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OPINION: End polarization. Mandate hands-on engagement with government.

Compulsory government service could be the solution to a divisive, unproductive American government. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/PEXELS

Political headlines from the past week are cause for worry, disappointment and even embarrassment regarding the state of the U.S. government. 

The Palestinian attack on Israel, fatal Russian air strikes on Ukraine and a massive earthquake in Afghanistan all occurred this weekend, each posing a significant threat to innocent lives and international order. What’s worse is that the U.S. government is in no condition to address any of these global issues effectively with Congress in disarray.

Republican Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, was voted out of his position on Tuesday as a result of hard-line Republicans led by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz. They were resentful of McCarthy’s cooperation with the Democratic Party in a stopgap bill to defer a government shutdown in which hundreds of government offices would cease to function and employees would not be paid until a bill could be agreed upon. 

This polarization and unwillingness to compromise reduces the ability of the government to rule effectively. 

“America is incredibly distracted and incredibly divided and when America’s distracted the world is less safe,” said former US ambassador to the UN and current Republican Presidential candidate Nikki Haley in an interview Sunday.

The U.S. must begin to address these issues with younger generations in order to reestablish a competent and efficient governing body in the future. Compulsory government service for young adults has the ability to increase citizens’ political participation, reduce political polarization and promote more effective government.

College students today are the next generation of leaders, and our current national leaders are providing impressive lessons on what not to do. Take, for example, last week’s narrowly-avoided government shutdown –– this stemmed from a critical issue deeply embedded in modern politics, which is political polarization.

Polarization is the partisan habit of leaning into increasingly extreme political ideology. When this happens, uninformed citizens, like many college students, often follow their party without understanding the consequences of voting for public officials with extremist agendas.

This creates a citizenry, and an elected body of officials, incapable of compromise –– a virtue which is desperately needed for democratic states to function properly. 

Compulsory government service for young adults is a means to prevent this vicious political cycle. Following high school or at 18 years of age, young adults would be required to work in a government position based upon their skill set for a designated period of time, which would ideally be 18 months, according to former Naval Institute Board of Directors member Steve Cohen. 

Despite increased civics education in the U.S., individuals aged 18 to 24 –– many of whom are college students –– still have the lowest voter turnout rate of all age groups. They show up at 32.4% in midterm elections and 51.4% in presidential elections, according to a July 2022 article by Bloomberg Government.

Obligatory government service will likely increase political participation, as public employees are more likely to vote, according to a September 2022 US Census Bureau study. Young adults would also gain a more clear understanding of various political viewpoints, as well as insight into the goals of government and how these goals can most effectively be achieved. This will facilitate a knowledgeable, informed and depolarized voter base and body of future leaders engaged in American democratic institutions.

Polarization is amplified by the lack of tolerance and interaction between people with opposing viewpoints. In requiring public service from every citizen, those from every background, religion, race and belief will be required to work together for the public good. 

“Through compulsory national service, we can build a culture of empathy, understanding and giving that empowers individuals and strengthens communities,” said Chief Executive Officer of Capital Partners for Education Khari Brown in her July 2021 article for The Hill.

“We have an opportunity through service to repair the fractures in our society if our leaders create the systems for more robust national service and ask more of us once again.”

In other words, a more collaborative government can be restored through the implementation of compulsory government service programs. However, government service is not just limited to military or elected official positions. Young adults could complete a public service requirement through a variety of opportunities.

These could include working in K-12 classrooms, leading environmental conservation task forces, working in construction and maintenance of public facilities or building public housing.

Some may argue that requiring young adults to partake in government service is a burden on individual liberty. While this may be true, requiring public service will not only provide a significant experience in civic engagement, but it will also shape the next generation of public leaders. 

“I think compulsory government service is a good idea because it is important to be engaged in public service. And those involved would likely be more inclined to participate in activities that are important for our democracy,” said second year USF political science student, Madison Reiter, in an Oct. 8 interview with the Oracle. 

There could also be incentives like tuition reimbursement, as is the case with other government service programs like the GI Bill

“With America’s democracy threatened by a political and ideological chasm that seems to widen by the day, with dialogue rendered almost futile on fundamental issues such as racial justice, the environment, a battered economy and America’s role in the world, the debate over national service is really a debate over how we move forward,” a May 2021 editorial by the New York Times read.

The way forward is through constructive solutions that can rescue the U.S. from its domestic demise and unite political leaders under a strong American democracy.

The U.S. can establish a wider voter base and see more compromise and less polarization through compulsory government service by young adults who will shape the future of the country.