Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Is Capitalism Killing American Democracy? And Can National Service Save It?

Robert Reich, in his new book, wonders whether "supercapitalism" - the ever-growing wealth and influence of big monied interests - is undermining democracy in the U.S. Thirty years ago, he says, most Americans, when asked, said democracy was working pretty well. Now they say the opposite. According to Reich, average Americans feel that they have almost no ability to influence their government; they perceive instead that corporate interests and their Capitol Hill lobbyists really pull all the strings.

But we are ourselves to blame. We've been content to passively support policies of all sorts that keep prices low, as though low prices were a policy end in themselves, always and ultimately good. Are we consumers, he asks, or are we citizens? Which is the more important to us? Because we need to make a choice.

His question is an appealing one. The problem, which even he acknowedges, is that people might like the abstract idea of "citizenship" but don't really know how to pursue it. (Shopping, on the other hand, is fairy concrete.)

Richard Stengel from Time CNN writes about much the same problem, noting that "today the two central acts of democratic citizenship are voting and paying taxes. That's basically it." To his mind, one solution would be a national service program. "It is the simple but compelling idea that devoting a year or more to national service, whether military or civilian, should become a countrywide rite of passage, the common expectation and widespread experience of virtually every young American."

Such service would not be "mandatory or compulsory," he writes, but nevertheless should be "universal." How he would accomplish that trick is anybody's guess, since things that aren't mandatory can rarely be made universal.

Actually, this topic has been on my mind a bit. Last year at Thanksgiving, my son brought two friends home from school, one Korean and the other German. As they helped themselves to turkey and cranberry dressing, we talked a little about their lives back home. It came out that, when their schooling in the States ends and they go home, both will serve mandatory stints of national service. Both expect to be assigned to military units, though apparently other options exist for the physically disabled.

Why don't we have such a requirement, in this land of so much flag-waving, yellow-ribbon-tying, bumper-sticker-flaunting patriotism? My guess is that a national service requirement would strike American parents as unpleasantly socialistic. It would also strike them as economically disadvantaging, since their young strivers would have to slow down for a year to work not for their own betterment, but for the nation's. But it's an interesting idea nonetheless, both for the real benefits it would create for the participants and for the questions it would force us all to ask: Do we really have a national community? And if so, do we owe it anything?


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