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June 19, 2006

No "Social Conservatives" in the Career Military?

A reader emailed to ask about a comment made in a column last week by the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan (as noted by Mickey Kaus): 

I've never met a career military man who was a conservative on social issues. I think they tend to see questions such as abortion and marriage as essentially uninteresting, private and not subject to the movement of machines. (Connected to this, I suspect Mr. Webb will benefit to some degree by the high number of military retirees in Virginia. They're always assumed to be hawks on Iraq. From personal experience I'd say a high percentage have been dubious about the war, many from the beginning.)

The reader wondered what survey research might have to say about the views of the career military on "social" issues.  I did an initial search this morning and the answer is not as easy to find as one might think.

As regular readers might guess, representative surveys of the career military are rare, difficult to conduct and tend to focus mostly on military issues.  The Military Times newspapers, for example, have conducted regular mail-in surveys of its readers (who are more likely to be officers and "career oriented" than the larger military population), but the questions they ask do not directly address Noonan's point.   There are some hints, however, in their most recent survey

  • Half of the Military Times readers identify as conservative or very conservative (50%), but just as many identify as moderate (33%), liberal (7%) or refuse to say (10%).  Only 8% describe themselves as "very conservative."   Surveys of all U.S. adults typically put the conservative percentage somewhere between 30% and 40%. 
  • They are more Republican than other Americans, but not exclusively so:  56% of the Military Times readers considered themselves Republicans, 13% Democrats, 15% independent and 16% either identify with another party or refuse to say.   The Republican percentage among all adults typically falls in the high 20s to low 30s.

The one "social issue" that the Military Times asks about is also a military issue, and here the Military Times respondents are more conservative than other Americans:  27% answer "yes" when asked if "openly homosexual people should be allowed to serve in the military" (59% say no and 14% do not answer).  Compare that to the recent Pew Research Center survey that found 60% of Americans in favor of "allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military."

The 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES) is another data source that comes close but does not directly address Noonan's point.  In October 2004, NAES did a two-part release on results among active military personnel and their family members that included tabulations (see Table B) among 371 respondents that were either active duty military (n=177) or Guard/Reserve members (n=199): 

  • Consistent with the Military Times survey, 47% identified as Republican, 15% as Democrats and 26% as independent
  • During 2004 they gave George Bush strong job approval (74% positive) and favorable ratings (77%), while rating John Kerry negatively (26% favorable, 57% unfavorable).  By a three-to-one margin (69% to 22%) they said that Bush rather than Kerry "shares my values."

So the members of the military seem more likely to describe themselves as Republican and conservative than most Americans.  They were certainly more comfortable with George Bush than John Kerry in 2004.  So concluding that "career military men" are rarely if ever "conservative on social issues" seems like a bit of a stretch.  On the other hand, the fact that only 9% of the Military Times readers described themselves as "very conservative" may support at least the gist of Noonan's observation.   

To be fair, none of these data are exactly on point.  I'll dig further...

UPDATE (6/20):  Thanks in large part to very helpful comments by Richard Eichenberg and Paul Gronke below, I've posted more here

Related Entries - Polls in the News

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on June 19, 2006 at 01:32 PM in Polls in the News | Permalink


Thanks for this Mark,

There is an excellent scholarly article that summarizes over 20 years of research on this, includings samples of military personnel compared to samples of the broader public.

Ole Holsti, "A Widening Gap between the U.S. Military and Civilian Society?: Some Evidence, 1976-96,"
International Security, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Winter, 1998-1999) , pp. 5-42

The results are well worth reading, but unfortunately the article is behind an electronic journal firewall. Those at universities should have no problem:


Posted by: Ike | Jun 20, 2006 9:47:50 AM


Also see the research reported in Feaver and Kohn, "Uncertain Guardians" (MIT Press) and an early copy of my own paper from that volume (http://www.reed.edu/~gronkep/docs/uncertain.pdf). There is an update by Holsti in the same volume.

The TISS project constituted a random mail survey of military and foreign policy elites. Response rates were pretty good, if memory serves. The survey contained a wide variety of social and political indicators.

Put simply: the military elite (this was NOT a rank and file survey) are more socially conservative, more religious, and more Republican than the public at large, and even more so than civilian elites.

I'm not sure what career military folks Peggy Noonan has talked to about social issues--likely those who have advanced sufficiently to be sufficiently politically astute as to not advertise their views--but her claim is not supported by any of the research that I am familiar with.

Posted by: paul gronke | Jun 20, 2006 1:54:44 PM

Trying to tease this apart may be impossible via polling, but I think it's a worthy subject for further investigation. "Conservative" isn't an objective discription of anything; when those respondents call themselves "very conservative," do they mean that they believe creationism ought to taught be in schools or that we ought to invade Iran? Depending on what the word conservative means to the respondent, they may be indicating the degree of a very specific ideology.

The current conservative coalition is represented by three main bodies--conservative Christians, neocons, and fiscal conservatives. There is almost no overlap among them. So while a neocon might voice a preference for, say creationism, the intensity of their conservatism on that issue may be very low. Likewise a Christian with respect to tax law or a fiscal conservative with regard to foreign policy.

A simple poll will not be able to distinguish between a soldier who's marginally anti-abortion when he thinks about it (which is never) and an ordained Baptist soldier for whom abortion is the number one issue.

Posted by: Jeff Alworth | Jun 20, 2006 3:33:04 PM

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