George Clooney’s new movie, The Ides of March, about the shady backroom dealing of a presidential campaign, has been getting mixed reviews for its strong acting but weak plot, bad script, and “basic misunderstanding of politics.” But one scene is worth extracting, where Ryan Gosling, playing the candidate’s campaign manager, lays out a case for mandatory national service:

On one level, this is astonishingly blinkered, substituting a cheap cynicism for real analysis. “Everyone over the age of 18 are past the eligibility age and will be for it. Why not?” As noted earlier here, age doesn’t seem to be stopping the Tea Party from rabidly opposing even AmeriCorps—a far more modest program. However, the idea of national service, mandatory or not, has still been coming up amongst American thought leaders across the media spectrum.

Tom Brokaw devotes a substantial portion of his new book The Time of Our Lives to it. Jim Lehrer said recently if he could make one decision unilateratally, he would impose mandatory national service, and Joe Klein, long a supporter of a draft, mentioned non-military national service favorably in recent appearances promoting a Time cover story. Clooney personally supported the idea in a recent interview with Charlie Rose.

National service means, in this context, working for a federal program to serve the nation domestically, including things like building public works, helping the poor and elderly, and conservation. The idea is more than 100 years old, but the rationale behind it—though it has evolved considerably—remains similar to the original, and its advocates tend to crop up most during hard times.

William James first proposed national service as a substitute for military service, a way to get the moral benefits of war without all the horror and unnecessary bloodshed (he regretted America’s “squalid war with Spain” of 1898). His essay introducing national service for the first time is titled “The Moral Equivalent of War.”

“Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible,” James wrote. But instead of military conscription, a country should have “a conscription of the whole youthful population to form…a part of the army enlisted against Nature.” (Men only.) It is primarily about moral uplift, “manly virtues” instilled, getting “toughness without callousness,” but it is also about unifying and serving the country, in a variety of ways. James advocates “knocking the childishness” out of the “luxurious classes,” so they may “come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas;” as well as mining coal and iron, building roads and boring tunnels, all for the greater good.

Franklin Roosevelt, though he was primarily concerned with getting the masses back to work, still lauded the “moral and spiritual benefits” to working in his Civilian Conservation Corps while doing valuable work for the nation. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s service ideas planed off James’s “manliness” and “war against Nature” rhetoric, but it was still about moral uplift, and unifying and serving the country. Kennedy (“ask not…”) said of Peace Corps volunteers that they were “one of the most encouraging manifestations of the national spirit.” Johnson, when he started Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), told the first group that service would be difficult, but the group’s members would have the “satisfaction of leading a national effort,” the “ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their Nation.” Bill Clinton, who created AmeriCorps, hailed the “unifying power of citizen service,” and the accomplishments of national service agencies from the CCC up to his time, including AmeriCorps volunteers that had helped rebuild after a tornado struck his home state.

The current crop of thought leaders promoting national service have much the same reasoning. In recent appearances promoting his Time story, Joe Klein promoted the idea of mandatory national service as a way to “give back” without joining the military. Brokaw, who goes into the idea in the most depth, laments that America has become “two societes with too little connective tissue,” and says “it is time to renew the ideal of national service for all,” referencing JFK. He lauds programs like Teach for America as emblematic of what is necessary, and tells how his own children benefited morally from service in Haiti and elsewhere. In an interview with Jon Stewart he even agreed with a proposal for mandatory national service to rebuild the nation.

Though national service is an idea always floating around the country, it tends to bubble up most in hard times. FDR faced the Great Depression when he instituted the CCC (and dozens of other jobs programs). Kennedy had the peak of the Cold War—part of the intended Peace Corps service was surely the (real or imagined) threat of communist expansion around the Third World. Clinton’s time was relatively less imperiled, but there was still a recent recession and war, slow wage growth, and widespread anxiety about the national debt and overseas economic competition. After 9/11, John McCain called for a huge expansion of the AmeriCorps program, and in the midst of the 2008 freefall, both presidential candidates supported the idea—Obama ended up signing a bipartisan bill tripling AmeriCorps’ size. And now, of course, we have a persistently atrocious economy, the worst in 80 years.

It makes sense, then, that public figures from movie stars to magazine columnists to retired anchormen are now talking about further expanding America’s ongoing experiment in national service. If history were any guide, the country probably would be—though the majority of national service’s champions have been Democrats, even the likes of William F. Buckley supported the idea in the past. But the Tea Party has happened to American conservatism. House Republicans, many of whom voted just two years ago to triple AmeriCorps’ size, are now attempting to zero out the program entirely, for the third time this year alone. Before the country can expand national service, national service has to survive.

Ryan Cooper

Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanlcooper. Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.