Come Together

In recent years, when the U.S. was mired in two wars that seemed to be ignored by the public at large, some politicos and pundits talked about resurrecting the military draft.  As you can guess, the idea didn’t gain any traction. We Americans prefer to outsource our wars to willing volunteers.

But what about some other form of national service program with a civic-minded goal? Matthew Nisbet discusses an intriguing idea:

Like climate change or poverty, political polarization in the United States may itself be a “wicked” problem, not something we are going to solve or end over the next decade, but rather something we will need to address, manage, and adapt to via a diversity of approaches.

Introducing a national service program for high school graduates may be one such effective approach.  Here’s why.

A major enabler of political polarization, as chronicled by journalist Bill Bishop in his book “The Big Sort,” is the problem of geographical balkanization.  We have always tended to associate and socialize with people who share our world-views and that tendency has accelerated over the last two decades.

This is especially the case among the college-educated who are the most attentive to politics and have the best developed mental map for how to consistently interpret new events, elections, and issues through an ideological lens.  The college-educated based on their affluence and geographic mobility have gravitated to neighborhoods and regions of the country where they increasingly live with others who vote and think about politics like they do.

Nisbet goes on to say that what’s missing “is cross-talk, conversations and interactions that build trust, empathy, and understanding for the other side. Instead, our images of the other are dominated by narratives from our like minded media sources, narratives that are too often outrage fueled rants about the other.”

The idea of a civics-oriented national service program is new to me. But Nisbet says it has been floated by liberals and conservatives alike. Here’s how he describes what it would look like:

The program would send graduates to politically and socially dissimilar communities to engage in AmeriCorps or Teach for America-style community service.  In these regions, graduates would work with others from a mix of political and social backgrounds and live and engage with communities not like theirs.

It kinda sounds like a domestic version of the foreign exchange student program. Instead of young American students going abroad to experience a different culture, they would just go to another part of their own country. Interesting concept. Might something like this help reduce political polarization?

33 Responses to “Come Together”

  1. SamuelJ says:

    I’d go further, if I were king of the US. National service would be mandatory to maintain your citizenship, and divided into 3 broad segments: government, military and “peace corp” type service. Each citizen must spend at least 5 but not more than 10 consecutive years at some point in their lives in one of these segments without pay (but including housing and food) in return for life-long health care and retirement care. The only caveat would be that for the government segment, a citizen cannot enter service until after age 55 (when they are hopefully wiser), must give up all assets to a blind trust, serve 10 years (5 as a trainee), after which they are booted out and retire without possibility of becoming a K-Streeter.

    Built in term-limits, no elections and no influence peddling would reduce political polarization enormously.


  2. I like some of SamuelJ’s suggestions, but they would take a huge constitutional overhaul, something that would be essentially impossible under the circumstances.
    However, there is also this. We really need to examine whether one of the two constellations has built up a set of defenses to prevent open-minded examination of contrary ideas. If that’s the case, there are reasons to doubt any symmetrical solution to an asymmetrical problem.
    An obvious example: even while Obama has worked hard to implement Republican solutions (advanced in the past not only by Romney but also by Gingrich) to the chronic and worsening problems with healthcare, the Republicans call him “socialist” for doing so, and with such venom that thoughts of Stalin come to mind. 
    So where’s the middle ground with people who approach politics as fearmongering and hatemongering? 
    We need the real Republican party, which works for ideas rather than for power, to be revived before even something as modest as Nisbet’s idea will work. So the best hope of compromise is a thorough repudiation of the divisive approach that dominates one of the sides. The upcomng election may in fact do that.
    This is not to claim that blind polarizing impulses are nowhere to be seen on the other side, of course, only to claim that they are nowhere near as ascendant. In short, this is another instance the neutralist pressthink impulse to apply a symmetrical analysis where what is actually happening on the ground is not symmetrical at all.

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    Are you saying that this post (or Nisbet’s suggestion for a civics-oriented national service program) is another example of “neutralist pressthink?” 

    Must you always have a knee-jerk binary reflex? Surely there are multiple paths to a less partisan world. Might this just be one of them?

  4. Jeff says:

    So we essentially already have this program (Americorp, etc.), but why not build another one? And somehow convince people of very different socioeconomic or political backgrounds to all apply for these positions such that American can become great again and learn to work together.
    Isn’t Nisbet the communications/media expert? Maybe he should stick to that.
    Step1: Spend money on some giant new program.
    Step 2: ????
    Step2: AMERICA!!!

