BURIED IN THE NEWS last week was one of the most potentially significant stories of recent years. The Military Times released its annual poll of active-duty service members, and the results showed something virtually unprecedented: a one-year decline of 10 percentage points in the number of military personnel identifying themselves as Republicans. In the 2004 poll, the percentage of military respondents who characterized themselves as Republicans stood at 60%. By the end of 2005, that had dropped to 56%. And by the end of 2006, the percentage of military Republicans plummeted to 46%.
The drop in Republican Party identification among active-duty personnel is a sharp reversal of a 30-year trend toward the “Republicanization” of the U.S. military, and it could mark a sea change in the nature of the military -- and the nature of public debates about national security issues.
For most of U.S. history, issues of national security rarely divided Americans along sharp party lines: The old adage that “politics ends at the water’s edge” generally held true. The military, while institutionally conservative with a small “c,” was not closely identified with a particular political party. But somewhere between the end of the Vietnam War and the middle of the Clinton era, the U.S. military began to look like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party.
The rightward shift was dramatic: In 1976, 25% of civilians characterized themselves as Republicans, while 33% of military officers were Republicans -- a military-civilian “gap” of only 8%. By 1996, the military-civilian gap on party affiliation had grown to 33%; while 34% of civilians self-identified as Republicans, so did a whopping 70% of military officers.
In Britain, the Anglican Church used to be snidely described as “the Tory Party at Prayer.” In the United States over the last 30 years, the military became, to a significant extent, the Republican Party at War.
The Republicanization of the professional military came about for many reasons, some obvious, some less so. To some extent, it resulted from changing perceptions of how “pro-military” the two main parties were: In the wake of the Vietnam War, the Democratic Party became associated, in the popular mind, with antiwar, antimilitary policies. With the end of Vietnam-era conscription, which guaranteed a relatively representative military, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats may have opted to join the military (at least as officers), while many career military personnel transferred their allegiance to the political party they saw as “on their side.”
But the Republicanization of the military was not just because of “natural” self-selection. It also resulted from changed recruitment and base-closing policies, combined with the steady Republicanization of the American South. The period since the late 1960s saw the closure of many northeastern ROTC programs and the expansion of those programs in the South. By the late 1990s, more than 40% of all ROTC programs were in the South -- mainly at state universities -- though the South is home to fewer than 30% of the nation’s college students. Similar patterns in base closures have meant that disproportionate numbers of military personnel are now stationed at bases in the South and Southwest.
For a time, the Republicanization of the military became self-reinforcing. The GOP has controlled the White House for all but 12 of the last 34 years and has made a determined effort to identify itself with the military and to court military voters. By the turn of the millennium, the perception that Republicans were “pro-military” while Democrats were “soft” on defense had become an entrenched facet of American politics.
The latest Military Times poll offers the most telling evidence yet that this is beginning to change. Although the reasons for the recent military flight from the Republican Party can only be guessed at, it’s a safe bet that disgust at Bush administration bungling in Iraq is the single biggest factor.
The poll shows that only 35% of military personnel approve of the president’s handling of the war, and three-fourths of those polled say that the military is “stretched too thin to be effective.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that many career officers also are skeptical of the administration’s approach to combating terrorism and unhappy with its undermining of the norms of the Geneva Convention.
The partial de-Republicanization of the military is a hopeful sign -- and not just for Democrats. A politicized military presents a threat to democratic ideals of civilian control. Over the last 30 years, the Republicanization of the military also has had a deeply distorting effect on public debates about national security, making it almost impossible to question Republican national security policies without being labeled “anti-military.”
As we struggle to move beyond the horrors of Iraq, we desperately need to develop fresh approaches to changing security threats. That requires a military that isn’t partisan -- and political leaders who won’t make posturing in front of the troops a substitute for responsible policies.