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Opinion: Universal national service would produce better citizens and a stronger America

Toward the end of his career, Sen. John McCain worked with Sen. Jack Reed to create, as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.

Questions about the need to modernize the Selective Service registration system, including whether it should include women, precipitated the creation of the bi-partisan 11-member commission, which includes Colorado’s Janine Davidson, a former Undersecretary of the Navy and now president of Metropolitan State University.

Daniel Baer

The commission’s members have conducted initial public hearings in various cities around the country, and they issued an interim report earlier this year with a final report due in March of 2020.

In their interim report, the commission floated the possibility of recommending that the U.S. move toward universal national service — a system in which every person would be expected to participate in some form of national service.

In their final report, the commission should be bold: they should indeed recommend a program of universal national service as well as the continuation of the commission’s work to examine the thorny questions of how to make such a program a reality.

These questions include: What can we learn from the experience of other countries? How long should the service be? At what age or life-stage? In addition to military service and other existing national service programs, what should be included on the menu of service opportunities? How can we ensure that each option draws a diverse group of Americans? How could the program be efficiently administered? How could we defend it from political abuse and exploitation? What incentives could be used to attract near universal participation? What would it cost and how could it be funded? How can national service be integrated with our education system to help give young people the skills they need for the 21st century economy?

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President Trump has inflicted significant damage: attacking our institutions and democratic norms, encouraging social division, alienating allies, and undermining the world system that was built through the vision of American architects, underwritten with American investment of blood and treasure, and steered (however imperfectly) by American leadership from the time of Truman and Eisenhower to Reagan to Obama.

It is our duty as citizens to resist this administration’s — or any administration’s — agenda wherever it is inconsistent with the founding principles of our democracy and the long-term security and prosperity of our country.

At the same time, even as Trump tears down, we must prepare to rebuild. America’s capacity for democratic regeneration and adaptation has been at the root of our durability.

Yet today deep divisions in the American family have shaken the confidence of many people — myself included — that we will be prepared, when opportunity arises, to seize opportunities to move forward in the ways that we should.

We know that we live in an era where slogans are sold as policies, where too many of us consume media that boosts our egos by confirming our views rather than opening our minds by challenging our opinions, where people in one community or one part of the country lack not only understanding of but also any evident compassion for the challenges faced by those across town or across America.

Aside from universal national service, there are several obvious opportunities to reduce the pernicious dividing lines in our society and to encourage and support a politics that produces real contests of ideas that can drive our success.

For example, taking on gerrymandering — so that our representatives are more representative; and so that neither Democrats nor Republicans have artificially safe districts that encourage extremes and penalize leaders who make efforts to reach across the aisle and let pragmatism and principle guide them more than partisanship does.

Or getting dark money out of politics so that candidates have to persuade voters based on their affirmative plans rather than with attack ads. Investing in local journalism can support trust, accountability, and a sense of community around issues that affect our daily lives.

But structural adjustments to improve the playing field will not suffice. The players, too, need fixing. We must also seek to darn the social fabric of our great, diverse, expansive country.

We need to equip our children with the skills they will need to succeed in a 21st century economy, yes.

But we must also give them the capacity to participate in the political debates of our time, and to do so with democratic grace — that mixture of humility, goodwill and empathy that allows for debates about ideas and political contests without hatred or demonization.

Three goals should guide the commission’s recommendations on a program of universal national service:

First, giving individuals a stake in our collective success through the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to strengthening and advancing it.

Second, reducing inequality and strengthening the middle class by giving young Americans of all backgrounds a work-experience early in their lives that can help them build skills and inspire further learning.

And third, creating and environment in which young people have the chance to know, work with, and respect some of those diverse members of the American family with whom they share the ongoing project that is America.

It was right to end the military draft: to risk the ultimate sacrifice for one’s compatriots is an act of heroic generosity, and one that should be freely taken.

But we lost one of the ancillary benefits of compulsory military service for men: half of our society (the half that was, and remains, disproportionately represented in positions of political and economic power) had significant exposure to fellow Americans who were different than themselves — and the opportunity to discover what they had in common as they worked side-by-side toward shared goals.

A program of universal national service would produce better citizens and a stronger America.

We cannot debate each other constructively if we do not know each other. Most of us cannot conjure a shared sense of purpose without the experience of actually working toward one.

Eighty-five years ago, in our economic Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt put people to work in an effort to heal our economy. Today, in our political Great Depression, we must go to work to heal our polity.

It is tempting to believe that Trump is our problem, but he is merely a symptom of it. We must heed the call to renovate and refresh the American spirit — to renew the promise “out of many, one” — if we are to greet our shared future with strength.
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Colorado native Dan Baer is a former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. He served as a U.S. Ambassador and deputy assistant secretary of state under President Obama. He is running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.


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