  5. Sure, I’m in favor of anything that gets people talking to each other. Americans should even talk to people who aren’t even American once in a while! Wouldn’t that open a few minds here and there?
    Maybe it would help. My concern is that eventually you have to account for people who actually pursue a discipline of closed-mindedness.
    I really don’t know what to do about that, but I’m pretty sure that carving out a neutral dead-center middle (as opposed to an evidence-informed objective center) is part of the problem, not part of the solution. I think this approach smacks of that. What’s more, I’m pretty sure I know which side would not buy into it anyway.
    More practically, I really did appreciate <em>The Big Sort</em> which I have read, but I think it’s not predominantly college age people who are the prime victims of the phenomenon.

  6. Nullius in Verba says:

    I think what he means is:
    To say “They think they’re right and we’re wrong, and we think we’re right and they’re wrong” is wrong because we’re right and they’re wrong.
    Or you could say, a partisan by definition doesn’t see anything wrong with being partisan for their own side. Believe me, I know people on the right who would say the same about mixing with the left.
    I don’t know whether it would be a route to a less partisan world, but I do think it would be beneficial to have a better understanding of the other’s point of view. We would at least then only argue about the things that matter, and address the most substantive differences.
    While you might get both left and right on board for some sort of national service, you’ll have a problem with the libertarians. They don’t like compulsory government work schemes. But there are probably other ways of creating more cross-talk. I’d be in favour of that.

  7. grypo says:

    Almost everything about this idea is misguided.  Just the elitist nonsense about who has the “developed mental map” to interpret “stuff” is already working opposite toward the goal he is reaching for.  The idea that these people will be acceptable for “teach-ins” is laughable.  I’d say they’d be viewed as invaders send by government traders.  Hyperbolic, but certainly closer to the truth.

    We have empathy when we realize we all in the same boat (which we are), and this only happens when the path to conversation is natural and level, no programs necessary.

  8. Stu says:

    “It kinda sounds like a domestic version of the foreign exchange student program.”

    Or ‘Wife Swap’. That show’s a classic.


  9. grypo says:

    I’m mixing empathy with sympathy, but neither word is useful for I’m trying to get across.

  10. EdG says:

    “Might something like this help reduce political polarization?”

    It potentially could, over a very long period, if this was 1912.

    But in 2012 (or earlier) this polarization exists EVERYWHERE to some degree. This concept seems to be based on the idea that everybody in a Red State thinks red, and vice versa, which is absurdly simplistic.

    Moreover, physical geography is becoming irrelevant compared to the geography of the internet. You can find extremes on both sides in virtually any given place, supported and reinforced by what individuals are absorbing from the media and the net.

    And speaking from personal experience, I can assure you that the suggestion of a bunch of fresh young ‘know-it-all’ graduates, suitably indoctrinated via the modern biased education system, will not have the desired effect on common sense locals. For a taste of this (and the whole dynamic) one only needs to look at what happened with the wolf reintroduction  in Yellowstone etc. which has had the exact opposite effect, in spades.

    So I generally agree with grypo (#7) and would even go one step further in this extreme hyperbolic analogy.

    “The Revolution was launched in May 1966. Mao alleged that bourgeois elements were entering the government and society at large, aiming to restore capitalism. He insisted that these “revisionists” be removed through violent class struggle. China’s youth responded to Mao’s appeal by forming Red Guard groups around the country. The movement spread into the military, urban workers, and the Communist Party leadership itself. It resulted in widespread factional struggles in all walks of life…”


  11. Matt B says:

    I hold out little hope for building a better tomorrow through reaching out to the yutes of today. 30 years ago I was in college, and it was understood by the vast majority as a given that when our age group rose to power, then weed will be legal. Oh sure, there were a few Young Republicans that maybe weren’t on board (but then again some were!) but they were clearly going to be trampled by the hoofprints of history……….

    My generation sucks…

  12. EdG says:


    Here’s a classic case of another kind of polarized conflict, within the ‘green’ movement, which again emphasizes how oversimplistic the basic ‘us v them’ parameters of this blog topic are:

    “The unexpected deaths of kit foxes and discovery of ancient human settlements threaten to delay or even cancel a $1-billion, 250-megawatt installation on federal land in the desert near Blythe.”
    So who would anyone send out to smooth this out, and in which direction should they smooth it? Which side is more ‘rational’?

  13. Keith Kloor says:

    EdG (12),

    What you cite is a classic example of the clash of values that I initially set out to explore with this blog, before getting sidetracked into climate change.

