OXFORD, England – We need a service program for the state of Indiana. It is my firm conviction that there are few better things we could do for our state, our political culture, and the next generation of Hoosiers than to enact a program that gathers a selection of high school graduates from every corner of Indiana and gives them a year of structured service.

Such a program would manifest political ideals from both the right and the left. It would help our communities and shore up the kind of civic bonds necessary for sustaining democracy – precisely those most threatened in this precarious political moment. I believe Indiana can lead the way toward a more constructive politics, and we can do it with a statewide service program.

My inspiration stems from the urgency of the need: The polarization afflicting American politics. Much has been made recently of the specter of extreme partisanship. We are supposedly more divided than we’ve ever been, not only offering different answers to political questions, but asking different ones.

I tend to push back against some of these worries. Political conflict itself isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s necessary. “To serve the common good,” the political philosopher Russell Muirhead wrote recently, “implicates us in a contest” because there is no such thing as a comprehensive conception of “good” common to all. Healthy political communities allow argument over competing visions of society.

But “political communities” – that’s the tricky part. The good kind of democratic contestation can only occur among citizens who share a degree of commitment to the same political project, even if they disagree on particulars. Every successful political community must achieve a balance between disagreement and commonality.

Increasingly, our country is failing this test. There’s a vast body of social science research on polarization which shows that, even if most Americans have not diverged significantly on political issues, they have grown increasingly resentful of political opponents. This type of polarization – often called “tribalistic” or “affective” – is polarization not so much by ideology, but by identity, which is even worse. We are separated by chasms of mistrust and suspicion that risk rendering Democrats and Republicans unintelligible to each other.

And these antipathies have spilled over into social life. Identity polarization is associated with unprecedented political self-segregation by ZIP Code, media sources, even grocery stores. One of our most urgent problems is a lack of connection among citizens of different stripes.

Enter: A statewide service program. For this program to begin to work against these polarizing trends, the organizing details are crucial, so let me spell out what I mean. I take inspiration from national service programs like AmeriCorps, but I want to localize them. I envision high school students applying to the program fall of senior year. A committee will select a group that represents to the greatest extent possible the diversity of our state. We need kids from downtown Fort Wayne, Warren County, the south side of Indy. We need those well-off and those facing hardship. Democrat, Republican, indifferent. All races. All genders. All creeds.

GPA and test scores? Irrelevant. The sole admissions criteria will be enthusiasm, curiosity, and willingness to work hard.

Accepted students will then be divided into groups of, say, 10, ensuring each is maximally representative. Each group will then spend the year rotating among different service opportunities all over the state. Imagine: Four months at an Evansville homeless shelter, four months on a dairy farm, four months revitalizing the White River. They will be housed together and benefit from guest speakers who will teach them more about this place they had no choice but to be born into, but retain the chance to embrace.

The program will be prestigious, launched by the governor, so that students will want to participate. Colleges and employers will scramble to recruit graduates of the program, whom they know have spent a formative year learning new skills and learning from each other.

Perhaps participants could even receive money for college tuition or job training. Which raises the funding question: Where will the money come from? The program won’t be cheap. It must be financially secure enough to allow people of all stripes to participate. Philanthropic and private partners can be sought, but it’s crucial that the state also cover at least some of the cost. Only through government can we achieve the necessary scale and contribute to the ennobling of the public sector that would be part of this program’s guiding mission.

Securing political support may not be insurmountable, because this kind of statewide service program will instantiate ideals both conservatives and liberals cherish. Where conservatism traditionally values local engagement, the program will instill a firm sense of embeddedness and community spirit. And where liberalism encourages respect for diversity, the program will foster a deep appreciation of our state’s beautiful differences.

Self-government isn’t something that just happens. It requires work. And while this program won’t address any of our very real structural-institutional democratic ills, it will go some measure toward inculcating the kind of virtues necessary if we are to remain our own sources of political authority.

But the program won’t feel like some urgent political project to the participants. That’s because it’s not, first and foremost, even about politics. It’s about friendship, trust, and late-night dinners at IHOP after a day’s work. And even if that month’s service rotation sucks, or their supervisor is a jerk, those moments of commonality will endure.

That’s my claim – it’s precisely by not focusing on politics that we develop the kind of relationships necessary to improve our politics. It’s hard to hate up close.

I recognize this won’t happen overnight, but I’m optimistic. I’ve described exactly the sort of program I myself would have loved to do following high school, and I suspect many around the state will agree.

Tribalism threatens the health of our democracy. There are no comprehensive answers to addressing it, but there are particular solutions, and an Indiana statewide service program is one. Here’s a chance for Indiana to lead the way. Let’s create it. 

Jay Ruckelshaus is a Rhodes Scholar from Indianapolis and a graduate student in politics at the University of Oxford.