups like Service Year Alliance, started by General Stanley McChrystal, are dedicated to these goals.

It is apparent that we will not come to grips with the politics of incivility only through Twitter, yet another panel of pundits, or even through the noble and critical experience of elections. Something more fundamental is needed to change our political culture. National service fosters a climate of respect from the ground up, demonstrating to our political leaders the kinds of actions and values that we expect them to embody.

Lots of folks like me who spend a great deal of time racking our brains on how to improve our political system and how to make our democracy function better and our nation stronger. I fully recognize that there is no magic bullet to save American democracy, and acknowledge there are many ways to improve the quality of the American experience.

But as we learned from young people in the “greatest generation” after World War II, working in unison to save American values was instrumental in making our country the greatest on earth. We do not need an enemy like Nazi Germany to fight. Rather we must provide our young people opportunities to meet and build skills together. Through collaborating, they can rebuild the foundation and bonds that make our nation great.

I concede that mandatory national service, be it military or civilian, may not be universally popular in the current political environment or social culture. However, I implore Congress and the American people to take a serious look at the grassroots opportunities that will strengthen our country and its bonds. The place to start rebuilding strength in our democracy is with young Americans in service to their communities.

Dan Glickman served as United States secretary of agriculture under President Clinton and represented Kansas in Congress for 18 years. He is now a vice president of the Aspen Institute and a senior fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center. You can follow him on Twitter @DanRGlickman.

Tags America Brett Kavanaugh Congress Democracy Government John Kennedy

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