As political polarization rises, Americans’ confidence in government institutions is falling. Our military has always maintained strong public support and is paying the price. In 2018, Gallup recorded that some 74% of Americans said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military; in 2023, that number had dropped to 60%. That is still high compared to other governmental institutions, but it is a marked decline.
Much of the decline is due to the end of the rally around the flag effect of the global war on terror and the decline in social connections that ordinary Americans might have to a shrinking All-Volunteer Force. But some of the declines may result from a growing politicization of the military as partisans on both sides of the aisle drag the military into ongoing culture wars.
Allowing political and cultural wars to erode citizens’ faith in a once-revered institution is a needless wound that could hobble the military where it hurts most, making it harder to persuade recruits to join. A strong military relies on successful recruitment –another aspect that has been trending downward in recent years, partly driven by the public’s shaken confidence. Today, the military faces historically low enlistment, with some branches struggling to meet their quotas by as much as 25%.
Military leaders and policymakers must work together to boost military recruitment, and one way to do that is to keep the military on its central mission: protecting our country and the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. This requires recruiting Americans from all walks of life and forging them into mission-focused teams. And this requires keeping the military out of partisan squabbles.
When the military gets partisan, the public gets skeptical. As I discuss in my new book, Thanks for Your Service: The Causes and Consequences of Public Confidence in the Military, research shows the public seems to define “the politicization of the military” to mean something like “when the military appears to align with policies supported by the other party.” Republicans believe that the military is getting “partisan” when it abides by President Biden’s policies, and Democrats believe that the military is getting “partisan” when it adheres to President Trump’s policies. Telling the public that the military has a partisan skew produces an interesting result: the public’s confidence drops when they believe the military aligns with the other political party but increases (albeit only very slightly) if it agrees with their own.
Increased politicization and polarization have made the military a pawn in our culture wars, eroding the pillars of public confidence and perhaps disincentivizing young Americans from enlisting.
Public confidence in the military is linked to vital material support and ideational benefits, both contributing to the military’s struggle to compete in today’s hot labor market. In addition, high confidence in the military means people are more likely to recommend military service to others, which helps recruiters fill the ranks of the all-volunteer force. Today we confront a dangerous combination of declining public confidence and declining recruitment rates. We cannot afford any further damage to the institution. Military leaders and policymakers must take decisive action against the politicization of this vital institution. Doing so is not just good for the military and the public but is vital to our national security.
Our soldiers fight to protect our values – they should not be a battleground for fighting over what those values are. When we force the military into politics, we cripple its ability to carry out its duty. It’s time to take the military out of the culture wars and free it to focus on maintaining a strong and ready force.
Peter D. Feaver is a Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University and author of Thanks For Your Service: The Causes and Consequences of Public Confidence in the US Military (Oxford University Press, 2023). Feaver was also a member of the National Security Council staff during the Clinton and Bush administrations.