There was a time, not so long ago that it no longer exists in my memory, when it was expected that family members of wealthier, educated people would enter public service, and do their part in maintaining the integrity of our country. These acts of noblesse oblige, along with universal military service, ensured that those in government and politics had contact with, and understanding of those who they served.
If you visit an older cemetery where veterans of our prior wars are buried, you will see on the tombstones the names of those powerful families who ran the factories mixed in with the names of the bakers, electricians, and grocery clerks. Furthermore, those who made decisions about deploying troops for wars outside of our borders had experienced war and military service themselves, and clearly understood the sacrifices to which they were subjecting those asked to serve.
Edward Gibbon in his opus, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, traced as a root cause the lack of military service by Roman citizens, and the increased reliance on mercenary soldiers to fight the wars of the Empire. We now have a professional military, most of whose members are drawn from the poorest segment of our population, and a legislature where almost all who serve never experienced military service.
There are merits to having a professional military, and I’m not suggesting it should be abolished, though it also carries risk, as has been experienced in other countries. However, the concept of universal service to the country for a couple of years (as currently espoused by President Macron in France) is one which would help heal at least some of the divisions we currently experience. People who work alongside one another cannot help but get to know each other. While I am now a physician, the time I spent working in the steel industry as a laborer, and as an electrician’s apprentice has given me both great respect for blue collar workers, as well as a better ability to communicate with my patients and understand their needs.
We need to change the image of the politician and the government worker from the negative portrayals of today to an image our children can aspire to. In order to do this, we need to offer better pay for these important posts on which the country depends, require personal integrity as an essential qualification, and encourage our best and brightest to once again look on public service not as an option for those unable to get better jobs, nor as an opportunity to use such service as a means to line their own pockets, but as vital part of our democracy. Failure to do so will result in America’s continued decline and eventual fall.