Editors’ Note: In the last several months, several of the Democratic candidates for president have proposed national service plans. Scott Moore discuses what we can learn from the history of such schemes.
This past March, South Bend Mayor and presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg became the latest in a long line of American political leaders to embrace a perennially popular policy idea: national service. In an interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, Buttigieg recalled his time in the military, saying that it introduced him to Americans of all walks of life, and lamented that most Americans lack a similar experience that bridges race, class, and other social divides. Encouraging young people to engage in some form of service to the county, Buttigieg proposed, might provide a way to address the “threat to social cohesion” in America.
Mayor Pete isn’t the first presidential candidate to suggest national service as a cure for deep-rooted social challenges like income inequality. And the political history of national service offers valuable lessons for current candidates like Mayor Pete. The first is that national service resonates with voters like few other policy ideas. As former Senator and presidential candidate Chris Dodd once said, “There are few subjects that have truly captured the imagination of the American people – National service is one of those ideas.” And, sure enough, Mayor Pete’s segment on MSNBC garnered him a spate of positive news coverage. If one of America’s next presidents decides to make national service a serious focus of their policy platforms, they’ll become part of the long, elaborate history of what may be America’s most frequently-hyped, but least understood, policy idea.
The idea of enlisting large numbers of young people to serve their country in civilian rather than military roles dates to the late nineteenth century. In 1887, Edward Bellamy, the socialist author of the popular utopian novel Looking Backward, proposed the creation of a state-sponsored industrial army of youths to help develop the country and its industry. Some thirty years later, the pacifist philosopher William James suggested that the martial values instilled by war, including discipline and patriotism, could just as effectively be inculcated by drafting youth to perform manual labor across the country. These youth, James thought, would “get the childishness kicked out of them, and…come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”
The essence of this idea was picked up by the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, which created several service programs in which hundreds of thousands of young Americans participated during the 1930s. The best known of these was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Primarily designed to help soak up youth unemployment, the CCC and programs like it also built trails, roads, and other public works across the country. In an echo of Bellamy and James, these service programs were seen as a way of asking citizens for something in return for government assistance. In one of his fireside chats, Roosevelt advised CCC members that “It is time for each and every one of us to cast away self-destroying, nation-destroying efforts to get something for nothing, and to appreciate that satisfying reward and safe reward come only through honest work. That must be the new spirit of the American future. You are the vanguard of that new spirit.” The enduring appeal of this reciprocal compact between citizens and government was later captured by Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, who in the mid-1960s proclaimed that “Even the bitterest opponent of the New Deal has to admit that the CCC was a sound investment in both people and land.”
It was the Kennedy Administration, though, that firmly enshrined national service in the American public imagination. In the final months of his 1960 campaign for president, Kennedy stood on the steps of the University of Michigan Union and told thousands of assembled students that “On your willingness…to serve one of two years to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.” The response to Kennedy’s call for national service was overwhelming, and once in office he established the Peace Corps. In the 1980s, the New Democrat movement sought to tap into this enduring popularity by proposing to create a domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps that would enable “equal sacrifice for the common good.” Then-Governor Bill Clinton embraced the idea in his 1992 campaign for president, when he asked crowds to “Just think of it—millions of energetic young men and women serving their country by teaching the children, policing the streets, caring for the sick…giving us all a new sense of hope.” Once in office, Clinton signed a bill creating AmeriCorps with widespread support. The idea of national service remained popular in both parties, with both the Bush and Obama administrations launching their own new national service initiatives.
Indeed, one of the reasons national service is such a perennially popular idea is that its appeal is for the most part bipartisan. In the 1960s, conservative eminence-grise William F. Buckley wrote approvingly that, in contrast to big-government Great Society initiatives, service programs offered “something other than a statist program, or one that lodges in the state the kind of power conservatives have been taught, at great historical expense, to husband for social uses.” The Clinton Administration worked overtime to gain Republican support for the creation of AmeriCorps, with Clinton selling the proposal as a way to bridge old liberal-conservative divides. “I want to bring back the American spirit that says we’re all in this together,” he promised. The pitch paid off: despite skepticism from some conservatives about its cost and effectiveness, Clinton’s AmeriCorps bill garnered the support of Republicans like former Wisconsin Representative Steve Gunderson, who assured his colleagues that national service was “a very Republican thing.” Senator John McCain, for his part, became such an enthusiastic supporter that fifteen years later, he made national service a part of his 2008 presidential campaign, saying it reflects “the virtues of patriotism that conservatives cherish.”
