Americans have lost faith in what was seen as last functional institution: The military

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A shocking new survey from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute has found that Americans’ trust in what many saw as the last truly functional, non-partisan institution — the military — has tanked and not in a small way over the past few years.

According to the survey, trust in the U.S. military fell from 70 percent to 45 percent over the past three years, which includes a steep 11-point drop just since February.

“Almost a year into the Biden Administration and a few months removed from the Afghanistan withdrawal, the American people are equivocal and unsure about U.S. global leadership and military capabilities,” notes an introduction to a report discussing the survey’s results.

The survey “reveals the continuation of many trends that emerged in previous surveys, such as declining trust and confidence in the military,” the introduction continues.

Around 2,500 people took part in the survey, conducted between Oct. 25 and Nov. 7. The steep decline in trust and confidence in the U.S. military “comes amid debates about how to deal with extremism in the ranks, criticisms from lawmakers that the military is becoming too ‘woke,’ fierce arguments about whether troops should be required to get vaccinated for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and the fall of Afghanistan,” says an assessment by Task & Purpose.

All said, however, the survey does not reflect an anti-troops attitude among Americans, according to experts who studied the results.

“Affection for the rank and file has been a hallmark of the AVF [all-volunteer force] ever since the Reagan years – think his ‘The Boys of Pointe du Hoc’ speech and the revival of interest in the ‘greatest generation,’” Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University in North Carolina, told the outlet. “This survey shows that that still persists.”

Of respondents who said they still have a “great deal” of confidence in the military, 29 percent indicated that is due to the troops. And 15 percent said that confidence comes from their belief in the military’s ability to protect the country, the survey results noted.

“It is more likely that the survey results indicate that Americans are increasingly viewing the military — as an institution — through the lens of partisan politics,” Task & Purpose noted.

Other noteworthy results include:

— Of those who said their confidence in the military is not very high, 13 percent pointed to “political leadership;

— 9 percent of respondents cited “scandals/sexual assault/lies/cover-ups”;

— Overall, 8 percent said they believe that the U.S. military costs too much and that its priorities are wrong;

— 15 percent gave other reasons for a loss of confidence that were not specified;

— 8 percent said they were unsure why they had lost confidence in the military;

— Respondents who identified as Republicans, in particular, expressed a loss of confidence, with 87 percent saying they had confidence in the institute’s 2018 survey compared to 53 percent now;

— In 2018, 59 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of self-identified Independents expressed confidence, but those figures dropped (respectively) to 42 percent and 38 percent this year.

“The fact that ‘political leadership’ was the plurality response among those with low confidence (albeit only a 13 percent plurality) may be an indication of the corrosive effects of political polarization in the body politic generally bleeding over into attitudes towards the military,” Feaver told Task & Purpose.

Since President Biden was inaugurated in January, the military’s top leaders have been wrapped up in “the toxic political environment that now permeates all levels of American society,” Task & Purpose noted, citing one example — Army Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman — who has been assailed from the left and right.

“It looks to me like validation of Peter Feaver and Jim Golby’s research showing that the public begins to view the military the way they do the Supreme Court: apolitical when their behavior supports my beliefs, shamefully politicized when they don’t,” noted Kori Schake, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of a book with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis about civilian-military divides.

Risa Brooks, a political science professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, told Task & Purpose that the military is holding up better than other American institutions.

“But I think that it’s important for the public to see the military as acting on behalf of all of them and as representing the country and the country’s national interests writ-large,” Brooks said. “So when you’re getting a circumstance in which the military is only popular with certain subsets of the population or only some people and some groups are expressing confidence in it, it starts to suggest that not everybody believes that the military is acting on behalf of the country as a whole.

“Ultimately, that’s going to affect the ability to mobilize and galvanize opinion to deal with the kinds of threats and challenges the country is facing,” Brooks told the outlet.

Jon Dougherty


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