We Don’t Need Pete Buttigieg’s National Service Program

Pete Buttigieg thinks national service will solve America’s inequality and division. But what we actually need to build solidarity and improve lives are broad social guarantees to decent jobs, health care, and education.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks on stage at the 2019 ESSENCE Festival on July 07, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Paras Griffin / Getty Images for ESSENCE

South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg has received months of breathless media interest thanks to his Ivy League credentials, impressive command of Norwegian, and exquisite taste in middlebrow consumer goods. His latest headlines, at least, do actually owe to a major policy initiative — though unfortunately it’s a wrongheaded one.

Entitled “A New Call to Service,” Buttigieg’s latest plan would immediately increase the number of available national service positions by almost 200,000, with the ultimate goal of creating “a pathway towards a universal, national expectation of service for all 4 million high school graduates every year.” While it’s not entirely clear how the program would work, those who participate would receive “consideration for public service student debt forgiveness, vocational training, and hiring preference.”

More revealing than the proposal itself, however, is its overall justification.

Framed in patriotic terms and through appeals to his time in the military, Buttigieg is pitching the plan as a remedy for weakening social cohesion and cultural fragmentation: “In the great unwinding of American civic society underway,” his official website reads, “and at a time when Americans are experiencing record-low trust in fellow citizens and American institutions, few — if any — single policy solutions carry the promise of democratic renewal more than national service.” Here’s another excerpt, in a similar vein: “At this moment, when social media and deepening polarization have put us into distinct bubbles, national service is that much more essential to fashioning a common character.”

While Buttigieg’s program appears more expansive, proposals for national service have actually been a recurring theme of Democratic politics for years. In 2016, Hillary Clinton pitched an expansion of AmeriCorps. And back in 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on a similar plan — justified, much like Buttigieg’s, through soaring yet vague appeals to unity and patriotism.

Though they haven’t achieved a great deal of prominence, several Democrats besides Buttigieg have also tabled national service plans. Kirsten Gillibrand’s version would give two years of free college or job training in exchange for a year of public service, or four years in exchange for two. Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton has announced a similar initiative, as has John Delaney.

To first state the obvious: there’s nothing wrong with volunteerism as such. Plenty of community organizations, nonprofits, and activist groups doing vital work run on the generosity and labor of conscientious people willing to give up their time in service to a good cause. But pitched as a bold and sweeping solution to cultural atomization and political disunity, the idea of national service seriously misses the mark.

You’d be hard-pressed, in fact, to find a more apt metaphor for the intellectual and moral limitations of liberal politics in 2019 than a plan to promote social cohesion through voluntary work in exchange for a few minor advantages on the job market: provision of education through moral means-testing, an implicit rejection of desperately needed and more ambitious programs, a subtext of mild jingoism — it’s pretty much all here.

But more to the point, the basic diagnosis behind Buttigieg’s proposal (and others like it) is simply incorrect. True enough, few would probably challenge the suggestion that America is a deeply fragmented and polarized society. Revealingly, though, Buttigieg thinks the causes are spiritual and cultural rather than material and political: people have different identities, backgrounds, income levels, religious beliefs, and party affiliations, with these differences being hardened by epistemological bubbles online; ergo, a divided country that might become more unified if people were brought together in common cause.

It’s a tidy narrative, and one that conveniently sidesteps America’s maldistribution of wealth, its general dearth of quality public programs and services, and the numerous ways these injustices and others contribute to a coarsening of its social fabric.

People may indeed live in digital and cultural bubbles, but for most, these probably matter a lot less than the materially existing strata of an unequal society riddled with poverty and racial exclusion. This, along with the political system that creates and maintains it, is ultimately a far greater source of social fragmentation and disharmony than the basic fact of people having different backgrounds, identities, and beliefs.

If anything, the recurrence of national service initiatives among Democrats reflects their general lack of interest in pushing transformative programs like Medicare for All, free college, and a federal jobs guarantee that would actually alter this state of affairs — and create real solidarity in the process.