Images: Ed Elson

“America First”: The Case for Two Years of Mandatory National Service

Want to heal the divide? Eliminate it right after graduation.

6 min readJun 26, 2020


In 2017, Trump committed us to an “America First” foreign policy: put America’s interests before other countries’. He reiterated it at his rally last weekend. Fair enough at face-value, but severing foreign relations is ineffective to the mission. If you want China to shut down the wet market, you first need a relationship. That way it’s actually worth China’s time to listen when you tell them to close it. Turns out putting America’s interests before other countries’ isn’t in the interests of Americans. #Unpatriotic.

By the way, since when did “America First” mean stinginess? Sure, compete with China, but do we really need to squeeze an extra buck out of Mexico? What are we, hoarders? Cheapskates? We can’t spare a second to invest in someone else? Phenomenally lame. We’re the guy who reminded the teacher about the homework, because the marginal security added to the maintenance of his A was worth that much more to him than the guilt of ruining everyone else’s evening. If we hate him (which we do), then we hate ourselves.

We can rephrase “America First” to mean something we actually like. Ready for some real patriotism?

Put America’s interests before your own.

There we go. Sacrifice. Placing your personal wants on hold for something else that’s important. Getting up for work even though you’d rather not right now. Advocating for someone else’s rights when it’s most uncomfortable. Investing in a will for your family instead of spending it on yourself. Giving something up for an idea that’s bigger than you. Giving something up for America. That’s patriotic.

I’m not saying we ought to be starred-and-striped monks. By all means enjoy the fruits of your labor. But we should at least know what it feels like to give something up for America. We should each have a story to tell about the time we went out and put America first. Big reveal…

America First: A mandatory two-year commitment for all newly graduated students to work for a national service program of their choice before entering the workforce.

It’s an all expenses paid program at less-than-minimum wage. Socioeconomic class has no say on America First. Black, brown, white, gay, straight, rich, and poor Americans must work as a team to make America great by whatever metric of greatness they saw fit when they chose the program they chose. Perhaps they opted for the military. Or a teaching program like Teach For America. Or a national policing reform campaign. Or a digital literacy course for small business owners. Or the Peace Corps. Or the “Corona Corps”. It doesn’t matter what you choose, but everyone must do it. Why?

1. It gives help to Americans who most need it.

Imagine: a fresh task force of more than 5 million young people who want to learn, going out to states they’ve never seen to better the humanity of America. Apple would no longer devour talent right out of college to join the other sixteen-thousand brilliant engineers who spend their lives testing how much more market stickiness their time-suck misery-machines could gain if they had not TWO cameras… but THREE! It’s almost as if we’d be putting human capital in the right place.

2. It gives kids purpose right out of college/high school.

Imagine if someone told you at 18-/22-years-old that for two short years, there is no rat race and money doesn’t exist. What would you do? Despite what an incoming Goldman analyst might tell you, no one would go into finance. It’s far more likely you’d join a cause you actually believed in. And imagine if, for once in people’s lives, they got to choose from the same menu of work options as the Ivy-leaguer child of a Greenwich-elite. And to the Ivy-leaguers who think America First is unfair because it doesn’t reward how hard-working they were to get admitted to Harvard in the first place, 1) I’ll bet 2:1 odds you weren’t that hard-working (36% of Harvard ’22 are legacy students), 2) going to Harvard is the reward, and 3) don’t worry, it’s only two years and you’ll still have your degree. Which brings me to my next point.

3. It unifies all post-grads — regardless of class, race, gender, etc. — as Americans.

I don’t have the numbers on this, but I can tell you from experience that it is normal for an upper class person to go his/her whole life without ever engaging with a lower class person in open, honest, and substantive discourse. I hate hearing things like “I just don’t get how you could vote for Trump!” Why so surprised at your misunderstanding? You expected to just “get it” telepathically, despite the fact that you’ve never talked politics with any one of the 325 million Americans who are poorer than you? I’m bashing rich people to punch up, but this works down and left and right as well. You cannot claim to understand, appreciate, and love America if you’ve never understood, appreciated, and loved an American beyond the bubble in which you were raised.

Truth is, rich people are tyrannical until you get to know that they aren’t. Poor people are stupid until you get to know that they aren’t. Black people are violent, white people are racist, gay people, timid, trans people, sick, conservative people, delusional, liberal people, also delusional, and so on — until you get to know that they aren’t. Emphasis on getting to know them, as opposed to saying hello to/hiring/working for/tweeting at them. Simple logic, I know. But that’s why so few of us can say with any certainty that “all Americans have a common bond,” because so few of us have bonded. What even is the common bond, anyway? The label, “American”? A passport? Our mothers happened to birth us on the same four-million-square-mile plot of land? Weak bonds.

Strong bond: we all sacrificed two years of our lives to help Americans we did not know. It’s the draft except you choose what to fight for. Plus, the idea of service is no longer predicated on a military crisis — it’s just something Americans do.

There’s something special about everyone consciously working together on the same thing: in this case, America. Enter Bernie Bros and Libertarians, who might divert this to a pro vs. con debate about socialism. Let’s nip that in the bud. Like public school, this is a short-term socialist program that prepares people for a market-driven world. Difference is, this preparation is not about getting good SAT scores, being captain of Chess Club, or knowing what an epidermis is. It’s about empathy: learning from the source what it’s like to be racially profiled, or to grow up on a farm, or to be a child of divorce. Only once you’ve learned what other people’s lives are like may you begin your career.

The world’s largest social media platform is run by someone who at age 14 went to Exeter, then Harvard for a year, then became a CEO without skipping a beat. It is unsurprising that he is a sociopath. Mark never got to socialize beyond his bubble. His education gave him a very narrow view of the world: “PEOPLE + CONSUME = GOOD.” I wonder if Facebook would be as antisocial as it is had its CEO hung out with some normal kids for a couple years.

I only use Zuck as an example because he is — in my opinion — the lowest common denominator of 21st century American evil. But try this for me: take any powerful leader whose actions you disapprove of, and consider how they might have differed had they enrolled in America First before getting to work. Then tell me this isn’t a good idea.

P.S. Not participating in America First by say, lying about having bone spurs, would mean by law that you are not yet eligible for a salary. Sold?