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Make Civil Service, Not Civil War

Original illustration by Thomas Dimayuga

The United States currently faces the highest level of political polarization since the Civil War. Partisan animosity is reaching a boiling point and national disunity is pervasive. Mandatory national service could be the solution. A required year of civil or military service for all 18-year-olds would not only build empathy among young people: It would fundamentally change the relationship young Americans have with their country. A bipartisan civilian or military service program would bring together young people from across the nation, regardless of education level or economic class, and foster a lasting tradition of civic engagement.

A mandatory service program would offer young adults a wide array of service opportunities. Participants could partake in specialized programs like AmeriCorps, national parks services, the military, or a variety of other civil and community-oriented service options. Additionally, participants could help in critically understaffed fields, such as the healthcare industry. President Biden has pioneered a subprogram within AmeriCorps––“United We Serve”––with the aim of “calling for a new era of national service to foster stronger communities and bridge divides in our society.” 

Programs like United We Serve are a strong start, but it is crucial to expand opportunities like it to a wider number of Americans. While Biden increased the AmeriCorps budget by 16 percent this year to $1.34 billion, AmeriCorps can currently only accommodate 13 percent of the young people who want to participate. Similarly, the military only accepts roughly 20 percent of potential recruits. By expanding existing service pathways into a mandatory national program, young Americans could identify the service opportunity that best suits their interests, skills, and career path. 

During the year of service, participants would earn small stipends, have their living expenses covered, and receive credit toward future community and public college tuition. This reduction in education costs for young Americans would expand access to higher education, paving a post-service path to the middle class for lower-income Americans. Further, through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, adults with outstanding loan debt could earn relief by voluntarily participating in the service program. 

A national service program would bring together different backgrounds, perspectives, and visions for the future—regardless of potential college plans.This stands in contrast to the actual role played by our current higher education system. This system, featuring state-run public schools and expensive private schools, frustrates true American integration. Nationwide, 73 percent of college students attend schools in their home state, while private schools often lack socioeconomic and racial diversity. 

There is precedent for mandatory national service. Many countries have military conscriptions for young adults, and countries like France are developing programs that include civil service. In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled France’s Service National Universel (SNU) program, or the General National Service. A trial run began in 2018, enrolling around 2,000 teenagers. Similar to the United States, France faces deep social divides, but Macron contends that the program will create unity among French youth across the political, economic, and religious spectrum. The SNU framework, which Macron deemed “essential for our nation,”  became official law in 2021. It currently enrolls 800,000 participants each year and will be fully implemented by 2026. The United States could use a similar phased roll-out process for its own program. 

Critics will argue that compulsory service infringes upon American civil liberties. However, Americans already engage with several forms of required civil service. Serving on juries and paying taxes, for example, are both mandatory forms of civic participation. Both requirements are social norms today, just as a mandatory year of service would be after several decades. Others argue that the 13th Amendment’s prohibition of “involuntary servitude” makes mandatory service unconstitutional. However, the courts have found the Thirteenth Amendment inadmissible to block the “enforcement of those duties that individuals owe the government,” duties including serving “in the army, militia, on the jury, etc.” A mandatory national service requirement would fall into such a category. 

Even if the program is instituted gradually, it must ultimately become a mandatory requirement. While partially expanded national service benefits both the country and those who serve, truly addressing toxic American partisanship requires total youth participation. Any loopholes that would allow the wealthy or ultra-partisan to opt out would defeat the program’s long-term goal. A potential means of integrating mandatory national service as a social norm would be to make it a high school graduation requirement or even a college prerequisite. Employers could also make a prospective employee’s year of service a key consideration in job interviews. 

A national service program could enjoy bipartisan support. Democrats have traditionally valued community engagement and have upheld President John F. Kennedy’s ethos of “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” in support of public and civil service. Recently, prominent Democrats have endorsed mandatory national service programs. While running for president, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigeig made his service program proposal a fundamental part of his campaign. Now in the Biden administration, Buttigieg continues to advocate for national mandatory service to address partisan threats to democracy, recently proposing a service program overseen by the National Security Council. 

A national service program would also appeal to the traditional Republican Party’s values of patriotism and service. President George H.W. Bush endorsed the spirit of civic service when he created the federal agency that would become AmeriCorps in 1990. As far back as the 1960s, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara proposed that every young American completes a two-year mandatory civil or military service as a means of solving the “inequity” of the draft. Countless members of Congress, academics, and military officials have also advocated for similar programs. But despite Republican support, members of the Trump Administration, including former President Donald Trump, plan to do away with civil service programs if reelected and threaten the protections for 50,000 civil service jobs.

Recently, General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, petitioned President Biden to make national service a key part of his presidential legacy. McChrystal asserted that “national service can provide economic opportunity while preserving the planet for the next generation, create a more informed public that rejects misinformation and demagoguery, and strengthen cohesion of the American citizenry.” Further, he cited polls showing that 77 percent of Americans support legislation that expands access to national service, underpinning the bipartisan backing that such a proposal would enjoy. 

A national service program would be transformative for American youth development. As young people develop their identity, it is critical that they engage with others with a diversity of backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences. Intergroup contact theory posits that getting to know and understand others reduces animosity between groups. And superordinate goal theory finds that “identity-based conflicts require common goals or a ‘superordinate’ sense of identity to bring people back together.” Additionally, the civic education gained from this year of service will increase young Americans’ civic participation, especially with regard to voter engagement and support of democracy. This time for young people to grow, learn, and serve as part of a community would be invaluable to healing our fractured American identity.

While a year of national service is not a silver bullet to heal the partisan divides in our country, it is an important step toward social cohesion. It is crucial that this policy makes its way from the political backburner to the forefront of national discussion.