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No president in modern American history has trampled on the norms of democratic civil-military relations like U.S. President Donald Trump. Early in his administration, he stocked his cabinet with retired military officers whom he called “my generals,” only to have his relationships with them collapse into public acrimony. Since then, he has delegated important decisions about the use of force to military officers, repeatedly dragged the armed forces into partisan politics, and overruled the military’s decisions about personnel and justice. During the protests that exploded across the country over police violence against African Americans, Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy active-duty troops to the nation’s streets.
But until very recently, the president’s regular breaches of civil-military norms have seemed to make little impression on the American public. Our research on public opinion helps explain why that is: many Americans don’t endorse important aspects of these norms, and their views on civil-military relations, like so much else in this polarized age, are heavily driven by party affiliation. More than principles or ideology, partisan politics explains how Americans think military and civilian officials ought to interact.
All regimes want armed forces that are both capable of national defense and subservient to political leaders. But the imperative to guard the guardians is greatest in democracies, which insist on decision-makers’ accountability to the people. As a result, while military officers have a responsibility to advise civilian politicians and officials, they have no right to impose their judgments on those civilians. The will of elected, accountable leaders must prevail for government to be of, by, and for the people, to borrow from U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
That basic tenet of democratic theory has yielded principles and norms that have been drilled into generations of military officers. These include that the armed forces should be subject to substantial civilian oversight, that civilian leaders should make the ultimate decisions about whether or not to use military force, and that military officers should express their views behind closed doors rather than in public. To promote this consensus behavior, experts on civil-military relations have long advised that the U.S. government invest in institutions that cultivate military professionalism, socialize officers to democratic norms, and improve civilians’ ability to monitor military officers and hold them accountable.
If the military is to remain within its designated bounds, the public must grasp and endorse these democratic norms of civil-military relations.
Rarely have they acknowledged the tacit premise of these undertakings: that if the military is to remain within its designated bounds, the public must grasp and endorse these democratic norms of civil-military relations. In fact, surprisingly little is known about what the U.S. public actually thinks about civil-military relations. Decades of polling confirm that Americans have a great deal of confidence in their military—more than in any other political or social institution for at least the last 21 years—despite two largely unpopular and unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Polls also show that Republicans are more confident in the military than are Democrats. (The partisan gap grew substantially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, shrank somewhat at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009, and then grew strikingly again after Trump’s election in 2016.) But whether or not confidence in the military was associated with adherence to democratic civil-military norms remained largely unknown because, with rare exceptions, pollsters had not asked detailed questions about Americans’ views of civil-military relations.
In June 2019, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 1,900 people located in the United States—and found that the American public is remarkably out of step with the norms of democratic civil-military relations. Consider the most basic question: Who decides when to use force? “If senior U.S. military officers approve of a proposed military mission,” 39.5 percent of respondents think the president should approve the mission even if he “thinks the mission not worthwhile.” This substantial minority believes that the commander in chief should not just consult with senior officers but ultimately do whatever they say when it comes to using military force. Even more respondents favor deference to the military brass if the scenario is framed in the negative: “If senior U.S. military officers object to a proposed military mission,” 50.3 percent of respondents think the president should reject the mission even if he “thinks the mission worthwhile.”
Americans are also surprisingly comfortable with military involvement in public debate over policy. A majority of respondents—56.1 percent—agree that “senior military officers should advocate publicly for military operations and policies they favor,” compared to just 17.2 percent who disagree. A strong plurality even endorses public advocacy by senior military officers on matters that “they believe are in the country’s best interest, even if the policies are not related to the military”: 40.9 percent agree with this statement, and just 29.3 percent disagree. In short, a large chunk of the electorate, and sometimes a majority—across demographic and ideological groups—seems not to believe that the will of the people, through their elected representatives, should reign supreme over military policy.
Not all Americans are equally deferential to the military. But our poll suggests that political tribe, not principle or ideology, determines who does and who does not think that a president should take a back seat to the nation’s generals. One might expect political conservatives—who are very likely to be Republicans and Trump supporters and who hold the military in especially high regard—to be more deferential than political liberals to the armed forces and less sensitive to officers’ intrusion into policy debate. But our poll finds the opposite to be true: 46.5 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say that if senior U.S. military officers approve of a proposed military mission, the president should do what they say even if it is against his or her better judgment—compared to 30.3 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who say so. If the president approves of the mission and military officers object, deference rises across the board, but the partisan differences remain: 58.0 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents adopt the more deferential position, compared to 40.3 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
The pattern is even clearer—and more readily explicable—when respondents’ views are considered alongside their approval or disapproval of Trump’s performance as president. Those who strongly disapprove of the president are the most deferential to the armed forces, and those who strongly approve of the president are the least deferential: depending on the question, those who disapprove of Trump are 60 to 80 percent more likely to adopt a deferential stance.
