Though I’m a believer in smaller government and the virtues of private enterprise, the U.S. government must expand its wildly successful Fulbright program. The program needs to be expanded not outward and toward the global community, but inward, toward our own fractured country.
As a professor, I’ve had the honor of helping students become Fulbright scholars over the years, and I have seen the powerful results of the program which bills itself as “U.S. government’s flagship international… cultural exchange program.”
This program has been so effective because Fulbright recipients create deep networks of support within their residential sites and the network itself, live with people of different cultures and work collectively to improve lives in numerous ways.
Today, the United States should look domestically, for the nation needs such immersive, domestic exchanges more than ever.
Many Americans have ideologically sorted into echo chambers where they only hear and engage with like-minded others. Identity politics based on perceived grievances regularly trump ideas, debate and reason.
This socio-political reality is dangerous for our policy as it can lead to what the nation just witnessed around the 2020 elections: Negative partisanship, the death of real debate and further institutional polarization.
Trust in government and institutions is remarkably low, which weakens government effectiveness and America’s global standing. My Gen Z students along with many Americans recognize that this system is both unstable and makes social progress untenable.
To begin addressing these issues, government should create a truly inclusive post-grad style program — including college graduates along trade and high school diploma holders — and send members of Gen Z across the country for extended periods of time to work, live, play and educate in various environments.
Program members would engage in genuine diversity training to learn how to engage, empathize and work with the patchwork of diversity in the nation.
Living in varied communities may be hard for participants. But except for those perhaps 10-20 percent of Americans who are on the ideological extremes and really believe that they are battling for the soul of America, most Americans are far more open than it may first appear.
In fact, recently collected data from the Survey Center on American Life shows 79 percent of Americans believe it is possible to compromise with people who disagree with you. This new program could help people find common ground and begin dialogues about shared outlooks, values and the nation’s collective future.
The mechanism that makes this whole idea work is exposure and contact.
That is, when various people have real and extended relationships with others, biases and prejudices drop, and empathic relationships can and do emerge. For example, exposure to gay or lesbian persons has been shown to increase acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage.
There is little reason to think that this dynamic would not work across numerous points of ideological difference whatsoever.
While urban and rural residents are often demonizing and are suspicious of the other, my own research has shown remarkable similarities in terms of how they see local, civic organizations, communal organization, religious life and ideology.
Imagine if a real urban-rural exchange took place, genuine relationships developed over time, and network effects helped soften extreme opinion and find common ground.
With proper preparation and placement, younger Americans can make this contact. While the impact may not be immediate, the dividends that accrue over time could help move us away from the mess of 2020.
President-elect Biden will have the formidable challenge of finding common ground with all Americans.
This service corps could help him achieve his acceptance speech goal to: “Put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again.”