    That said, despite all the cynicism displayed in this thread for the initiative discussed at Matthew Nisbet’s site, I still think it can only help, while obviously not being a cure-all. 

  14. EdG says:


    I don’t know if “cynicism” is the right word. For the reasons I noted in my #10 (before the hyperbolic analogy) I think that this concept simply does not make any sense in 2012 because it ignores the current realities as well as basic human nature.

    It also assumes that there is some ‘correct’ middle ground to be promoted, which brings us back to the foundation of this polarization. On what basis does someone or, in this case, some government agency,decide where and what the desired ‘middle’ is? The suggestion that it can come from institutional education and ‘top-down’ process misses the whole point and, as shown by recent history, is clearly dubious.

    Or, to put it another way, why not send some stereotypical ‘rural folk’ into cities to educate the ‘educated’ urban people?

    How one answers that question will say everything about the problems associated with this.

  15. Menth says:

    I agree with Michael Tobis @2 as well as such luminaries as George Monbiot and Chris Mooney who have shared similar views. How can you have a conversation or transaction of knowledge when one side is essentially developmentally disabled?

  16. Menth says:

    And if it wasn’t obvious, the preceding post was sarcasm

  17. kdk33 says:

    We really need to examine whether one of the two constellations has built up a set of defenses to prevent open-minded examination of contrary ideas.


  18. harrywr2 says:

    We Americans prefer to outsource our wars to willing volunteers.
    Actually, the military officer corps prefers not to have to deal with conscripts. Conscription is a thing of the past in most developed countries, not just the US.
    The idea of a civics-oriented national service program is new to me
    Both sides of the aisle has floated the issue multiple times. William Buckley JR was passionate about it.

    As far as being ‘more polarized’ then ever…I don’t see it…I remember as a young man the folks from ‘Workers Daily’ and the folks from the KKK  darkening my doorstep with their ‘educational’ material on my doorstep on a regular basis.

  19. jeffn says:

    It’s difficult to remember that most people aren’t that into politics. They don’t even notice the polarization- they tune it out. This is why they will be unlikely to give up 5 years of their live because we can’t enjoy our hobby politely.
    It’s a useful excercize to attempt to see an issue through the eyes of the apolitical. You think the earths getting warmer. They say: buddy, I got limited time, get to the point, what do you want? A tax hike for windmills? No. Next option is?

  20. Bob Koss says:

    Of course this will all be handled in such an even-handed manner that there won’t be any need for deferments. And even if they are allowed no one will get special consideration by virtue of whom they know or their financial status.
    Excuse me for a few minutes. My neighbor wants to discuss how to permanently get rid of that pesky unicorn he has seen hanging around his property.

  21. Anteros says:

    Menth @ 16
    I’m not the biggest fan of sarcasm, but I think here it is quite appropriate..
    I also agree with this –
    <blockquote>To say “They think they’re right and we’re wrong, and we think we’re right and they’re wrong” is wrong because we’re right and they’re wrong.</blockquote>
    Surely the only impediment to understanding another human being’s point of view is to insist that they are wrong? Or [without a trace of irony] that they are closed-minded?
    If we recognise the closed-mindedness of our opponents who say “The situation is not symmetrical because we are actually right and you are wrong”, how is it that we cannot hear ourselves saying exactly the same thing?
    The problem of not understanding can be put another way. It can be put as a belief of those on both sides that the positions really are assymetrical in the way they see it, even though the other side claim it is asymmetrical the wrong way round.  “Those other people really are wilfully closed-minded and full of fear-mongering and hate-mongering”
    Not only that, but they even accuse people of fear-mongering and hate-mongering..
    Oh wait…. hang on…

  22. Joshua says:

    harry –
    Do you not think that the entire spectrum has shifted to the right? Can you remember a filed of Republican candidates that was a far to the right as this year’s crop? Can you remember organizations such as the John Birch society getting so much play in the Republican mainstream? Republican presidential candidates speaking at a forum where white supremacists are openly courted as at CPAC? Mainstream Republicans advocating consistent with one mainstream Republican ideology being threatened by the likes of Grover Norquist? Have you read any Bruce Bartlett on these matters? As a senior adviser for both H.W. Bush and Reagan, he gives a good perspective:

  23. Joshua says:

    Wow – that was  mangled sentence! Should have read: Mainstream Republicans advocating policies once considered mainstream, being threatened by the likes of Grover Norquist?