But despite this broad support, the history of national service in America has shown that its political appeal has always been greater than its practical impact on public policy challenges. For one thing, national service is expensive: one study estimated that the total cost of supporting an AmeriCorps volunteer was comparable to that of an enlisted member of the armed forces. Estimates of the benefits produced by national service programs, meanwhile, generally find that while positive, they pale in comparison to traditional government programs like Head Start. Instead, in a politically awkward reality, the biggest benefits of national service seem to accrue to service participants themselves, rather than to the populations and communities they are supposed to serve. Longitudinal studies of AmeriCorps participants have found, for example, that the biggest effects were in areas like an increased sense of personal efficacy and satisfaction. This reality, though politically problematic, hasn’t dented the political appeal of national service. As former Oklahoma Representative Dave McCurdy stated in response to similar points raised by his Republican colleagues, “the benefit [of national service] is these young people. They gain as much from the service as, perhaps, the people that receive the service.”
The history of national service also shows that, despite its persistent political appeal, it hasn’t transformed American life in the way many of its proponents have hoped. In large part, this is because even America’s largest national service programs have never come close to matching the ambitions of their creators and champions. Kennedy supposedly exclaimed to an advisor that “Once we have 100,000 Americans a year as Peace Corps volunteers, then we’ll have the constituency for an intelligent foreign policy.” Yet today, the Peace Corps has only about 7,000 volunteers overseas at any one time. AmeriCorps is larger, mobilizing some 75,000 volunteers annually, but the vast majority serve in over 20,000 independent organizations, including schools and nonprofit organizations around the country, diluting their larger impact. Senator McCain, though a strong supporter of AmeriCorps, once observed this approach meant that “AmeriCorps members often take on the identity of the organizations they’re assigned to. In the process, they often lose any sense of being part of a large national service enterprise, if they ever had it at all.”
A final, ironic, lesson from the history of national service in America is that its greatest impact may have been felt beyond American shores. The Peace Corps was such a revolutionary concept that, even at the height of the Cold War, it earned grudging respect from America’s adversaries. A Yugoslav newspaper, for example, once editorialized that the Peace Corps embodied “much of the old forgotten spirit of idealism and renaissance dating from the days of the American pioneer.” But while President Kennedy and other creators of the Peace Corps were doubtless pleased by such reviews, in the end, national service has always been to its proponents a means of transforming America itself. “The benefits of the Peace Corps,” President Kennedy predicted, “will not be limited to the countries in which it serves…[volunteers] will have acquired new skills and experience which will aid them in their future careers and add to our own country’s supply of trained personnel and teachers. They will return better able to assume the responsibilities of American citizenship and with greater understanding of our global responsibilities.”
This political history of national service suggests that a serious service policy for the next administration should do three things. First, it should be designed in such a way as to maximize bipartisan appeal. In the past, this has meant emphasizing the idea of service as a compact, in which citizens and the state are mutually accountable to one another. One idea in this mold is to make federal student aid contingent on fulfilling some type of service requirement. Second, national service policy should shed its youth bias: while younger participants are more likely to be affected by the experience, mid-career professionals and retirees typically have more to offer in terms of skills and experience to benefit target populations. Sound service policy should provide opportunities for Americans to serve at all ages – and ideally more than once. Third and finally, service policy should be both big and bold. The extent to which national service can live up to its true promise depends largely on the level of funding and policy commitment devoted to it. A service-oriented administration must ensure that both foreign and domestic service programs are large in both scope and scale.
As America turns toward what looks to be yet another divisive presidential election in 2020, it’s understandable that many candidates are looking for ideas that promise, as William James put it, to “inflame the civic temper.” If history is any guide, they’re likely to find it in national service. To fulfill that promise, though, they’ll need to learn the lessons of its long history in American public life.
Scott Moore is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and has studied the politics of national service.