Hillary Clinton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Hillary Clinton says she wants to unite the country, which seems like one of the most ludicrous things she’s ever suggested. How can one of the most polarizing figures in politics convince people to lay down their ideological arms?

But on Friday we saw a little glimmer of how this might actually happen.   That was when she made a new proposal for a “National Service Reserve” corps. It was classic Clinton in that the speech was meh and the delivery was worse – but the substance was kind of ingenious.

When I say that national service can unite people, I don’t mean that politically it can draw support from across the aisle (though it can) or that it can lead to an explosion of flowery inspiring rhetoric (though it certainly will).

Rather, I mean something specific about the psychology of service. We know from both social science studies and our own life experience that the best way to break down walls between people is not, in fact, to have them talk through their differences – it’s to have them work together on difficult projects. Think World War II draft rather than campus sensitivity dialogue groups.

For all of President Obama’s appropriate focus on repairing race relations, he never actually pushed service programs as a key way of promoting mutual understanding. The emphasis has been on Conversations not Projects.

Clinton’s potentially Big Idea: a National Service Reserve system modeled after the military reserves. She explained:

“If you join the National Service Reserve, you’ll receive some basic training. And when your city or state needs you, you’ll get the call. It may be a few hours a month or it may be much more, depending on what the need is and how much time you can devote.

Say a natural disaster strikes, and the Red Cross needs all hands on deck — or something like the crisis in Flint occurs, and clean water needs to be distributed every day to families — you’ll be sent into action.”

She also proposed increasing the number of AmeriCorps members from 75,000 to 250,000 per year, doubling the college scholarship up to as much as $23,000 for two years of service, and expanding the Peace Corps.

Some advantages of her service plan:

First, the National Service Reserve has the potential to reach a massive scale in ways AmeriCorps can’t. Because the Reserve promotes small bursts of service, it could deploy far more people, including those who cant afford to quit their jobs. The campaign said the program could affordably field five million people.

Second, it seems directed toward visible and severe problems. Focusing on catastrophes will seem both important and hard – like real sacrifice – to the American people. (It’s similar to George W. Bush’s much smaller Citizens Corps, a fact she would be classy to mention.)

Third, the AmeriCorps expansion directly helps debt-laden millennials by giving them useful “jobs,” reducing their college debt, giving them transformative life experiences, and harnessing their idealism.

Fourth, Clinton made the connection to polarization:

“It’s easy to surround ourselves with only those who think like us, talk like us, look like us, read the same news as us…. It comes with a cost because it magnifies our differences, which then makes it harder to put those differences aside when our community or country needs us. There aren’t many places where people of all ages, all races, all backgrounds, all beliefs come together in common causes – but service is one of them.”

See? The “uniting” would actually have little to do with Hillary herself. It would happen on the ground, as Trumpers and Bernie Bros and Hillary-ites worked together to save a flood-ravaged town or address a local heroin epidemic. Hopefully they wont talk about politics until long after the flood-waters have receded and they’re kicking back beers (be they Miller Lites or Breckenridge Vanilla Porters) to celebrate.

There are many TBD details about this program. In truth, this could be anything from a teeny tiny nothing-burger to a transformative initiative depending on how it’s implemented. How much would the reservists get paid, and who would put up the money? Would states run it? How would you keep local government from using the reserves for silly or politically self-serving projects?

Hillary pledged to make this a high priority. If she does — and if she somehow manages to convince a meaningful minority of Republicans to go along — this may be an area where Madame Incrementalism can be something her predecessor was not – audacious.

In a way, we’ve all drawn completely the wrong lesson from John F. Kennedy’s Ask Not speech. Inspiration doesn’t come from Presidential phrases, it comes from citizen action. The president doesn’t need to move us with her words; she just needs to give us the structure so we can dazzle each other.

Steven Waldman

Follow Steven on Twitter @stevenwaldman. Steven Waldman is the president and co-founder of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. He is the author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. As senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was the prime author of the landmark report Information Needs of Communities.