So yesterday we got Dana Milbank's lazy column recommending a renewal of the draft, a day after we got an op-ed, also in The Washington Post, calling for an end to presidential term limits. No surprise, really -- it's a holiday week, there's not much news being made, so pundits are dredging up policy proposals that will never be enacted and therefore can always be relied on to fill up a column.
Milbank generates a fairly energetic level of self-righteousness, but he doesn't seem to be making much of an effort otherwise.
... As I make my rounds each day in the capital, chronicling our leaders' plentiful foibles, failings, screw-ups, inanities, outrages and overall dysfunction, I’m often asked if there’s anything that could clean up the mess.(If you want to be taken seriously when you're phoning it in this way, I suppose it helps, before you get to your main point, to throw a punch at a hippie, or at least at someone who qualifies as a hippie by Beltway standards.)
My usual answer is a shrug and an admission that there's no silver bullet. There are many possibilities -- campaign spending limits, term limits, nonpartisan primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, a third party -- but most aren't politically or legally feasible, might not make much of a difference or, as with Harry Reid's rewriting of Senate rules, have the potential to make things even worse.
But one change, over time, could reverse the problems that have built up over the past few decades: We should mandate military service for all Americans, men and women alike, when they turn 18. The idea is radical, unlikely and impractical -- but it just might work.Was Milbank nodding off in Philosophy 101 when his professor explained what a post hoc fallacy is? The number of people using rotary telephones is also at the lowest point in living memory -- and the condition of Congress is about as likely to be influenced by that societal change as it is to be influenced by the decline in military service among members of Congress.
There is no better explanation for what has gone wrong in Washington in recent years than the tabulation done every two years by the American Legion of how many members of Congress served in the military.
A Congressional Quarterly count of the current Congress finds that just 86 of the 435 members of the House are veterans, as are only 17 of 100 senators, which puts the overall rate at 19 percent. This is the lowest percentage of veterans in Congress since World War II, down from a high of 77 percent in 1977-78, according to the American Legion. For the past 21 years, the presidency has been occupied by men who didn't serve or, in the case of George W. Bush, served in a capacity designed to avoid combat.
Does military service really make a person more inclined to comity and cooperation and avoidance of partisan grandstanding? Forgive me if I have my doubts after looking at a list of House members who are veterans: why, there's Darrell Issa, along with Louie Gohmert, and Joe "You lie!" Wilson, and Paul Broun (y'know, the guy who said, "evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell"). In the Senate, well, you've got Lindsey Graham and John McCain. Need I go further?
If the best Congresses are those with the most veterans, then shouldn't 1977-78 have been the recent high-water mark of American self-government? Does anyone who lived through the 1970s seriously want to argue that that was the case? And, um, wasn't that just a few years after a clinical sociopath had to resign the presidency? Wasn't he a veteran?
It's no coincidence that this same period has seen the gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves: a loss of control over the nation's debt....Our deficit is shrinking dramatically, Dana.
... legislative stalemate and a disabling partisanship. It's no coincidence, either, that Americans' approval of Congress has dropped to just 9 percent, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question 39 years ago....See post hoc fallacy, above.
Because so few serving in politics have worn their country's uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest. They have forgotten a "cause greater than self," and they have lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country. Without a history of sacrifice and service, they've turned politics into war.My problems with this theory are that I don't believe military service confers an aversion to selfishness that's lifelong (see McCain, John) and I don't believe that it confers a sense of exalted purpose in peacetime the way it does in war. In order to get the benefit Milbank expects, we not only have to draft all our young, we have to send large numbers of them to fight horrible, bloody, destructive wars.
And while we're trying to cook up a war that will infuse America with the right amount of national character, we're allegedly going to be drafting everyone from homeless kids to the children of our secular royalty. Anyone seriously believe that the youths of the Koch and Romney and Walton and Trump families will sacrifice the way the children of the ghettoes and hollers do? Anyone seriously believe there won't be escape clauses that allow the former not to serve at all?
And meanwhile, the right-wing media will continue fighting the class war in the usual right-wing way, by arguing that all the cushy spots are going to the children of Alec Baldwin and Rosie O'Donnell, or maybe to Malia and Sasha, while upstanding home-schooled Bible Belt Christians fare the worst. Sorry, the culture war won't simply disappear.
Oh, and, as Milbank notes:
The costs would be huge.You think, Dana? And, um, how do you imagine we'd pay for this? Not with new taxes -- the wealthy and the GOP simply wouldn't hear of it.And so we'd pay for it with drastic cuts to programs needed by the poor and middle class. In that way, your brilliant scheme would be less leveling, not more.
Which gets to what I think is the real reason we have a terrible government: the fact that heartland whites from outer-ring suburbia and exurbia have been encouraged for decades not to believe that other Americans are really their fellow citizens. They vote for politicians who encourage the belief that we have two nations, ours being at war with theirs, both of us engaged in a zero-sum conflict. These politicians are financed by right-wing billionaires who really don't have any fellow feeling for the Other America.
Deal with that and maybe we'll have a better government.