For years, Charles Moskos has been churning out
impassioned arguments for creating an American system of compulsory civilian and
military service. The Northwestern University sociologist is widely recognized as
the intellectual guru behind the national-service movement. But until recently,
his idea seemed doomed to remain one of those noble proposals with almost no
political appeal. It made antigovernment conservatives cringe and civil
libertarians shudder. No one knew quite how it could be sold to the young people
of America who would be asked to serve. Throughout the 1980s, it remained far
outside the political mainstream, championed primarily by Moskos and out-of-power
centrists at the Democratic Leadership Council. In 1990 the libertarian Cato
Institute reported with evident relief that national service was "but a gleam in
the eyes of a handful of philosophers and politicians."
Now with the new war on terrorism, national service has suddenly become a
hot topic. Some commentators have called for reinstatement of the draft; others
advocate an emphasis on civilian volunteerism. The Washington Monthly, a
longtime proponent of national service, recently published a piece by Moskos and
current editor-in-chief Paul Glastris calling for "a new kind of draft"--a
version of which then popped up on The Washington Post op-ed page. And a
bill in Congress sponsored by Arizona Senator John McCain and Indiana Senator
Evan Bayh is winning a respectful hearing. The "handful of philosophers" that the
Cato Institute worried about in 1990 has become more than a handful.
National service was one of the early animating proposals of the DLC. It drew
sporadic interest from centrist politicians during the late 1980s. In 1988, while
writing Citizenship and National Service--a booklet that became the
blueprint for the DLC's position on the issue--Will Marshall, now the director of
the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute, had wrestled with the question of whether
to propose compulsory national service or, instead, a voluntary program of
service opportunities for youths. It was a difficult choice: A national-service
program that was not compulsory ran the risk of becoming just another marginal
outpost for volunteerism. But the idea of compulsory service ran contrary to the
strong libertarian spirit of American culture and would no doubt be a hard sell.
Marshall's solution was to call for "universal" national service--a voluntary
program appealing enough that young Americans would want to join, thus making
national service a cultural rite of passage, though not quite a mandatory one.
The first significant step forward came following Bill Clinton's
presidential-election victory in 1992, when advocates of national service finally
had a sympathetic ear in the White House. AmeriCorps, a civilian
community-service program that Clinton created in 1993 and modeled after the
Peace Corps, would sponsor 50,000 service opportunities for young Americans per
year--hardly the revolution some had envisioned but, says Marshall, an important
Given early Republican hostility in Congress, AmeriCorps might not have
amounted to much more than a small experiment. But a funny thing happened on the
way to the program's irrelevance: It began to succeed. Even skeptical Republican
governors warmed up to it. When the maverick Republican presidential candidate
John McCain started to champion the issue, it got an important boost.
McCain's candidacy crystallized a split between traditional conservatives and
the group that had become known as national-greatness conservatives--among them
writers, such as William Kristol and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard,
and refugees from the far right, such as former Ralph Reed aide Marshall Wittman.
One reason the issue was embraced, according to Brooks, is that in the ashes of
the failed Gingrich revolution lay a new understanding that conservatives had to
support a more dynamic notion of citizenship than mere commerce and private
life--and national service filled that need well.
For his part, McCain had long been sympathetic to national service; he and
Moskos had first met at a 1988 luncheon to celebrate the release of the
professor's book A Call to Civic Service. While Timothy Noah was
interviewing the senator about another topic in 1987, the conversation turned to
a piece that Noah had written a year earlier for The Washington Monthly
calling for a draft: "McCain said very straightforwardly that he believed in
compulsory national service," Noah recalls. As the de facto leader of
national-greatness conservatism, McCain began to sound themes in his 2000
election campaign that led advocates of national service to believe that they
might have a new ally in their corner.
