On Partisan Bubbles and Military Nonpartisanism

If retired Marine Corps Reserve veteran Rob Riggle taught us anything about the city of Berkeley, California, it was that it is a “bastion of liberal thought.”

Riggle’s Daily Show satire piece wasn’t too far from the truth. And while Berkeley the city is a whole lot more crazy-left than Berkeley the university, where the Army has graciously allowed me to matriculate for its Advanced Civil Schooling (ACS) program, we’re still talking about dark shades of blue.

On another end of the spectrum, there is a military culture typically characterized as conservative (although some would argue that it is not as conservative as might be expected). Like outspoken liberals in Berkeley, emboldened conservatives affiliated with the military (active duty, separated, retired, or even family members) are just as likely to righteously preach partisan politics from the soapbox, particularly on social media.

A screenshot of my actual mail-in ballot.

An interesting phenomenon exists, however, that exacerbates polarized partisan discussions: partisan bubbles. What I mean by partisan bubbles, particularly in the social media sense, is that users curate a friends list of like-minded people who share in their partisan preferences. If I feel like you’re a “libtard” or a “right wing nutjob,” all I have to do is unfriend you, or at least “unfollow” you while still remaining friends so I don’t have to suffer through your perceived idiocy.

Although recent research suggests that the existence of these bubbles (often also called echo chambers) might be exaggerated, this speaks to the general population. For the purposes of my point, University of California, Berkeley students and members of the military can hardly be called representative of the general American population with respect to partisan preferences. The result is that I have witnessed the emergence of two partisan bubbles on my own personal social media feeds in conjunction with this year’s presidential race.

And while early polls (particular the one done by Doctrine Man and published at The Hill) saw Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson ahead with active duty service members, more recent numbers indicate that Republican nominee Donald Trump has pulled even with Johnson among that demographic.

(Via Doctrine Man Facebook page)
Published September 2016 (Via MilitaryTimes.com)

What should active duty service members do?

Don’t let social media and your immediate bubble over-shape your decision absent your own objective research. This is a pretty tired refrain, especially in today’s “audience democracy,” wherein candidate personalities outweigh policies and platforms, but it is just as important as ever. Instead of listening to your slightly racist uncle or your pot smoking brother-in-law, draw your own conclusions:

Register to vote. Request your mail-in ballot if applicable. This is made very easy at FVAP.gov, but there are plenty of other easy websites to walk you through the registration process. If you like, you can check out sites like Vote.gov and RockTheVote.com. You can also google your state or county’s voting office for a direct line to the workers on the ground who will know the right TTPs to get your ballot in and counted.

Navy Captain Jeffrey Ward, commander of amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), registers for an absentee ballot request with his voting assistance officer. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeanette Mullinax, via dvidshub.net)

As a military leader, earnestly advocate for the Voting Assistance Program in your organization. Some poor sap (including me when I was a lieutenant) is going to get stuck with this additional duty when they’d probably rather be doing their job. Don’t make their life difficult—make it easier by actively supporting the program and pushing the vote. That also means making sure your troops have the time and opportunity to get to the polls on November 8. Yes, that’s a duty day.

Don’t be a keyboard warrior. I’m convinced that their isn’t much difference between the active or veteran military service member stumping for their chosen candidate on social media and the ever-present veteran suffering from a case of Veteran Outrage Syndrome. Certainly you have a right to free speech, but don’t sound like an idiot while exercising it.

Military leaders should maintain a nonpartisan persona when possible. First of all, note that I wrote nonpartisan and not apolitical. In 2013, Major Brian Babcock-Lumish wrote to this point in Military Review, noting that, to accomplish its mission and understand the intent of both military commanders and civilian leaders, the military must have a grasp on “political understanding, not partisanship.”

That said, it is important for military leaders to maintain an agnostic persona with respect to political partisanship as best as possible. This doesn’t mean don’t express your right to free speech as a private citizen when out of uniform. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that everyone under your leadership or in your organization shares your political views or will value your right to express your views. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that you won’t affect relationships or the working environment by publicly siding with one candidate over another. And in our social media-saturated world, keeping it to Facebook on the weekend is probably not sufficient enough to separate your private beliefs from work. Remember the “nebulous, often cliched phrase:” Mission first. People always.

I write the above without even referencing the more political and theoretical reasons. One only needs to read General (Retired) Dempsey’s post-convention oped at Defense One for the importance of remaining agnostic to partisanship: “Because we have a special role in our democracy, and because we will serve whoever is elected.”

Further, it is a DoD Directive that “members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity, and that members not on active duty should avoid inferences that their political activities imply or appear to imply official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement.” (Here’s a handy political guide from the DoD Office of Legal Policy.) As networked and social media-enabled as our lives are, it may be difficult to distinguish personal time from active duty, both for you and your subordinates. Don’t make your people engage in mental acrobatics to distinguish the two for you.

Finally: Vote. Do it, and encourage others to do it as well. While it certainly matters who is ultimately elected (in all offices, not just the presidency), what matters most is that Americans express their preferences at the ballot boxes.

With all respect to my friends and colleagues in the military and at the venerable UC Berkeley, witnessing such a pronounced cleavage in the vocal supporters on both sides of this year’s presidential race had been a fascinating political experience. I encourage everyone to pop their bubble if you have one and stiff-arm any manufactured incredulity you may have gotten from your echo chamber. Above all, vote.

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