Danger Close: Military Politicization and Elite Credibility    


Speaking at a National Guard leadership conference in 2011, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey mused on a request he made to U.S. Army War College leaders to explain why the military was so popular: “Maybe if I knew what it would take to screw it up, I could avoid it.” If the ongoing debate over retired officers and the partisan political sphere is to be believed, the general can stop searching. Retired general and flag officers have risen lead the Pentagon, White House staff, the National Security Council staff — even a misfire attempt at Veterans’ Affairs — and become outspoken voices as commentators, analysts, and activists. What’s also risen is a concern over how an increasingly visible military presence in politics might affect the credibility of the military institution.

Why does the public credibility of the military matter? Aside from the inherent value of the public’s trusting an essential arm of their government, military leaders are critical sources of information. While many dispute the virtue of military figures engaging in opinion-shaping, even the most traditional civil-military scholars should accept that a military institution perceived as trustworthy is in the best interest of civilian leaders who rely on it for advice. But the public at large also benefits from a trusted military. When citizens need information or cues on how to think about subjects as diverse as torture, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, foreign intervention, and relations with the press, they will likely seek out trusted voices in the discourse.

But if preserving a trustworthy voice is important, does using it damage the institution? The discussion over this question has largely depended on subjective critiques and conjecture. Dempsey’s remarks were in response to a 2011 Gallup survey on trust in institutions that ranked the military favorably, a trend that has not changed considerably since. If trust among the public has not shifted, do we have anything to fear about the military losing credibility? I argue that the answer is yes, by analyzing this question with a data-driven focus. If partisan activism is to threaten military credibility, there is likely to be two indicators: first, a loss of generalized trustworthiness when speaking on military issues, and, second, the loss of a broad audience.

To the first point, I discuss the results of original survey experimentation I conducted in a working paper probing how knowledge of a retired military officer’s partisan history affected their influence. In order to examine the second idea, I explore the social media follower networks of several prominent retired military leaders and the ideologies of the audiences they cultivate. As Heidi Urben details at length, the realm of social media is one of the ungoverned spaces where military partisan expression is widespread. Across both domains, we can gain some visibility on a threat that, for many, has existed so far as normative alarmism.

How to Lose Trust and Politicize People

Senior retired military officials can have a significant effect on how the public receives and interprets information on pressing issues. Being out of uniform has little bearing on their influence, as their credibility as a speaker comes from their erstwhile career: “Like princes of the church”, historian and civil-military scholar Richard Kohn remarks, “They represent the culture and the profession just as authoritatively as their counterparts on active duty.” But how does public knowledge of political activism affect their influence as a source of political information?

As part of my own research, I examined some of this question through several experimental survey instruments measuring public attitudes on the military and elite credibility. Over 1,000 respondents were given a short biography about a retired senior military officer whose background after service included either non-partisan research or a history of candidate endorsements and commentary on partisan cable networks. It then measured impressions of credibility for the general on a battery of questions regarding the individual’s trustworthiness and expertise.

The study revealed several key patterns regarding how partisan generals fared against their non-partisan counterparts. Activist generals were seen as less credible, but only by those on the other side of the political spectrum. Co-partisans — those on the same political side as the activist general — actually found political generals to be slightly more credible. In a working paper based on this research, I find that generals who endorsed the other side scored considerably lower than the non-partisan in terms of credibility, even if both had identical qualifications. Exposure to a partisan general from across the aisle also damaged individual impressions of the military’s trustworthiness and expertise, compounding the credibility problem.

These voices were also far less effective when providing information to the public on policies within their expertise. The respondents were told that the figure they had seen endorsed a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Compared to hearing an endorsement from the non-partisan, public support for the policy was significantly degraded if it was being endorsed by a military officer with a history of activism. In addition to losing considerable credibility with a large portion of the country, the public’s receptiveness to a perceived subject matter expert was curtailed. If information on foreign intervention can only be seen through partisan lenses, foreign policy attitudes will becomes polarized along partisan lines, with a multitude of negative consequences for coherent and wise policy.

