Foreign Policy Essay

Minding the Gap: The Military, Politics and American Democracy

By Raphael S. Cohen
Sunday, December 17, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The relationship between soldiers and civilians is a fundamental question for any democracy. In the United States, the military has long been respected, but only recently has it been idolized—far more so than any other American institution today. Not surprisingly, politicians increasingly bring military officers into their administrations. Raphael Cohen of RAND finds that the civil-military gap is growing, in large part due to the shift toward an all-volunteer force and the decline in the percentage of Americans with military experience. Cohen calls for a recalibration of how Americans view the men and women who serve in the military and then enter politics.


A quarter-century ago, in a widely read piece in the military journal Parameters, now-retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap warned of several troubling trends in American civil-military relations that, left unchecked, could have disastrous effects for democracy. He imagined a bleak future, in which “Americans became exasperated with democracy. We were disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation’s dilemmas. We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military.” Twenty-five years later, Dunlap’s dystopia, thankfully, has not materialized, but his diagnosis of some underlying trends in U.S. civil-military relations rings eerily true.

The gap between Americans’ confidence in the military versus its civilian counterparts has widened over the past several decades, leading former military officers to play an increasingly prominent role in politics and changing the civil-military balance in potentially unhealthy ways.

Fewer Americans believe in democracy now than in the past. A recent Pew survey found that 51 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the way democracy is functioning. The same Pew study found that 17 percent of Americans would consider a military government, while 22 percent would consider strong man rule. Perhaps even more concerning for the future is that this dissatisfaction tends to be concentrated among younger Americans. According to one study published in the Journal of Democracy, while more than 70 percent of the pre-World War II generation ranked living in a democracy as “essential,” only 30 percent of millennials do.

While disaffection with the U.S. government has grown in recent years, the military remains one of the few government institutions that retains widespread support. According to Gallup polling, in 2017, 72 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot of faith” in the military—far more than in Congress (12 percent), the presidency (32 percent), or even the Supreme Court (40 percent). As important as the absolute numbers, however, is the trend. Americans have long placed more faith in the military than in civilian institutions, but the size of the gap has grown over time. When Gallup began polling in 1975, at the military’s nadir after Vietnam, 6 percent more Americans placed a “great deal” or “quite a lot of faith” in the military than in the presidency, 9 percent more than in the Supreme Court, and 18 percent more than in Congress. Today, there is a 32 percent difference between faith in the military and the Supreme Court, a 40 percent delta between faith in the military and the presidency, and a stunning 60 percent gap between faith in the military and Congress. In an age marked by increasing skepticism, the military has seemingly bucked the trend.

The military’s popularity in American society does not stem from the afterglow of any particular victory. While American’s confidence in the military spiked in the Gallup polling after the Gulf War (85 percent) and in 2003 with the opening gambit in the Iraq War (82 percent), those momentary surges did not last long. Today, polls show that at least a plurality—if not a majority—of Americans view the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as failures, and yet somewhat enigmatically, faith in the primary institution responsible for designing and executing these campaigns remains strong.

Nor has the military’s stock risen simply by default. While the decline in trust in other governmental institutions exacerbated the trend, that is not the only reason for the trust gap. The Gallup polls show a long, slow rise in confidence in the military over the last four decades, from about 58 percent of Americans having a “great deal” or “quite a lot of faith” in the military in 1975 to 72 percent today, making the military the only government institution more trusted now than when Gallup began polling. In other words, while Americans may be more disillusioned with other parts of government today, they are seemingly more enamored with the military for its own reasons.

The military may owe its high levels of trust to many Americans’ lack of first-hand experience with the institution. Americans’ confidence in the military began to increase shortly after the draft ended. Veterans today comprise only about 7 percent of the American population and tend to come from military families. For most Americans then, the military’s image is shaped not by experience but by news reports, TV shows, and movies. And the more detached Americans become from the military, the more they can romanticize it, turning it into what they want—rather than what it is.

Strikingly, those with the most exposure to the military—service members themselves—generally tend to be less sanguine about the institution. Only a few years ago, in multiple surveys, troops expressed their doubts about their leaders, the outcomes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the direction of their services, and their satisfaction with their profession overall—so much so, in fact, that some policymakers worried about a military “morale crisis.” Seemingly then, the American public may be more confident in the military than the military may be in itself.

Idealizing the military while scrutinizing civilian institutions risks changing the civil-military balance and moving the military away from its self-avowed apolitical stance. Unsurprisingly, given Americans’ lack of confidence in career politicians, former military officers now play increasingly prominent roles in politics. Ever since then-candidate Bill Clinton blunted questions about his avoidance of the draft with the endorsement of former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, retired Navy Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr., in 1992, presidential campaigns have relied on slates of retired flag officers to bolster their candidate’s national-security credentials. Former general officers also have become increasingly visible campaign surrogates, appearing in primetime in both the 2016 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. And the last several administrations increasingly turned to current and former general officers to fill their cabinet and subcabinet ranks.

Viewed independently, most of these ventures in politics seem benign, if not beneficial. After all, who better to vouch for candidates’ national-security credentials than those with a lifetime of experience in the field? Moreover, historically, plenty of generals ended up in politics. Indeed, former generals—from George Washington to Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant to Dwight Eisenhower—rode successful military campaigns to the White House, while others—like George Marshall or Alexander Haig—have ended up as cabinet secretaries, chiefs of staff, or assumed lesser positions in government. Turning to general officers to fill these roles today is hardly abnormal, and very well might be placing the right person for the job.

Judged collectively, however, the trend threatens to inject the military into the center of hyper-partisan American politics. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen recently remarked, “That doesn't mean generals and admirals can't serve. They certainly have in the past. But it's particularly difficult right now because of the politics of the town. And there's nothing that seemingly is not able to be politicized in the current environment.” No matter the good intentions of the individuals, once military officers become painted with either a Republican or Democrat brush, they risk eroding the bedrock of civil-military relations—the open and constructive two-way dialogue between politicians and soldiers.

The dangers of politicization, arguably, are only made worse by the public’s embrace of the military and its service members, particularly if this leads some to accept the words of general officers as sacrosanct. No general is infallible and beyond reproach, especially when they choose to enter an unfamiliar and turbulent political environment. These also could be debilitating for civilian policymakers, who may dodge responsibility for their decisions by cloaking indecision in deference to the uniform.

Ultimately, the disparity between Americans’ confidence in the military versus civilian institutions, and the second-order effects that come with this shift, is only partially the military’s to solve. At the very least, the military needs to be mindful of its public image and to recognize that some societal admiration of military service is healthy, but excessive veneration is not. The military also has a role, if a limited one, in bolstering civilian institutions. This is, perhaps, a bright spot in the civil-military trends of the last few decades. Many of Dunlap’s original recommendations focused on preventing the militarization of foreign policy and the displacement of civilian agencies. Partly thanks to its focus on counterinsurgency, the military embraced the “whole of government approach” almost to a fault, and a group of retired flag offers recently even signed an open letter seeking to protect funding for the State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Peace Corps.

Minding the gap, however, is not just a military responsibility. Restoring Americans’ confidence in various components of their government rests with those who lead those institutions. The onus also falls to the American public at large to judge each institution’s performance objectively and place its faith accordingly. This means viewing military service without rose-colored glasses, judging its performance fairly but objectively, and seeing the handful of service members who do enter politics as what they are—politicians.