Last Thursday, the Military Times released the results of a survey showing that members of the armed services planned to vote for John McCain over Barack Obama by a factor of nearly three to one--this at a time when the Democratic nominee was handily beating his Republican rival in almost all national polls. The survey apparently reaffirmed the long-held conventional wisdom that the U.S. military overwhelmingly backs the GOP. As Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke, told the paper: "The military has been perceived as a conservative Republican institution. A lot of people thought that eight years of frustration with the Bush administration was going to undermine that. This evidence suggests that it hasn't undermined it as much as they thought, at least not yet."
The truth about the military's politics, however, is more complex and all too often obscured by narrowly focused polling. Participants in the Military Times survey, for example, tended to be white, older, and more senior in rank--that is, they were hardly a representative sampling of the armed services. Another oft-cited study, conducted in 1998 by Feaver and Richard Kohn, found that 64 percent of military leaders identified themselves as ideologically conservative. While this was a groundbreaking study of senior officer attitudes, the data told us little about what the vast majority of military personnel--soldiers and non-commissioned officers--believe. After all, officers constitute only 14 percent of Army personnel; and only 6 percent hold the rank of major or higher.
In a study of the Army that I conducted in 2004 with my colleague, Professor Robert Shapiro, I tried to get a fuller picture of the social and political attitudes of soldiers, producing the first and only random-sample survey to canvass enlisted personnel and junior officers, as well as their superiors. Broadening the survey yielded results that fly in the face of the conventional view. The Army, it turns out, is hardly a bastion of right-wing thought.
It is true that the upper echelons of the military tilt right. My own research confirmed that about two-thirds of majors and higher-ranking officers identify as conservative, as previous studies found. But that tilt becomes far less pronounced when you expand the pool of respondents. That is because only 32 percent of the Army's enlisted soldiers consider themselves conservative, while 23 percent identify as liberal and the remaining 45 percent are self-described moderates. These numbers closely mirror the ideological predilections of the civilian population. According to data collected in 2004 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, 37 percent of the civilian, non-veteran population identified as conservative, 24 percent as liberal, and the remaining 39 percent as moderate or undecided.
The political differences between officers and enlisted personnel can be partly explained by a demographic divide. Whereas officers are predominantly white, have at least a bachelor's degree, and draw incomes that place them in the middle or upper-middle class, the enlisted ranks have a higher proportion of minorities, make less money than officers, and typically enter service with only a high school diploma.
Nevertheless, even when controlling for factors like race and gender, officers are significantly more likely than soldiers to identify as conservative. They do not, however, share a uniformly right-wing outlook on social and political issues. Interestingly, self-identified conservative officers often supplied moderate responses when asked about spending on Social Security, health care, and education. The same held for social issues such as the role of women in the workplace, affirmative action, gun control, and the death penalty. In fact, one-third of the officers who answered such questions in a consistently liberal manner still said they were conservative, suggesting that self-identification as a conservative may be as much a cultural norm among officers as a reflection of ideological preference. Soldiers and non-commissioned officers, on average, also gave moderate responses to questions on social issues. They were, however, more likely than officers to have liberal attitudes on economic issues.
In addition to its ideological moderation, the Army is not as partisan as popularly portrayed. Whereas 65 percent of Americans think of themselves as either Republican or Democrat, according to the Annenberg survey, my study shows that only 43 percent of the military identifies with one of the two major political parties. Two out of three officers consider themselves either Republican or Democrat, but only 37 percent of enlisted personnel do so.
Officers tend to be not only more partisan, but also more Republican, with GOP affinity strongest among the highest ranks. While I was unable to fully parse the reason for this, the evidence strongly suggests the pattern is generational. Today's senior officers entered the Army during the late 1970s and 1980s, a time when the Republican Party had a strong advantage on issues of national defense and the Democratic Party was seen as antiwar if not anti-military. By contrast, junior officers who joined the Army after 2001 are almost as likely to be Democrats as they are Republicans, foreshadowing a possible shift in officer attitudes.
The Bush administration's record may be speeding that shift. A few weeks before the 2006 midterm elections, I attended a class at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with a group of majors from across the services. On the first day, a naval officer noted that his favorite politician was Attila the Hun. Later, during a break, he asked if anyone wanted to attend a rally featuring Vice President Dick Cheney. As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about civilian perceptions of the military, I was pleased to find, in real life, someone who represented a common stereotype. However, a few weeks later, after the Democratic tidal wave in the mid-term congressional elections, the same officer noted his pleasure with the outcome because it meant greater accountability for President Bush.
While just an anecdote, this story is representative of several trends. During the 2006 election, the congressional district that includes Fort Leavenworth, containing a high number of military retirees in addition to a few thousand active-duty personnel, elected a Democrat for the first time since 1994, surprising observers. Several national polls of military families indicated that this group was suddenly trending toward the Democratic Party. And other surveys showed that, for the first time in a generation, the public had more confidence in the Democrats' ability to defend the country.
To be sure, the Democratic Party still has a stigma to overcome. In 2004, whatever their ideological inclination, only 11 percent of Army personnel identified as Democrats, compared with 33 percent of the civilian population. Between 2004 and 2006, self-identification with the Republican Party among senior Army officers did drop 16 percent. (The last time attitudes swung so wildly was during the Carter administration, when the military moved decisively into the Republican column.) But Democrats have yet to profit from this disillusionment. Between 2004 and 2007, the proportion of senior officers identifying as Democrats only increased from 11 to 13 percent.
How does party loyalty affect how the Army does its job? Officers seem to form their opinions on the appropriate uses of the military independent of partisan affiliation. That said, Republican officers predominantly feel that spending on defense should be expanded, while Democratic officers are divided on the issue. Officers also split along partisan lines on homeland security spending and foreign aid, though not to the same degree as on the defense budget. These findings suggest that officers do not necessarily approach questions of national security from a unified and internally developed perspective, but may default to partisan cues when thinking about these issues. As the officer corps becomes more politically diverse, disagreement about certain elements of defense policy could intensify.
This new diversity among military leaders--as well as recognition of existing diversity among the rank and file--presents both an opportunity and a challenge. The realization that the military vote is up for grabs will increase Democratic and Republican attempts to court uniformed votes and to prominently use veterans in their campaigns, challenging the military's reputation for apolitical service. On the other hand, it will help replace the stereotype of the right-wing American soldier with a more nuanced understanding of how soldiers think, reinforcing the ideal that the Army is a servant of the country and beholden to neither political party.
Jason Dempsey is an infantry officer assigned to the Army's 10th Mountain Division. This article is based on his forthcoming book, Our Army: Soldiers, Politics and American Civil-Military Relations. The views presented here are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.
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This article originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.