Retired officers who are perceived as partisans risk the very credibility they leverage when speaking publicly. This is not to suggest these figures should remain out of expert debates on policy; to argue that several decades of hard-won subject matter expertise and experience should remain closeted benefits the American people none at all. But the effectiveness of that counsel is conditional on maintaining a non-partisan image for themselves and the military institution. As some of my own research suggests, failing to do incurs a high cost: an authoritative and credible voice in the information space.

More Partisan than Partisans

In order to explore what I argue is the second element of credibility decay, loss of a broad audience, I examined how different retired officers at different levels of activism or commentary draw varied ideological distributions. To this end, I collected information on the social media follower networks of nearly three dozen high-profile military elites in November 2017, ranging from the active service chiefs to retired officers in academia, commentary, and activism. Using political ideology scores assigned from Adam Bonica’s Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections dataset, the result is an ideological distribution of the Twitter follower audiences from each, ranging from very liberal (-1.5) to very conservative (+1.5). For reference, the bold-faced names in Figure 1 indicate actual politicians whose principal pre-Congressional careers were in the military, including Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Tom Cotton (R-AR). Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), and the Congressional account for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (R-MT).

Figure 1: Ideological Distribution of Military Elite Follower Networks

The data reflect ideology scores of the followers for military elite Twitter accounts with at least 1,000 followers, subsetted to those followers who tracked at least two American politicians. Ideology score provided by Adam Bonica’s CF dataset. Twitter follower data collected October–November 2017, with exception of Kirby (April 2018) and Peters (July 2018). Ideology score re-scaled to between -1.5 (most liberal) to 1.5 (most conservative) with height of the distribution re-scaled to represent min-max. Bold names indicate members of Congress whose principal prior career was in the military. The italicized names indicate active service chiefs.

Do activist or politically visible retired officers lose a broad audience? The short answer is yes. Those with regular media presence on cable news channels, such as retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling (CNN), retired Col. Morris Davis (MSNBC), retired Gen. Jack Keane (Fox), and retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters (Fox), are among the most one-sided in the sample. Though these networks have decidedly partisan audiences, to see those ideological skews manifest in the follower networks of these military figures is particularly telling. Peters made headlines earlier this year when he left Fox News over the network’s “propagandizing for the Trump administration.” Further analysis of his follower network in the future will reveal if doing so lent him a new audience among administration critics or cost him one among Fox die-hards.

Retired officials who have waded into turbulent political waters exhibit these one-sided audiences as well. Retired Lt. Gen. William Boykin, whose unabashed anti-Islamic comments created considerable turmoil in both civilian and military circles, captures among the most partisan audiences in the sample. President Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn cultivates a similar audience, not unexpectedly given his close identification with the administration’s inner circle. Though less severe in skew, similarly one-sided audiences emerge under retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey (MSNBC), and retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who clashed with the administration over Hurricane Maria relief, Russia relations, and treatment of U.S. intelligence agencies, respectively.

While it is somewhat evident that the active service chiefs maintain broad audiences, politicizing forces still act on them. This is because the political floor has shifted considerably under the feet of the military, making some actions seem partisan by mere comparison. One example of this came in the social media response following the Charlottesville rally in 2017, in which the service chiefs issued near-simultaneous statements denouncing intolerance and racial extremism. This response was interpreted by many as an “unusually public move,” likely because of the relative position of their sentiment to that of the White House, which was decidedly non-committal. The abruptness of the White House’s new policy on transgender servicemembers placed the chiefs in a similarly precarious situation following the previous administration’s approval of their open service. Though in both cases senior leadership issued arguably uncontroversial statements, their sentiment relative to that being espoused by civilian leadership put them in the headlines.

But these voices, ones with more balanced audiences around the political center, can be some of the most influential. In this regard, it is important to note that though partisan activism might be damaging, honest subject matter expertise can be constructive to our discourse. Retired Adm. William McRaven’s recent op-ed opposing the Trump administration’s “McCarthy-era” revocation of former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance seized precisely on the legitimate need for “voices of criticism.” A host of former intelligence professionals — including retired Gen. David Petraeus — quickly rallied around the rebuke. Their letter made specific mention of the fact that though these intelligence professionals had chosen to “be more circumspect in [their] public pronouncements” on administration policy than Brennan, the circumstances demanded their public outcry. When officers with little record of partisan activism or media visibility speak on issues in their subject matter expertise, actual persuasion of public attitudes might be possible.

