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March 20, 2019

How to unite America, really: National service is the best way to build bridges among members of our polarized citizenry

January 14, 2019
Chipping in for the common good. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Ongoing demographic and other changes in the United States suggest that the polarizing political divisions in the electorate will not be reconciled anytime soon. While a certain degree of political friction should be expected and is healthy in any democracy, current trends portend an extended period during which little will be accomplished to address some of the nation’s most pressing challenges.

Hoping for improvement is not a strategy to address this. A national service requirement is.

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National service gained the spotlight last month during tributes to President George Bush, whose life in many ways exemplified the importance of believing in something bigger. With that in mind, it is time to revisit the debate on requiring a year of national service for all Americans between the ages of 18 and 28 as a step towards unity.

Our nation is not just politically polarized; it’s culturally balkanized. That’s in large part because, in our sprawling nation, with its social media and information silos, no common experience unites all Americans.

National service would address this by bringing millions of young people from different backgrounds and experiences together to work toward common goals. They would have the opportunity to develop mutual respect and understanding without name calling and demonizing one another in partisan exchanges.

National service will also help expose many young Americans to a broader range of opportunities to succeed in this country and help them develop bonds of friendship and collaboration with fellow citizens.

Would the tone of discourse be more civil and compromise more achievable if all citizens had shared national service, and developed genuine friendships that transcend political, racial and other divides? The past powerfully suggests the answer is an unqualified “yes.”

Service by all Americans, whether military or civilian, is not a panacea, but it can have a profound impact on how we treat each other and our ability to have civil discourse with our fellow citizens. Concrete good would come out of such a requirement as well, including assisting with education shortfalls, maintaining our national parks, supporting disaster relief and helping with elder care. Service opportunities could also include addressing some challenges we face in seeking to rebuild our infrastructure.

Nobody should be under illusions: This wouldn’t come cheap or easy. The Corporation for National and Community Service, the U.S. government agency responsible for AmeriCorps and other national service programs, would logically oversee this initiative. Corporate America would be asked to shoulder the majority of the costs. It is the private sector that benefits significantly in the long-run by investment in our young people, the future employees, consumers and leaders of this country.

Additional tax incentives could be considered for corporations to help fund the program. The program can be phased in with annual reviews for adjustments. Economies of scale would help hold down costs as the program grows. Leadership from Fortune 500 CEOs will be essential.

There will be objections to the idea of one year of national service, including lost opportunities, the “devaluing” of volunteerism and the expansion of a government program. Though those concerns all have merit, none of them should stand in the way of an initiative that can help bring America together.

In order to make this a reality, legislation will need to be introduced, passed and signed by the President. Discussion and debate should start now and national service should be a serious issue for all Presidential candidates to address in 2020.

Sigur worked for the federal government from 1982 to 2008.

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