America needs a restart. It has long devoted its energies to solving its many big problems — unequal opportunity, crumbling infrastructure, lagging education, inadequate training in a changing economy and threats to peace around the world. But it has done so with tired methods. Simply doing more or less of what we have done in the past will not fix what the United States faces. Every solution requires more than another budget negotiation or Facebook post. Each also requires trust and consensus — the hard and disappearing work of democracy.
Our civic landscape today is quite disturbing. Trust in one another and in key institutions are at historic lows. Our politics have become nastier; it’s harder to get anything done. Meanwhile, most of the other indicators of our civic connectedness — volunteering, voting, joining voluntary and civic associations— are significantly down from previous years.
This is not the America we can be. We are a nation of innovators and problem-solvers who sparked revolutions in democratic government, civil rights, communications, flight, rural electrification and technology. We are a country defined by ideals now in need of rescue.
America needs a big idea that plays to its strength. It should look to national service.
We should get to the business of providing at least one million opportunities each year for young Americans to spend a service year with peers who are different from them — by race, ethnicity, income, politics and religious belief. At this scale of one full quarter of an age cohort, serving together to solve public problems will build attachment to community and country, understanding among people who might otherwise be skeptical of one another and a new generation of leaders who can get things done. I saw these effects for 34 years in the U.S. Army. We need them in civilian life.