But for those closely aligned with a partisan establishment or media environments with strong partisan audiences, the opposite is likely true. What analysis of these audiences can tell us is that retired officers who engage in partisan activism, whether perceived or actual, may sacrifice a broad audience of Americans in favor of a narrow, ideologically coherent one. Taken together with results from the survey wherein individuals actually felt that co-partisan generals were in some cases more credible for engaging in politics, this creates an environment ripe for potential opportunism among those seeking a post-service career in that arena. Access to a public audience doesn’t require a long career of establishing qualifications and expertise; rather, simply aligning with a major partisan establishment can garner that following, even if it comes at the expense of a broadly authoritative voice.

The Future of Military Credibility

The debate over retired officers and their activity in the political arena has typically focused on the implications such behavior has on civil-military relations, democratic norms, and organizational attitudes within the military. Heidi Urban finds that servicemembers themselves are far more tolerant of political activism by retired officers than their active duty counterparts. My own findings suggest that the public may also be tolerant of such activity — conditional on such sentiment being in line with their own ideology. This is compounded by the fact that even if servicemembers see a difference between active and retired officials when it comes to activism, the public likely does not. The implications of such a slowly-unfolding trend are manifold.

First, future appeals to military elites may be limited in their effectiveness. If there is a breakdown in the American political discourse, it is in large part due to a similar breakdown in mechanisms of persuasion. Political scientists have long argued that the public looks for credible voices to help them find a position on policy; these voices provide the mental signposts required to reach a reasoned opinion without having to become an expert themselves. However, this process may in many ways be backward: Rather than credible voices leading us to reasoned opinions, pre-existing opinions dictate who is “credible” by their conforming or deviating from it. Policymakers would do well to note what this means for opinion shaping. High profile appointments of retired officers to positions in government or consideration of them for a partisan ticket are often motivated by a desire to draw credibility from an apolitical institution. What I argue here is that rather than make politicians seem more like the military, it serves only to make the military seem more like politicians.

Second, even if senior leaders in the active force redouble efforts to curtail partisanship among the ranks online or in public, they will continue to have little influence over a retired community that is arguably far more visible. While my own research shows that engaging in the partisan debate costs them credibility with roughly half of the public, this is the environment most suited for opportunism. If retired officers believe that engaging in activism after the end of their career can earn them a die-hard audience of followers, they are more susceptible to shaping a political “afterlife” while they are still in uniform, as many including retired Lt. Gen. David Barno have feared.

Instead, retired senior leaders should see these findings as some evidence that repeated entrance into the political debate is inherently self-defeating. While doing so can earn them a small, dedicated audience of potential ideologues, they do so at the cost of generalized credibility and access to a broad audience. Furthermore, they lose the ability to affect opinions among precisely those members of the public they need to: people who don’t already agree with them. Rather than oblige the service chiefs to pressure the retired community into silence, these results will hopefully convince that community that activism has real costs, for themselves and the institution.

In this respect, civil-military scholars and policymakers concerned about military politicization are not alarmists. The partisan polarization that has gripped so much of the public’s trust in institutions in government and private society has not left the military unharmed. Senior military leaders have continued to warn the active force and the public about these forces, even if they are largely outside the direct management of the organization. The intensity of the domestic political climate is likely to continue to draw the military into uncharted and uncertain waters. More importantly, the influence of retired activists will similarly continue to become fixtures of informational media. However, those same elites should heed this insight into the process of how the public views voices as “credible”. Those who want to cultivate broad audiences with credibility subvert those efforts by engaging in the partisan sphere — that way lies madness.


Michael A. Robinson is an active duty Army infantry officer with multiple combat deployments and currently serves as an assistant professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University where his dissertation focused on elite credibility and how the public chooses credible sources of political information, with a particular focus on the military institution. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons