Monday, June 11th, 2012
Over at Time, Joe Klein reports on the people he has met and spoken with on his recent third annual U.S. road trip. Many of these people are military veterans who expressed to Klein their increasing concern that the gap between those who have served and those who haven’t is widening, and that as a result the country itself is becoming more bifurcated.
It turned out that these vets [with whom he was having breakfast], like many I’ve met, simply didn’t trust anyone who hadn’t been through boot camp–and so their pool of acceptable leaders was diminishing dramatically and their sense of alienation was increasing just as fast. Practically everyone–women simply didn’t make it onto their radar screen–had served in World War II. A lot of people had served in Vietnam. Fewer than 1% had served in Iraq and Afghanistan–and while they believed the new veterans might include some potential leaders, there still weren’t nearly enough grownups to run a country. I asked if there was anything we as a nation could do about that. “Bring back the draft!” said Ray Pennipede, a former New York City police officer and member of the 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam, without hesitation. There was applause. “There isn’t an 18-year-old boy who doesn’t need to get his butt kicked,” added Nosker, “by someone in a position of complete authority.”
This theme kept coming up in meeting after meeting during my first five days on the road, though usually in less vivid fashion. I traveled through North Carolina and Virginia, both in areas of deep blue and crimson red, and it was clear neither side trusted the other very much. For the conservatives, the country had changed beyond their imagining; not just civil rights but gay rights (a contentious referendum recently banned gay marriage in North Carolina), and new ethnic groups that seemed foreign–the South Asians who all of a sudden seemed to run half the convenience stores, the Latinos who didn’t seem to want to speak English. Why, even the President of the United States was something strange, neither black nor white. For liberals, it was all about intolerance. You couldn’t have a half-decent conversation with these Tea Party people, they said. “My mouth is bloody,” a woman from Smith Mountain Lake, Va., told me, “from biting my tongue all the time.”
But we were all Americans, I’d remind both sides. How were we going to get to know each other better, find some common ground? And then–eerily–someone would blurt it out: We need something like the draft. Maybe not military service but public service. At a sunset meeting in the beautiful Inn at Montross, in Virginia, a retired FBI investigator named I.C. Smith said, “Too many people just live our lives in contact with a narrow sliver of people. Now, we can’t bring back the draft–the military doesn’t want it, and we don’t need it. But some form of mandatory national service that throws people from different parts of the country together might help.”
Klein liked the idea: “We don’t know each other very well anymore, and it’s hard to trust people you don’t know. Throughout history, civilizations have built a common cause through coming-of-age rituals. But we don’t do that anymore. Maybe we should think about that. It could be something as simple as kids’ cleaning up their schools together [...] or it could be full-blown national service, including boot camp. But unless we start getting to know each other better, our chances of coming to a consensus about the important things we have to do together as a nation are going to be pretty slim.”
While Klein and the people he spoke with are right to worry about the lack of a common cause or common understanding of what it means to be an American (something we’ve been very concerned with as well, especially with our work on ROTC), it’s not entirely clear that a national program of the sort Klein has in mind would accomplish his purposes. A new report by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) looked at a set of participants in the AmeriCorps program and followed their political and civic activities for eight years. These findings were compared with those of a comparison group composed of individuals who had indicated interest in AmeriCorps, but ended up not enrolling in the program.
The results? According to the report, “there is no evidence that AmeriCorps mobilizes people politically. On the contrary, the odds that a person voted in the previous election are much lower if he or she was enrolled in AmeriCorps.”
This could be for a number of reasons–including the fact that the AmeirCorps sample came from more disadvantaged backgrounds than the comparison group, and that people from such backgrounds are less likely to vote and become engaged politically. However, for AmeriCorps members who are already active as voters when they enter the program, it seems that the program has a “statistically significant, positive effect on the odds that [they ...] will become more broadly active in community affairs eight years later, i.e., they will volunteer, attend, community events, become informed about civic issues, vote, and join and work with local organizations to improve life in their communities.”