“I love the troops because if they weren’t the troops, I would be the troops. And I would be the worst troops.”
In October 2017, President Donald Trump made a telephone call to the widow of a soldier killed while on patrol in Niger. The president intended to provide some comfort to Myeshia Johnson, Sgt. La David Johnson’s wife, and used language suggested to him by his then-chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly — someone who knew from firsthand experience the pain of losing a close loved one in combat. The telephone conversation did not go well, and Johnson accused the president of insensitivity. In response, Kelly gave a rare televised press conference criticizing the congresswoman who overheard Johnson’s conversation with Trump, accusing both of politicizing the tragedy. The press conference itself went poorly, with Kelly pointedly privileging journalists if they said they knew Gold Star families. Critics in turn accused Kelly of insensitively attacking a member of Congress and misstating some of the facts of an earlier interaction he had had with her. Soon the White House was doubly on the defensive, defending Trump’s original phone call and Kelly’s own unsuccessful efforts at damage control. In the heat of the rhetorical battle, then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders offered an extraordinary challenge to reporters: “If you wanna go after General Kelly, that’s up to you, but I think that — if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
Even to modern ears, Sanders’ suggestion that members of the U.S. military are beyond question was a bit off-key. But viewed in historical context, particularly against the deep background of the republic’s founding and the long history of American civil-military relations, Sanders’ effort to deploy the prestige of the military as an impenetrable shield was jarring. Leading figures in the Revolutionary era were reflexively skeptical of armed forces — at best viewing a standing professional military as a necessary risk and at worst viewing it as an enduring threat to liberty. One can trace a strong strand of anti-militarism throughout American culture, especially political culture, ever since. To be sure, the public also lavished affection and favors on the military, particularly the citizen-soldier military mobilized during major wars — the Civil War, World War I, and World War II — but the professional standing army was viewed more equivocally … until the last three decades.
Beginning with the Reagan era, public attitudes toward the military took a decided turn, with supermajorities of Americans telling pollsters that they had high confidence in the military. Even as support for other institutions declined, support for the military has remained comparatively high. By the time Sanders reached for military prestige as a lifeline to escape a politically treacherous scandal, the military was the only federal institution on Gallup’s list in which a majority of Americans (72 percent) reported having “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence.
Why is public confidence in the military so high, and why has it remained so? Scholars who have looked at this question have identified a range of possible answers. Perhaps the public recognizes that the military is good at what it does and the high confidence numbers reflect that fact. Perhaps the public perceives the military to be highly ethical, holding itself to demanding standards — perhaps in contrast to a civilian society that seems more corrupt? Perhaps the public is simply swayed by the large advertising campaigns designed to recruit others to join the military, as well as the often favorable treatment accorded to the military in popular film.
There are good reasons to doubt that any one of these explanations, by itself, is the whole answer. After all, public confidence has remained high even though the military’s performance in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been mixed. Likewise, the public has been informed about enough ethical scandals in the military to create doubts about just how well the military meets its high standards. Indeed, a 2013 study showed that roughly half of the public thought there was a “crisis of ethics in the military.” And for every movie that stirs up pro-military emotions, there’s another that paints a far more equivocal picture. As for persuasion, maybe the advertising boosts overall public esteem for the military, but the population’s propensity to join the military has declined.
Probably each of these explains part of the story, but there is room to think that something else is also going on. Indeed, the picture appears to be one of high regard at high remove —professed confidence in something most Americans do not have a direct personal engagement with, an institution most Americans do not want to be a part of but hold in high esteem, from a distance. It could be that the American public, or portions of the public, views the military as something of a totem or maybe even a talisman. Or, it could be that some believe that a significant fraction of the country views the military in this way, and so public confidence in the military has a self-reinforcing element to it. Public support is high, at least in part, because individuals believe other Americans hold the military in high esteem.
