Hanging Around the Flagpole

At the end of my final semester in grad school, I have noticeably trimmed back B&B content for the sake of focusing on my thesis and other school work. But when a piece of research jumps out at me, I feel compelled to write, as with my last post in February regarding college credits for military service members and veterans. This time is like that.

I recently wrote a paper examining the value of the veteran vote to potential presidential candidates. I tried to argue that, since 9/11, things in America have changed irrevocably. Of course that’s true, especially with respect to security. An encounter with TSA at an airport is experience enough to know just how clamped down some things have become. Even the military perspective proves the point: on 9/10, I could drive straight onto Fort Hood in my car. Not so much on 9/11, or any day thereafter.

But does that same change persist in public opinion and in politics? Certainly some things have changed. As petty as it may seem, try running for federal office in post-9/11 America without sporting an American flag lapel pin on your suit jacket. President Obama and Democrat VP nominee Tim Kaine know the pain of such a distraction.

Senator Tim Kaine speaks with supporters at a campaign rally at the Maryvale Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona on November 3, 2016. Note the Blue Star pin on his lapel. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons).

More substantively, a cursory review of the television ads in 2000 from the George W. Bush and Al Gore campaigns reveals a focus on taxes, social security, and education. Few ads even mention the military, veterans, national security, or related topics, and much of those mentions are references to Gore’s Vietnam veteran status. Not surprisingly, 2004 campaign ads included a major portion of television spots focused on the war in Iraq, defense spending, homeland security, and the commander-in-chief qualifications of each candidate. Similar advertising persisted through the 2008 and 2012 elections and were certainly present in 2016. Reviewing a dataset of over 2,800 television ads aired during the 2016 presidential race, over 200 advertisements included the following words: military, veteran, terrorism, foreign policy, security, nuclear, or Islam.

The “Rally ‘Round the Flag” Effect

So some things have changed, but has the “rally ’round the flag” effect persisted? Are American people and politicians still hanging around the flagpole nearly 16 years later? Many authors have written that the American people have moved on. Dominic Tierney wrote that Americans have “moved beyond war weariness into a kind of numbing amnesia.” James Fallows agreed, writing that, “As a country, America has been at war nonstop… As a public, it has not.” Even the satire site Duffel Blog recently ran an article titled “American Public Learns We’re Still Fighting In Afghanistan After Pentagon Drops Huge Bomb There.” Satire is, after all, rooted in truth.

More evidence of the public’s disinterest in the wars exists. For instance, in 2016, the top issue for voters was the economy. This isn’t surprising. Lydia Saad at Gallup wrote that “public concern about the economy has almost always trumped public concern about international problems.”

Granted, terrorism and foreign policy were numbers two and three. (via Pew Research Center)

The argument can be made that the American public has disentangled the “troops” from the “wars.” People of all partisan persuasions almost universally honor and praise veterans and their sacrifices without having to express an opinion about Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or ISIS. This is perhaps backed up by the public’s confidence in the U.S. military, which is consistently high, and (with the exception of 2007) has not dipped below 70% since 9/11.

What about politicians?

Politicians are much the same as the public. While they continue to “support the troops” at every possible opportunity, the importance of the wars has waned. The rally effect is gone, despite the fact that the wars are not. To study this with at least one perspective, I examined the language and organization in every Democratic and Republican party platform from 1988 through 2016 to determine if party support of the military and veterans remained high after 9/11 because of the sustained length of the wars. Using several key words, I found that references in party platforms to the military and related terms peaked for both parties in 2004, but have since returned much closer to pre-9/11 averages. Looking at the occurrence of military key words as a percentage of the total word count of a party platform, I observed similar results. See figures below for a visual representation of this research.

Party Platform a

Party Platform 1

Taking a closer look at the substance of the platforms yielded the same finding. Before 9/11, both the Democrats and Republicans organized sections concerning the military, national security, foreign policy, and related subjects near the end of the platform text or as its final section. The 1992 Democratic platform discussed “Defense conversion” early in its text, which makes sense in the wake of the Gulf War, but the bulk of its military and defense content came later in the work. Not surprisingly, the military and defense issues dominated the first halves of both parties’ platforms in 2004. Republicans continued that trend in 2008, but the Democrats already pushed military content to the middle of the platform after discussions of the economy, education, and taxes that year. Since then, both parties have returned to discussing such topics at the end of their respective platforms.

 So What?

In the paper I mention above, my purpose was to make recommendations for how a candidate could sway veteran votes. It did not matter that the public and politicians have put thoughts of the wars on the back burner while continuing to pay lip service to veterans and the troops. It is quite unfortunate that this rationale (an excuse to avoid addressing more complicated problems in my paper) is, in fact, political reality today.

m0vg9Some (including GEN (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal) argue that part of the disconnection I’ve described above is the result of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) being charged with carrying out the extended wars. Others argue that American war commitments should be better aligned with American priorities and values. Either way, there now exists a growing body of discussion regarding what many readers probably already recognized without me using the term: the civil-military divide.

I propose no solutions here; I only offer some research I threw together for a grad school assignment and some wood for the civil-military divide fire. But what is clear is that talk of a divide has basis in empirical reality. What can be done?

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One thought on “Hanging Around the Flagpole”

  1. Interesting analysis. In all aspects. I will be mistaken if I suppose that the “pink liberals” are now trying to neutralize the voices (influence on politics) of the American veterans radicalized in the war? Perhaps strengthening work in the black ghettos and campuses of universities?
    Sorry for the slippery question. Interesting parallels with Russia.


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