But there’s hope. How about this — a record 148 million Americans voted in this presidential election. The percentage turnout — remember, votes are still being counted — was the highest in 120 years. It is likely to be the highest ever.
There was increased turnout among the young, among communities of color and among those with college degrees. Whether they voted for someone or came out to vote against someone, there’s reason to be encouraged that Americans are, at the very least, engaged in what’s happening in this country.
There’s one aspect of my childhood that I’ve always appreciated. I grew up in integrated military communities. There were families of color and families from up North and out West, families with moms from all over the world. Once I was 10 and we moved to a civilian neighborhood on the doorstep of Ft. Bragg that was also dominated by military families. I once again was living in an integrated neighborhood and an integrated school with bi-racial kids (again, it was mostly servicemen with moms from overseas places like Vietnam, Italy, Germany, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, etc.). This was the 1970s in the South, and such neighborhoods were rare.
The common bond was service to country. These families came from varying racial, cultural and political backgrounds, but there was the sense of duty, honor and brotherhood that was much more important than political ideology, skin color, or whatever. Those ideals were imparted to us, the children. At least that’s what my parents taught me and what still resonates.
Like many who study our culture, I would argue that some kind of national service is one of the missing links in creating a common American identity. What if we required high school or college graduates to do 24 months in rural and urban communities helping public schools, working for the U.S. Forest Service or the U.S. Park Service, providing child care, helping the elderly, building roads and bridges and other infrastructure and pay them a nominal wage or paid for college? We’d save taxpayer dollars and create spaces where young people interacted with those completely different from them.
Imagine a young woman from Swain County High School who grew up in Alarka working in a public school alongside a young Black man from inner-city Chicago who grew up in the projects. How about a young man from Laurel Ridge in Waynesville helping dig a fire line in California while working with the U.S. Forest Service with a young woman who was raised by a single-father ranch hand in rural Montana? Linking people from those backgrounds sounds almost ludicrous in the country we live in. If it happened, would they perhaps discover that they have much more in common as human beings than they have to argue about over political stereotypes?
It’s not as if those who support this kind of national service are expecting a miracle, it’s just a realization that something fundamental may be missing in our civic and cultural understanding of other Americans. Any casual observer of history can look at what World War I and World War II did to forge what we now understand as our American identity. Those serving overseas and those making sacrifices at home shared in accomplishing something bigger than themselves, more important than their politics. Of course, the lens of nostalgia blurs some of the racial and social wrongs of past eras, but there’s no doubt the 20th century saw the rise of the American ideal.
In the late 1980s my wife, Lori, and I were on a train from Bodrum, on the Aegean coast of Turkey, to Istanbul. It was a painfully slow passage with stops where there was no station and a porter would step off the train to pick up a bag of vegetables and leave a bag of mail. We were backpacking in Europe, and at one station we were the only travelers in a room filled with young, seemingly rural conscripts of the Turkish military, all in new uniforms. A few spoke broken English, and they were shocked to learn that America had no military draft and no kind national service and that I had never served. I was 27. We laughed and shared each other’s company while we waited to board, but the memory stuck.
Perhaps we can never recapture that elusive America that previously captivated the imaginations of almost every person and group in the world who struggled to be free and shake off the yoke of oppression. Instead of looking back, we need to move forward. The fear is that instead of moving forward, we will remain stuck in this divide.