It is precisely this dynamic that Kelly’s press conference and Sanders’ subsequent remarks tapped into. Sanders sought to use the belief that the public sets the military apart and higher from other political institutions to shield the White House from criticism. If this supposition is true — that some people say they support the military because they believe many or most others do — then we would expect to see that public opinion polls would actually overstate public confidence in the military. Individual respondents might say they have high confidence in the military, but perhaps some of them are doing so only because they believe this is what other Americans are thinking and so this is the socially correct thing to say.
Social psychologists call this “social desirability bias,” and they have long recognized that respondents on surveys are inclined to give the socially approved answer if one is generally known, whether or not it is an accurate reflection of their true beliefs. For instance, individuals are likely to under-report bad attitudes or behaviors (“are you a racist”) and over-report good attitudes or behaviors (“do you practice good hygiene”) because the former are frowned upon and the latter are affirmed by society. In this vein, one intriguing study found evidence that there might be as much as a 10-point bias with respect to professed support for more spending on veterans’ benefits.
A survey we ran this summer has found further evidence, directly on the question of public confidence in the military. Using funding from Robert and Marion Oster, we contracted with the National Opinion Research Center to interview some 4,500 Americans about their attitudes toward the military. Part of our survey was designed to measure whether there was any social desirability bias at work in polls examining the public’s assessment of the military. In a paper we will present at the American Political Science Association annual meeting on August 28, we found that there is.
In the aggregate, our survey showed the public expressing the same high level of confidence in the military that other studies have shown: fully 75 percent of our respondents, when asked the straight Gallup poll question, responded that they had either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, higher than any other institution we asked them about.
When we dug deeper, however, we found evidence that this number might be influenced in part by what individual respondents thought the rest of the public was thinking about the military. When we primed respondents to reflect on the high levels of confidence other Americans had expressed — telling them, “According to recent polls, the U.S. military is by far the most respected institution in America today. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe it is their patriotic duty to ‘support the troops’…” — we pushed up the average number of high-confidence respondents by about 10 points. When we pushed them the other way — telling them, “According to recent polls, confidence in the U.S. military decreased by ten points between 2009 and 2017. Fewer Americans now believe it is their patriotic duty to ‘support the troops’…” — we pushed down the average number by about four points.
Another question designed to get respondents to reveal attitudes that they might want to express, but feel social pressure not to, had a similar result. We found evidence for as much as a 14-point swing attributable to social desirability bias. When asked directly whether they agreed “I have quite a lot of confidence in the U.S. military,” fully 86 percent replied in the affirmative. But when given a chance to register their opinion in a cloaked manner, only 72 percent agreed. Of course, both of these are high numbers of overall confidence in the aggregate. But this is also clear evidence that the astronomical numbers reflect a certain amount of social pressure, with at least some individuals pretending to register high confidence because they think that is the socially correct opinion to express.
We do not claim that social pressure is the most important, let alone the only, determinant of public confidence in the military. We expect our survey will find support for some of the other possible props, such as belief in the effectiveness of the military. And we know that there are many other things going on, including partisanship, which has been shown to be correlated with public confidence. But social pressure is an under-recognized prop, and it may not be a sturdy one.
Our findings do not indicate a looming crisis in public confidence in the military. Most other institutions of government would love to have a “problem” like this one. Yet our findings suggest that the remarkable staying power of high public confidence may mask a foundation more brittle than is generally understood. At the end of the October 2017 press conference, Kelly added that although members of the military didn’t look down on civilians, “We’re a little bit sorry because you’ll have never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our service men and women do.” We understand Kelly was trying to honor the service and real sacrifices of military personnel who have deployed overseas, but the military may need to adopt a different posture vis-à-vis civilians. Instead of feeling pity for those not in uniform, the military may be wise to view the public’s confidence as a precious asset that should not be taken for granted.
Jim Golby is a Defense Policy Advisor at the U.S. Mission to NATO. He previously served as a special adviser to the Vice President of the United States, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, and as a company commander and scout platoon leader in combat in Iraq. You can find him on Twitter: @jimgolby. These views are those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Mission to NATO.
Peter Feaver is a Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University, where he directs the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Program in American Grand Strategy. He previously served on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration and the Clinton administration.
Image: Defense Department, Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Anthony L Taylor