Marshall saw an opportunity: As the nation's attention focused on Florida in
November 2000, he convened a summit. In attendance were members of the
national-service establishment (John Gomperts of the Corporation for National
Service and Alan Khazei of CityYear), their traditional patrons in the DLC (Ed
Kilgore, the DLC's policy director, and legislative staff from Senator Bayh's
office), and their new friends in the national-greatness movement (Kristol and
Wittman, as well as a staffer from Republican Congressman Christopher Shays'
In the past, some national-service supporters had been most interested in
civilian service; now, members of the Marshall group argued for an increased
emphasis on military service as part of their joint initiative. "The
civilian-service people," says Wittman, who attended as McCain's representative,
were "very amenable to a military component." That first gathering brought the
outlines of what would become the McCain-Bayh "call to service" bill into focus:
quintupling the size of AmeriCorps over the next nine years, creating a new
18-month military enlistment option, and providing incentives for college
students to perform community service. The group continued to meet; by the
summer, the bill was almost ready.
Then tragedy struck--and a proposal that had looked innovative and ambitious
on September 10 suddenly looked necessary, logical, perhaps even politically
viable. September 11 tempered some of the ideological differences that had
separated sectors of the national-service alliance. At the one pre-September 11
meeting he attended, Brooks says, "a lot there reminded me why I'm a conservative
and not a liberal." He felt that some of the civilian-service positions being
contemplated were unnecessary. But September 11 made it seem that there was no
shortage of worthwhile civilian tasks.
Whether the political calculus has really changed for national
service is another question, one that depends largely on whether the McCain-Bayh
national-service expansion catches the imagination of young Americans. If it
does, and only if it does, national-service advocates may be able to consider the
ultimate goal--universal national service--within their reach. The biggest
challenge is convincing young people that national service is worth a year of
their lives. Jon Van Til, a Rutgers professor who has written extensively on
civic service, says that the name recognition of AmeriCorps, among potential
applicants and the public at large, is too low. If for no other reason than to
give AmeriCorps the kind of cachet that would make it look good on a
résumé--the kind of cachet the Peace Corps has--marketing the
program aggressively must become a top priority.
Others point out that for national service to become a unifying rite of
passage, elites will have to serve alongside everyone else. "If you did have
prominent people--à la Chelsea Clinton--it might send ripples down the
social ladder," Moskos says. On Marshall's desk at the Progressive Policy
Institute is a photo of Elvis Presley in his GI uniform--a reminder, he says,
that the burden of national service must be shared equally.
Alas, there is the problem of the military, which, ironically, has something
of a historical antipathy to proposals like McCain-Bayh. "People in the military
get a lot of expensive training, and it's cost-effective to try to get a fairly
long return on that investment," explains Beth Asch, a senior economist who
specializes in defense manpower at the Rand Corporation. "The services would be
reluctant to have this be a major program." Short enlistments--as proposed by
McCain-Bayh and endorsed by Moskos and other backers of the concept of
citizen-soldiers--would address the socially dangerous gap between those who
defend the country and those who benefit from their labor. But the military, Asch
says, isn't interested in sociology; it's interested in defending the country.
Short enlistments, she argues, don't necessarily help.
There is also continuing disagreement within the national-service movement as
to whether the true goal should be compulsory service. Marshall and Brooks are
not in favor of compulsory service; Glastris and Moskos, among others, are. The
endgame for national-service advocates may or may not be restoration of the
draft; but either way, it's a long road from quintupling the size of AmeriCorps
and creating short enlistments to inspiring a generation and a nation--as McCain
vowed to do this fall in The Washington Monthly. The AmeriCorps expansion
sounds dramatic, but even with 250,000 slots, says David Hammack, an expert on
nonprofits at Case Western Reserve University, "you're still not talking about a
very large percentage" of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 participating.
For his part, Moskos has no illusions about the prospects for making national
service compulsory: He thinks they're slim, at least for now. (Not everyone does.
"It may be sooner than we think," Wittman, the McCain adviser, says bullishly,
"depending on what the needs are in this war." Glastris, too, is optimistic: "I
think the draft would be terribly unpopular among a very vocal minority of
Americans," he says. "But my gut instinct is that, in a qualified way, a majority
of people would go for this.") Moskos knows that the draft may never be
resurrected. But thanks to an unusual partnership--and in the wake of unexpected
tragedy--he and his allies have managed to put their issue on the political
agenda. The McCain-Bayh bill will likely be taken up by Congress early this year.
If it passes, national-service backers will have their most expansive beachhead
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