WASHINGTON – After this hellacious election is over, what in the world will we do as a nation to pull ourselves together? At the moment, the polls strongly suggest that we will again vote for a divided government with a Democratic president and at least one house of Congress under Republican control. Which policies might encourage bipartisan (or, even better, nonpartisan) action?
Largely eclipsed in the media coverage by Donald Trump’s reality show of tweets and insults was a serious proposal Hillary Clinton offered last month. She suggested ways to expand the opportunities citizens will have to render service to their nation and their communities.
We are so polarized that even touting a Clinton initiative is seen as a partisan act. But while my own preferences in this contest are clear, I’d suggest that Republicans and conservatives ought to be able to warm to a vision that places heavy emphasis on our responsibilities as citizens and the role of the institutions of civil society in solving problems. Her plan was specific and included an important innovation.
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She proposed expanding the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 to 250,000 annual volunteer slots, the original goal of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, co-sponsored by the late senator and his Utah Republican colleague Orrin Hatch. Turning service into an expectation of all Americans is the aim of a project that retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal is spearheading. It can’t happen without additional service slots.
Clinton would also expand the Peace Corps and double the size of college scholarships that AmeriCorps members earn, providing a stronger incentive for young Americans to serve and, at the same time, easing the problem of college affordability. “I know too many talented, committed young people who pass up serving with AmeriCorps because, with their student loans, they can’t afford it,” Clinton said. “So let’s lighten that burden.”
She wants to encourage service by older Americans, too, since they “can apply a lifetime of knowledge and experience” to helping their neighbors and their nation. Thus, she would allocate 10 percent of AmeriCorps slots to Americans over 55.
Her innovative idea is to add a “National Service Reserve,” modeled after the reserves set up by the military’s branches, to “create a new means for people to serve in serious, meaningful ways without a full-time commitment.” Those who joined this civilian contingent would “receive some basic training, just like you would in the military reserves, and then when your city or state needs you, you’ll get the call.”
Clinton cited a number of examples where such an army of volunteers could be highly useful. They included natural disasters; a crisis such as the one that afflicted Flint, Michigan, which required volunteers to distribute clean water; and other civic campaigns aimed, for example, at reducing drug abuse or promoting mental health. Her objective is a reserve of 5 million Americans.
Service is a cause that ought to bring together the left, the right and the center. Progressives have always honored public work and championed programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. Middle-of-the road Americans are often frustrated with politics because it is not focused enough on problem-solving; solving problems is precisely what service programs are about. Conservatives rightly speak of the importance of strengthening the nongovernmental institutions of civil society. This, after all, was the insight that drove compassionate conservatism. Service programs offer strong support to such organizations.
There’s a purpose here that goes beyond this election. Even if you’re certain you’ll be voting against Clinton, I doubt you will dispute what she said about the problem of how far apart we are from each other and why service might be of some help in easing our animosities.
“It’s easy to surround ourselves with only those that think like us, talk like us, look like us, read the same news as us; that’s understandable to an extent,” she said. “But it comes with a cost because it magnifies our differences, which then makes it harder to put those differences aside when our community or country needs us. There aren’t many places where people of all ages, all races, all backgrounds, all beliefs come together in common cause. But service is one of them, and that’s one of the reasons I think it’s so valuable, because in addition to the good work it does, it helps us reconnect with each other to feel more a part of our shared American life.”
Promoting service is no cure-all. But it is a wise, practical and even inspiring thing to do.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.