Consider mandatory national service for unity

Our country is broken. Repairing it will take effort from all of us. It may require consideration of some big national changes. It’s time to consider any idea that holds some promise for national renewal, any idea that could universally bring us all together: mandatory national service.

Mandatory service would require every 18-year-old to serve for a year or more. Seventy-five countries have some form of national service requirement, and we’ve required service at times in American history. It can also be broader than just military service.

We are growing increasingly self-interested. Citizenship brings responsibility beyond self-interest. The concept of civic responsibility is eroding. A national service requirement can help reinvigorate a shared sense of citizenship.

America is also becoming increasingly polarized and siloed along economic and racial lines.

We no longer interact with those outside our own cohort.

A rich kid growing up with parents in the New York City finance world likely has zero idea what it’s like in an aging Ohio steel town. The kid in the steel town can’t even imagine New York. For a multiethnic, multiracial country with as many new immigrants as we have, this sort of polarization is deadly to culture and unity.

The social and cultural segregation in our country is directly contributing to the coarseness of our national culture and politics. We no longer just disagree in America; we vilify those who don’t share our views. Democrats think Republicans are Klansmen without the hoods. Republicans think Democrats are Joseph Stalin before the purges.

When you have little interaction with those who don’t share your background or beliefs, it’s easy to view them as caricatures. It becomes easier to demonize or marginalize them. This results in the sort of fissures we have in America today and the normalization of summary political violence.

We need to break down racial, class and geographic barriers to help create a stronger sense of national community. Doing that is not easy, but mandatory service can help rekindle a sense of civic pride and begin to erode some of the extreme polarization in America. A year’s service requirement will bring together Americans from all walks of life, which will help young people understand one another.

Contact reduces intolerance and promotes cohesion. And we are definitely short on national cohesion. We need it now more than we have at any time since at least the 1960s and maybe since the 1860s.

The main argument against mandatory national service comes from the military. America did have mandatory military conscription until 1973. Since then, we have had an all-volunteer force. Our professional voluntary military has served us well.

National service is complicated. It must be presented properly, or it could be a loser. If you agree, however, that Americans are too self-absorbed and no longer as civic-minded, and especially if you think we are lacking in national cohesion, a national service requirement could be the answer.


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