The political reporter Joe Klein picks up the liberal nostalgia theme in Time. Based on a trip through North Carolina and Virginia, where he spoke to many veterans, Klein argues that the social solidarity necessary to the welfare state requires has to be based on shared experience comparable to military training. We’re not going to bring back the draft. So Klein suggests something like a universal national service program that would encourage relationships of trust between rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, etc.
It’s true that the postwar consensus was supported by the fact that virtually all younger male citizens had recently been subject to military discipline. It makes sense, then, that nostalgia for that consensus would fix on national service as an antidote for the current polarization. But this strategy is almost certain to fail for at least two reasons.
First, it requires a degree of coercion that no one actually wants. Klein forgets that, with the possible exception of 1942-1945, drafts have never been popular in the United States. In almost all cases, they led to extensive evasion. In some, they provoked violent resistance. Without the real or imagined threat of war, there is simply no precedent in for forcing all or most healthy young people to serve the state for a few years.
Second, national service servered from military purposes and methods is a joke. The main reason military training creates such strong bonds among those who share it is that it’s a matter of life and death. Of course, not all recruits go into combat. But learning to use weapons, operate vehicles and heavy machinery, etc. is very serious and dangerous business. Klein apparently thinks that low-stress community service work like cleaning schools will turn American teenagers into bands of brothers. I am willing to assert, point blank, that this is a fantasy.
I don’t mean to pick on Klein, who seems well-intentioned. But he makes the basic error of all liberal nostalgists. In short: the consensus around a highly-regulated, highly-taxed, middle-class society that lasted from about 1945-1965 is thoroughly exceptional in American history. It came into being through the sequence of the Great Depression and World War II, which was by no means predetermined. And it eroded as those experiences slipped into the past, in addition to changes in the international economy and the restoration of mass immigration, among other reasons.
The postwar moment cannot be restored by any policies or programs. Like it or not, we are going to have to learn to live in a country whose citizens have much less in common than they did fifty years ago (although perhaps not less than they did 100 years ago, just before World War I kicked the nationalizing and, as it were, state-izing project into high gear). As I noted the other day, liberals like to accuse the Right of pining for a probably idealized and in any case unrecoverable past. In fact, they are the romantic conservatives of contemporary politics.