Those who strongly disapprove of the president are the most deferential to the armed forces, and those who strongly approve of the president are the least deferential
Trump-supporting Republicans don’t suddenly feel less warm toward or trusting of the military, of course. In fact, these Americans have grown even more supportive of the armed forces since Trump’s election in 2016. But such sentiments seem to evaporate when Republicans consider that the generals’ preferences might not align with those of their man in the White House. Republicans’ relatively nondeferential attitude toward the military appears to stem from their desire for Trump to have free rein over policy, unconstrained by senior military officers. Democrats and Trump disapprovers are still more distrustful of the military than are Republicans and Trump supporters, but they are even less trusting of Trump. Their deference to the armed forces thus appears to stem from their hope that the military can act as a check on the president, whose policies they detest, whose judgment they doubt, and whose impulsiveness they fear.
The power of political partisanship comes across even more clearly when one compares our data to 2013 data that James Mattis and Kori Schake collected as part of a Hoover Institution survey. In 2013, when Obama was in office, virtually no Republican respondents adopted a position of maximal civilian supremacy: just one percent said that “when the country is at war, the president should personally direct both the broad objectives as well as the details of military plans.” But with Trump in office in 2019, 18 percent of Republican respondents to our survey endorsed this view. In 2013, just nine percent of Democrats and 34 percent of Republicans opted for maximal deference to the military: “when the country is at war, the president should basically follow the advice of the generals.” In 2019, 28 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans chose this option. In other words, Republican and Democratic views on civil-military relations have essentially flipped along with the partisan affiliation of the president. If former Vice President Joe Biden defeats Trump in November, we expect partisans’ stances on deference to the military and the military’s proper role in politics to flip yet again.
Given these findings, the lack of public outcry over Trump’s civil-military transgressions is not puzzling. An overwhelming majority of Americans see military officers as paragons of patriotism and professional competence, and outside of elite and left-leaning circles, they didn’t worry all that much when Trump appointed Mattis and John Kelly, both retired Marine Corps generals, and retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn to high-ranking posts in his administration. Many Americans—particularly those who opposed the president—wanted to see Trump follow the military’s lead anyway, which may be why they didn’t seem especially concerned when he delegated strike authority to military commanders in the field or when he granted the military greater authority to pursue both defensive and offensive cyber-operations. Even roping the military into partisan politics and treating it as a political prop didn’t appear to bother many Americans, who have only modest faith that military officers will keep their noses out of politics. Americans are far more likely to believe that officers are patriotic, competent, and ethical than to believe that they are nonpolitical.
But what if these views simply reflect the current political moment, in which many Americans believe that Trump represents a singular threat to the republic? It is possible that these Americans see the military as a check against democratic backsliding. But we are skeptical of this explanation. Concern about the health of the nation’s democracy has long been a product of party affiliation. At least since 1996, those whose party controlled the White House have felt better about American democracy than those whose party was out of power. In this sense, there is nothing unique about the current moment.
Moreover, although fear of Trump’s authoritarian inclinations might explain why Democrats and Trump disapprovers have become more deferential to the armed forces since 2013, it can’t explain why Republicans and Trump approvers have become less deferential during the same time period. These Americans think that the nation’s democratic health has improved since 2013, so they should feel the same as before about deference to the military—not suddenly in favor of civilian supremacy. Either way, however, our findings reveal a worrying lack of public support for the democratic norms of civil-military relations.
What can be done to bolster Americans’ commitment to democratic civil-military relations? Any solution will need to address the country’s culture of militarism. Yes, party affiliation is a large part of what activates Americans’ preference for deference or nondeference to the military—but their comfort with the military’s meddling in politics and policy and even with the military’s preferences governing the use of force stem from a deeper cultural narrative that glorifies military heroism, sacrifice, and patriotism. Trump has reinforced this narrative, but so have many politicians before him. The problem runs much deeper than the 45th president.
Building public support for democratic norms of civil-military relations must start with brave civilian leadership that models respectful skepticism of the military. Instead of reproducing militarist mythology on the campaign trail and elsewhere, politicians should speak honestly about the nature of modern soldiering. Politicians may even find that military officers would welcome being taken down from the pedestal on which they have been placed.
Change will need to come from below, as well. Democracy demands a certain degree of popular civic virtue—as Americans have been reminded in this summer of protest. Reviving civic education needs to be a priority for the next administration. And reminding Americans of the norms of democratic civil-military relations—and why they are so important—should be lesson number one.
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