“Democracy itself is in peril, here at home and around the world.” So warned President Biden on Monday, during a speech commemorating Memorial Day. The following morning, 100 leading scholars on democracy echoed the president, issuing a warning that we are on the verge of losing ours.
There are many reasons for the clear and present danger facing our democracy, but chief among them is a rising sectionalism which is entrenching and exacerbating political and cultural differences. To save democracy at home, Americans must bridge this gap between us. We can do that only by getting out of our increasingly self-selected bubbles. One way to achieve this goal is instituting a national service.
Our nation has experienced this before, in the decades running up to the Civil War. Today, that divide runs not along the Mason-Dixon Line but is split between urban dwellers and rural dwellers. Yet with a nation increasingly at odds with one another, many understandably fear we are heading in a similar direction as our ancestors.
My beloved home state knows all too well the consequences of a failure to bridge this gap. In 1860 as now, no state better represented this divide than Kentucky. We famously had “a star in each flag” during the Civil War. Many families were divided by the conflict, such as the editor of Louisville’s pro-Union newspaper, who lost a son fighting for the Confederacy. Kentucky is still a bellwether for American division. The 2019 gubernatorial election illustrated this divide in stark terms: Andy Beshear, the son of former Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, won 23 counties and lost 97. The counties he won were heavily populated, meaning he was able to win the election. Conversely, his father Steve Beshear, also a Democrat, won his first election in 2007 by winning 92 counties and losing 28, depending much more on rural voters to carry him to victory.
Though Kentucky is a prime example of sectionalism then and now, it is not alone. In Wisconsin, you see increased vaccine hesitancy in rural counties as compared to urban ones. In Missouri, only St Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia – home to the University of Missouri – voted for Joe Biden in 2020, with the rest of the state’s more rural counties voting for Donald Trump. And in Oregon, several rural eastern counties are trying to secede from the Beaver State to join more conservative Idaho.
Splitting Oregon is the opposite of what we should be doing. And research in the 1950s showed desegregated military units led to higher levels of racial tolerance. “Contact theory,” as it became known, demonstrates that when two groups are in contact, tolerance increases. Knowing thy enemy, as it turns out, often makes them thy friend. I have seen this in my own life as a gay man. Many friends and family members in the 2000s told me their mind changed on gay rights because of me. I rarely tried to win them over, but the simple act of knowing a gay person helped humanize the gay community in their eyes and with it, the issue of gay rights. I am far from the only example; polls have shown people who know gay people are more likely to support gay rights.
I myself found new sympathy and understanding for Trump voters when I left my blue bubble in Chicago and moved back South in 2018. Before then, I had a one-dimensional view of them as only a step away from cross-burning racists. Being forced to interact with my ideological opponents on a day-to-day basis made it difficult not to view them as more complicated and nuanced than the cartoon villains I had constructed in my mind.
Getting people out of their bubbles and mixing it up with other Americans from a different walk of life is not always so simple. Yet, as Isabel V. Sawhill and John Bridgeland of the Brookings Institute have noted, “in an “us-vs-them” world, the best antidote to cultural divisions may be for the ‘us’ to get to know the ‘them’ at a personal level working together on a well-defined challenge.”
A period of paid national service can help us bridge the divide and rediscover common cause with our fellow Americans. This idea first came to my attention when then-presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg floated it on the campaign trail. “We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era,” Buttigieg told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in 2019. “One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it — if not legally obligatory but certainly a social norm — that anybody after they’re 18 spends a year in national service.”
This has the potential to reinvigorate our national spirit and bring us together in the pursuit of a more perfect union. What’s even more exciting is that the blueprint for national service already exists. From AmeriCorps to Teach for America, federal and nonprofit programs are already sending some of our brightest young people to the parts of the country they are needed in most.
According to economist Clive Belfield, an associate professor at CUNY who ran the numbers for Democracy Journal, programs such as these already contribute a net $5.9 billion to the economy. This number will rise as we expand opportunities for Americans to serve. President Biden’s push for infrastructure gives us an opportunity to resurrect programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration or create new ones to meet today’s challenges. This can put our people to work rebuilding our nation’s roads and bridges and bringing our dilapidated infrastructure into the 21st century.
Getting people to participate may not be easy in the beginning — mandatory service is well known politically as a nonstarter. However, as Sawhill and Bridgeland wrote, employers and colleges giving preferential treatment to those who served could avoid the political pitfalls of making it mandatory while also incentivizing service and making it a cultural norm. This, in turn, can give young people skills, jobs, a sense of purpose, and exposure to other Americans which can help build a national sense of identity and belonging we are currently lacking.
A failure to bring this country together almost certainly means us tearing ourselves apart again. The consequences of that are too horrific to fathom. Our failure to bridge that chasm in the 1860s exacted a toll paid for with the blood of as many as 750,000 Americans. Adjusted to today’s population, that is 7.5 million American lives lost.
My home state — and this country — knows too well what sectionalism can lead to. We must, as a nation, rediscover what it means to be not a Democrat or a Republican, but an American. We need to rediscover our shared purpose and our shared destiny. National service is a wonderful way to both bridge the divides of today and build for a better tomorrow, united in friendship and solidarity from sea to shining sea.