Restoring our democratic community
Kevin Frazier will join the Crump College of Law at St. Thomas University as an Assistant Professor starting this Fall. He currently is a clerk on the Montana Supreme Court.
Democracy is simpler than it’s made out to be; it’s about people and the communities they form in order to identify shared problems and implement mutually beneficial solutions.
The strength and scope of that democratic community is the sum of millions of decisions made by you and me on a daily basis—who we talk to, who we get to know, and who we collaborate with at work and in our neighborhoods. Those small decisions can build a powerful democratic community.
But throughout our history we’ve squandered much of that power by letting other individuals and entities dictate who joins our democratic community—in fact, we’ve given social media companies, political parties, and special interests the authority to confine us within democratic bubbles. These bubbles are hard to burst—the public spaces and institutions that used to break us free of narrowly defined communities no longer serve that function. For instance, higher education institutions cater to a very small set of society and neighborhoods that previously allowed folks across the socioeconomic spectrum to run into one another have now priced out certain folks. Income inequality, housing unaffordability, and disparate educational and economic opportunities are all indicative of a larger, troubling trend: Americans have fewer friends from fewer places with fewer differences in their backgrounds, beliefs, and perspectives.
The upshot is that for reasons somewhat within our control our democratic community has fragmented into cliques with all the pettiness you’d expect from the mean students in high school. There’s unfounded gossip, unnecessary exclusion, and unproductive drama.
Of course, I’m not the first to recognize this. Others have as well and, in response, have offered a mandatory national service program as a way to reconnect Americans to one another at an early age—but with a notable shortcoming. Proponents of national service usually pitch it as short-term (usually a year or two), skill-based (service opportunities intended to advance a member’s professional prospects), and focused on the individual (a member has some say over when, why, where, and how they serve). In other words, developing a stronger, broader democratic group is at best a second-order priority under common national service proposals.
If we agree that restoring our democratic community should be more of a priority both generally and in the specific context of a national service program, then we need to upend the traditional model. Think back to your late teens—maybe your senior year of high school. Now, imagine a classmate you considered an acquaintance —a temporary partner in a shared, short-term experience oriented around individual skill development. Fast forward to today. Do you consider this random Joe or Jane to be a part of your democratic community? Do you know anything about their goals, struggles, and hopes? Would you even call them an acquaintance at this point?
My hunch is that the answer to each of those questions is “No.” And, that’s fine! Understandable, even. But it’s also instructive—building a strong democratic community requires building relationships.
Thankfully, we can take a look at our own close relationships to figure out how to redesign proposals for national service programs with our democratic community in mind. The relationships that last are those that include regular connection, meaningful shared experiences, and a mutual agreement to build and deepen those relationships. There’s little about the traditional conception of national service that checks those boxes. Instead, the traditional model would build summer camp-esque relationships that burn hot like an overcooked s’more but then disappear as soon as the campfire goes out. Though your friendship bracelets might make it into the real world, the actual friend would not.
A national service program designed with a democratic community in mind could build off the following aspects: first, it should be cohort, rather than individually-based—you’d be assigned to a diverse cohort of about 50 other Americans; second, it should be long-term—your cohort would have a month-long service obligation each year until you turn 30; third, it should address communal needs first—individual skill development should not be the overriding purpose. In other words, service opportunities should predominantly emerge from consultation with local leaders and community members rather than from the professional aspirations of the national service members.
This service cohort approach has plenty of kinks to work out. Members could have a few “passes” to skip a service assignment when work, family, or other opportunities demand it. There’s myriad ways one could shape cohort selection--for instance, cohorts could be made demographically representative of the U.S. or could turn on different variables like socioeconomic status or even political affiliation. Those details can be resolved down the road. For now, we need to have an honest and productive national conversation about restoring our democratic community through service.
If we want to build a democratic community, then we need to rebuild our capacity to form relationships with one another. A reimagined approach to national service could start that process.