Could ser­vice bring us to­gether?

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - EJ Dionne Colum­nist E.J. Dionne is syn­di­cated by The Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

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 we will again vote for a divided gov­ern­ment — 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 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.

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, Mich., 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-ofthe 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.

Pro­mot­ing ser­vice is no cure-all. But it is a wise, prac­ti­cal and even in­spir­ing thing to do.

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