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April 27, 2009

AmeriCorps and politics

If you Google terms like "Obama" and "community service," you will find a very large number of conservative blogs and opinion pieces claiming that this is Obama's "brown shirt" corps. They fear that young people will be indoctrinated by "ACORN types" to spread socialism (even though I thought the original Nazi brown shirts beat up socialists). They also assert that Obama is taking a step toward mandatory service. Right now, if you Google "brown shirts" to find out about that Nazi organization, one of the top results is an attack on Americorps.

In reality, AmeriCorps is not a youth organization at all. It provides grants to a very wide range of nonprofits. Such a decentralized approach would be a poor strategy for building an authoritarian political movement, if anyone wanted to do that. There are also very strict restrictions on political activity by AmeriCorps volunteers. They cannot, for example, do nonpartisan voter registration or lobbying. And Obama's nominee to head the agency that overseas AmeriCorps, Maria Eitel, worked for George H.W. Bush before she entered the corporate world as a Nike executive. Hardly a socialist.

So basically the right-wing fear of AmeriCorps is paranoia. A more troubling critique, in my view, comes from the left. Some left-liberals argue that by recruiting hundreds of thousands of young idealists to do community service that is formally insulated from politics, we will frustrate progressive politics for a generation.

I hear that argument, yet I think we need to be careful when we use federal funds for programs that influence young people's thinking about social issues. That's an appropriate goal if it's about authentic learning and deliberation, but it could be distorted by political agendas. AmeriCorps will never become a brown shirt organization, but it could provide patronage or teach members to think narrowly about issues. Out of an abundance of caution, I would favor the existing limits on political action by AmeriCorps volunteers, I would bend over backward to make grants to religious and conservative groups, and I would constantly emphasize that this is not the first step toward mandatory civilian service. (There are philosophical arguments in favor of universal service. The crucial argument against it, in my view, is that it would be extremely costly and difficult to provide millions of high-quality service opportunities; and we could spend those billions better for other purposes.)

April 27, 2009 12:27 PM | category: none


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