Polarization was the implicit theme of 2016; it continues in 2017. “Two Americas” stories frequently pivot on severe cleavages in education and economics while in politics, it is Red versus Blue America. Especially divisive language by Donald Trump continues to be hailed by many voters as “telling it like it is.” Divide and conquer has become an overarching political strategy.
My Dad, who served in the Pacific Theater in WW11, rarely talked about his war experiences but he did mention a bunkmate from the Bronx. My Dad, from rural Missouri, first saw New York through his eyes; indeed he saw much of America through the stories of his comrades-in-arms.
America was unified by Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the event that sent Dad overseas. My wife and I were living in Manhattan on 9/11 and joined New Yorkers, often a fractious grouping, as we sang patriotic songs together. Unity is possible, but it shouldn’t take an attack on the homeland to create a stronger sense of national purpose.
When I grew up each day in school the class recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I was a Boy Scout and recited its creed. Both struck unifying themes. Litigation and advocacy, in recent years, have fought both.
Conversations about our nation’s capitol sometime lead to a myth–reminiscences about Republicans and Democrats working more harmoniously. Politics has never been nor will it ever be a wellspring of good feelings unless there are unifying themes that cause voters to discipline politicians. Politicians will only work together when voters demand it.
I am convinced that we often feel alienated from “the other” because we don’t know them or their communities. Rural Missourians, in 1941, had no feel for the Bronx and vice versa. And, today it is hard to conceive of unity among people of widely different backgrounds without a war. Our national motto, “Out of Many One” increasingly feels like a tag line from an old advertising campaign.
As Americans we underwrite our military academies. Each is required by law to draw from the entire United States. The cadets are not the offspring of rich alumni, but the product of hard work and a willingness to make a substantial commitment to their country.
America would more readily find common causes if service and education were more universally linked. What if every college and vocational school received financial support to implement a variation on the military academy model with each student continuing their campus service for at least twelve months after graduation?
Each student would have a menu of opportunities, like those that can now be found at serviceyear.org. Those who choose the military would enter one of the service branches after graduation while those who choose domestic or international service would find a broad menu of missions and organizations. Eager youth would be a stimulant for programs that help renew society.
I have, of course, used the G word, graduation. Financial incentives should underpin the program and students would then be encouraged to find an outlet for their skills and interests. Many would choose a vocational track; indeed vocational work should be honored. And for the college cohort that looks forward to a gap year after graduation, helping to renew America is a grand way to fill the gap. If overseas travel is tempting, the Peace Corp will accommodate.
While short essays don’t allow for much detail, I will repeat one overwhelming truth: America needs renewal and it must be a community effort.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.