By Eric Tanenblatt
As the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 lurched to a close after months of grueling debate, history holds that a woman approached Benjamin Franklin to ask whether the framers of the then-in utero government had birthed a republic or monarchy. An exhausted Franklin replied soberly, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
You see, the American experiment in government was so radically improbable that the nation’s very founders had little hope it would survive the frailties of human nature, because a government of the people requires not only their consent but more importantly their active participation.
Somehow, we preserved the republic, even in spite of ourselves, and in days will bear witness to the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next. This episodic transition sets us apart from antiquity and the world as it exists today, but it’s cultivated the simplistic perception that responsible civic engagement is limited only to the realm of voting.
President-elect Donald Trump will assume his new office at a precarious moment in America’s history, set to lead a nation besieged on the world stage and beset on main street. The election calcified our divides, both real and imagined, and laid bare the sometimes-ugly underbelly of the process.
War and recession, social upheaval and scandal: these are the punctuations of our nation’s history. But in these challenges lie formative opportunities.
Just as past presidents have, Mr. Trump can leverage this turbulent moment by summoning, as President Abraham Lincoln once said, the better angels of our nature in a national call to service.
The values of duty, honor, and country transcend partisanship–just ask the Republicans who served in the administration of President Barack Obama and the Democrats who auditioned for Mr. Trump’s–but one need not seek office or military commission to serve.
President John F. Kennedy entered office in 1961 having won the closest presidential election in almost fifty years. The nation had just limped through a recession and would presently barrel its way through the tumult of the civil rights movement.
Yet in spite of the nation’s searing divisions, Kennedy used his inaugural address to urge Americans to access individually within us that which sets us collectively apart: the innate American eagerness to serve. “And so, my fellow Americans,” he said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Today, too few Americans ask what they can do for their country. Consider: fewer than one percent of all eligible citizens serve in the United States armed forces, according to Army estimates. That’s an historic wartime low.
The shared commitment that defined generations past is eroding, but our new president has the tremendous opportunity to reinvigorate it when he takes the oath of office later this month.
As a Republican and former Senate-confirmed vice chairman of the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of service on communities and those who volunteer. This government agency, which administers the AmeriCorps program, enhances and supports the efforts of some 3,000 nonprofit, faith-based and community groups, including Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities, Boys and Girls Club, Teach for America, and United Way, through public-private partnerships with businesses and foundations.
Just as President Bill Clinton urged the nation to consider the possibility of “millions of energetic young men and women serving their country,” President-elect Trump can call us to transcend our divisions in common unity. Just as President George H. W. Bush did when he spoke of the timeless ideals of duty, sacrifice, and patriotism embodied in the act of “taking part and pitching in,” President-elect Trump can reanimate those flicking points of light across our land.
National service builds better communities by building better, more civically invested citizens. Service creates opportunities to bridge the divides that separate us, to find common ground in the greatness of our people. Government won’t make America great, but her people in common cause, in common service, can and will.
Eric Tanenblatt, a former chief of staff to Governor Sonny Perdue and an advisor to Senator Paul Coverdell, served on the Board of the Directors of Corporation for National and Community Service from 2008-2013. He currently serves as the chair of the public policy practice of the global law firm Dentons.