It’s no secret that Congress is mired in partisan gridlock. In fact, we are as polarized as at any point since the American Civil War. But what many people don’t know is that, according to a new Pew Research study, Americans are more polarized than at any point in the last two decades. And that’s bad news for America.
As the most civic minded and politically independent generation since the Greatest Generation, millennials have a tall task: It’s up to us to repair politics. A shared commitment to national service is essential to reweaving the fabric of American democracy and ameliorating polarization. While there’s no one answer to ending polarization, increasing the number of opportunities for young people to participate in national service opportunities is a critical solution.
Indeed, it is no wonder that many former members of Congress say that the body was more bipartisan when they and their colleagues spent more time together in Washington, DC developing personal relationships with fellow members and their families. As former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott says, if you live near your political opponents and know their families, "it's impossible to go up on the floor of the Senate or in the media and blast him the next day."
Service – whether elected, military, faith-based, or in the non-profit sector – brings people from across the country and across the aisle together to see eye to eye and learn from each other as they work for a shared purpose. Unfortunately, there are too few opportunities to serve. Programs like Americorps and the Peace Corps are routinely under-funded and unable to handle the volume of applicants. In 2011 alone, AmeriCorps received 582,000 applications for only 80,000 spots. This number is up from 360,000 applications in 2009. While a down economy may have something to do with increased applications, millennials are the most service oriented of any generation. The National Conference on Citizenship reported that millennials lead every generation with a 43% service rate compared to a 35% service rate among baby boomers.
In 2009, Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which passed with bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, was intended to raise the number of AmeriCorps opportunities from 80,000 to 250,000 by fiscal year 2017. However, the promise of more service positions has been unfulfilled because of lack of funding.
The fact that these opportunities are not more available for our generation is concerning, especially if we expect diversity, a sense of camaraderie, and basic common understanding from our future leaders. We should not be saying no to tens of thousands of America’s potential future leaders who want to give back to our country.
But national service does not and cannot end with military service and volunteering; rather, this country is in need of new millennial leadership in the public sector and particularly elected office. According to the Spring 2014 Harvard Institute of Politics Youth Poll, 32% of respondents think running for office is an admirable thing to do, which is down from 35% in their Spring 2013 poll. Similarly, according to an American University study, only one in 10 college students would choose to be a mayor if they were paid the same as a business owner, a sales person or a teacher.
Yet we need more leadership from the generation with the most on the line. We encourage our friends and peers to run for office. It’s going to take members of the most diverse and politically independent generation in American history, bringing new ideas to Washington, to put our political house in order.
If we do not make an active commitment to increase public service opportunities, the nation could face deeper skepticism that its public institutions can solve its greatest challenges. By promoting national service opportunities and a commitment to national service, we hope millennials will be more likely to run for office, volunteer for a campaign, help their peers to register and vote on election day, or participate in other forms of service, giving us not only a bigger seat at the table, but making us better citizens in the process.
It’s going to take a renewed commitment to service to repair our country. Millennials are up for the task.
Michael Stinnett is a U.S. Navy veteran and a rising junior at Boston University where he is Vice President of the BU chapter of Common Sense Action, a millennial group focused on advancing generational fairness, investing in millennial economic mobility and repairing politics. CSA has 24 chapters across 15 U.S. states. Eric Zenisek, a rising senior at the college of education at the University of Northern Iowa, is the President of the Common Sense Action chapter at UNI.