Social media’s angry partisan divides are seeping into the U.S. military, raising fears that the tradition of political neutrality in the armed services is eroding on sites like Twitter and Facebook, according to a first-of-its-kind Pentagon survey shared with POLITICO.
The survey, of more than 500 West Point cadets and active-duty officers, is prompting calls for commanders up and down the ranks to reemphasize how impartiality is a major reason why the military regularly polls as the most respected institution in the country.
“Such behavior threatens to erode the trust in which the public holds the military, leading to it being viewed as just another interest group,” writes Army Col. Heidi Urben, a political scientist working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff who compiled the findings while studying last year at the Pentagon’s National Defense University. The university will publish the complete findings later this year.
Military leaders “must do a better job of communicating why this matters,” she added in an interview. “Those trust and confidence levels, in part, relate to the fact that we are viewed as nonpartisan.”
The warnings follow a particularly divisive election campaign during which both major presidential candidates recruited scores of retired officers to serve as surrogates and to attach their names and ranks to campaign literature. They also come amid accusations that President Donald Trump is recklessly politicizing the military by claiming, with scant evidence, that the troops voted for him in overwhelming numbers.
The findings also point to another trend: A smaller percentage of career officers identify as conservative or Republican than in previous surveys. And higher percentages label themselves moderate or liberal and report that they are registered as Democrats or independents.
Fifty-four percent of officers responding to the survey said they were Republicans, 24 percent said they were Democrats and 14 percent reported they were independents. But more striking, Urben said, was that when asked about their political ideology, nearly 47 percent identified as conservative, 32 percent as moderate and 22 percent as liberal. That compares with previous studies in which as many as 65 percent of military officers reported they were politically conservative.
“It looks like we might have some shifting for the first time in 30 years,” said Urben. “We saw a little bit higher proportion of officers who identify as Democrat or liberal than in past surveys and a slightly lower percentage of those who would identify as a Republican or conservative.”
Separate studies have suggested that the political attitudes of the enlisted ranks more closely reflect the public at large.
But it is the social media activity on all sides that most alarms people who study the military’s role in society.
In the survey, 75 percent of people who responded said they had witnessed their fellow officers repost or share links to political articles or otherwise promote politically charged viewpoints initially posted by others.
Researchers consider those kinds of actions relatively benign, comparable to attending a political rally, donating to a candidate or placing a bumper sticker on one’s car. But it is still a surprisingly prevalent phenomenon, they said.
And one-third of those surveyed said they regularly see fellow officers advocate directly for a political figure, disparage a candidate or encourage others to take action on a political issue — more overtly partisan activity that Urben and others consider out of bounds.
The armed forces could pay a steep cost if these trends go unchecked, say military scholars who have studied the military and politics in recent years.
In opinion polls about confidence in public institutions, the U.S. military consistently rates at the top. Last year, Gallup reported that 73 percent of Americans ranked the military highest out of 14 institutions. And that level of public support had not changed in a decade.
“It is the most trusted institution, but a great deal of that is because the military is seen as above the political fray and is interested in the mission without a political ideology getting in the way,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security who has studied the political attitudes of the troops in recent elections. “What happens when you open that can of worms and the military is perceived as captured? Its reputation will plummet.”
Indeed, the military has polled high since the administration of President Ronald Reagan, following a low point in public perceptions after the Vietnam War, said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University and former national security official in the administration of George W. Bush.
“The Supreme Country used to rank high, too. What happened?” Feaver added. “The Supreme Court increasingly took on a partisan appearance and looked like a group of Republicans and Democrats arguing with each other.”
The Pentagon directive governing political activity for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard provides wide latitude for officers and enlisted troops to exercise their rights of citizenship — within certain restrictions.
They can join a political club and attend its meetings, but not in uniform. They can sign petitions and write letters to the editor as long as it is not part of an organized campaign. With some limitations, they can donate to candidates or political parties. They can even serve as an election official, as long as they do not represent a political party.
But they are expressly prohibited from fund raising, soliciting votes, speaking before political gatherings or working for a political group. While they can display a bumper sticker for their candidate of choice, they cannot “display a large political sign, poster, banner or device” on their vehicle. Nor can they post any political signs on their residence if they live on a military installation. They can even run for office in very narrow circumstances and as long as it doesn’t interfere with their official duties.
Commissioned officers, meanwhile, are specifically barred from using “contemptuous words” in a political context.
But the guidelines, which run 15 pages, have not been updated in nearly a decade. And nowhere is “social media” mentioned.
“The military hasn’t caught up with social media,” said Feaver, who co-wrote a chapter in the recent book “Warriors & Citizens,” which was co-edited by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “Things that in the past might have been said over beers at the officers’ club instead get printed on your Facebook walls. That links the institution to partisan activity. It used to be more private. What do you do when barracks talk is public?”
Compounding the problem, experts say, is the steady rise in recent decades of retired senior officers engaging directly in partisan politics. Feaver traces it to Bill Clinton’s first White House run in 1992, when he recruited retired Adm. William Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as a campaign surrogate.
“It has been an arms race ever since,” he said.
But it reached its zenith in 2016 when both Trump and his opponent Hillary Clinton relied heavily on retired generals on the stump and also cited countless other retired senior officers as supporters. “They get trotted out like stage props,” Feaver said.
Dempsey, who is also a trained political scientist and author of “Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations,” passed an even harsher judgment on the deleterious effects.
Retired officers running for political office would be one thing, he said, but “they were trading their rank and the reputation of the military for their own partisan political opinion. They were asked to be on these lists because they have stars. It is letting the campaigns play Pokemon Go with their military service. Both candidates were guilty of that. And it is incredibly corrosive.”
Dempsey also criticized Trump’s attempts to portray those in the military as political allies. At an appearance before troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida earlier this month, Trump said: “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we? And I saw those numbers, and you like me and I like you, that’s the way it works.”
“The more Trump embraces and hugs the military, the more at risk the military is of falling with his brand, when and if it does,” Dempsey said.
Keeping the military as divorced from politics as possible now poses a major challenge for commanders, according to Urben.
“There are a lot of younger service members today who may not have the full appreciation of the long history — that assume that high levels of public support for the military is just a given,” she said. “We want to make sure that nonpartisan ethic remains at the forefront.”
The solution, however, is “not to have this overly legalistic approach towards censoring people’s Facebook pages but talking about why we think it is a good thing to keep our politics out of the foxhole and how that in turn keeps the military above the fray, especially in times of great political discord.”