  24. Joshua says:

    The point being – I don’t know that things are more polarized now than  they were before, but that’s only because the entire spectrum has shifted to the right. Michael Tobis certainly does have that part right. 
    Clearly, Republicans currently do not feel that they need to take any measures of compromise for the sake of political expediency. Instead, they see catering to extremism as politically expedient. Reagan would be attacked as a “rhino” in today’s political climate.

  25. Joshua says:

    er, that would be “rino.” (too much wine with dinner and port afterwards).

  26. Anteros says:

    Joshua –
    I would never have taken you for a port drinker!
    Unknowingly making assumptions strikes again…
    I’m certainly not in a position to judge about shifts to the right or left in American politics, but from a European perspective your ‘left’ begins just about where our ‘right’ ends.
    Our ‘Conservatives’ are pushing quite hard for an overall tax burden of 43%. Pretty radical huh? 🙂

  27. Menth says:


    Fun fact: 94% of my posts are made while drunk.

  28. kdk33 says:



    (the unicorn ate my public service draft card)

  29. kdk33 says:

    Harry above is qutie right about polarization.

    Similarly, the younger generation is always found lacking.  Until they get older.  And find the younger generation lacking.

  30. kdk33 says:


    Keith considers the US mired on war.  He is using flawed (or more precisely, selective) calculus.  He laments the losses (economic and human) we’ve caused, but fails to consider what would have happeneed had we done nothing.

    Iraq:  A brutal dictator, certified mass murderer of political opponents,  wager of  a decade long war with it’s most significant neightbor, unprovoked invader of his smallest, but richest, neighbor, known to have had and known to have used and known to want weapons of mass destruciton. 

    He’s now gone, and all Keith can do is complain about A CIA report on WMDs.  Weapons we know tha man had, had used, and wanted to have again.  Nevermind democracy, freedom, all those silly things.

    Just curious Keith:  Have you served?  Were you willing to do your part?  Be one of the willing volunteers?  Or (a la Jack Nicholson) do you simply sleep under the blanket of security they provide?  Inquiring minds want to know.


    Return to normal discourse. 

  31. Joshua says:

    Anteros –
    Not a big time port drinker – although there are times where nothing else hits the spot quite like a port. But we were at dinner at a friends house and he broke out a bottle of an incredibly good port that he had picked up from at a vineyard in California. It is safe to say I have a new found appreciation for just how good a port can be. 
    So why did you not picture me as a port drinker?

  32. Martha says:

    Hi Keith,

    There are quite a few countries with similar programs, and many are now evidence-based.  These programs do build individual skills for co-operation and leadership and can contribute to community resources. 

    However, the overall impact is small and doesn’t necessarily build skills or understanding for global citizenship.  Global citizenship requires that we increase international education and the teaching of skills for co-operation in the American public school curriculum.  If  we’re serious about education and employment and our ability to adapt to the future, we also have to begin to require,  for example, that citizens spend more on the cost of public education than they do on household cleaners. 
    The isolationism and defensiveness embodied by climate change deniers has not sprung out of the head of Zeus:  it’s largely the result of a jingoistic education, and both domestic and foreign policy that has lacked vision and discouraged an agenda of co-operation. 
    The benefits of co-operation have to be made much more clear to people, and we need whatever helps us to increase co-operation between  people not only at home but also far away.


  33. Anteros says:

    Joshua –
    Perhaps the place of port in American society differs from that in the UK..
    The assumption was a simple demographic correlation. My experience of drinking port correlates very positively with things that are quite non-green, non-liberal, and non-progressive. It’s not a perfect correlation but enough for unwitting assumptions to be made.
    In the UK it is linked socially with people who have been to very expensive private schools, almost as an identifying ritual behaviour. The link has perhaps faded a little in our move towards a ‘meritocracy’ but many of my leftwing environmentalist friends [who are not the products of fee-paying schools] would have considered port drinking as nothing short of class betrayal, much like crossing a picket line.
    If I think back, my first port-drinking experience was at University, being invited to sit at high table with the Dean and assorted Dons. I think I resented the shameless elitism and insularity that the port drinking was a symbol of. It didn’t matter how brilliant a student you were, there was always the unspoken distinction that you hadn’t been to the ‘right’ school.
    So you can see I have some long-forgotten prejudices on port drinking!
    In my drinking days I confess to enjoying it – but it only seemed appropriate in judicious quantities which wasn’t my M.O. A connoisseurs tipple perhaps.

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