February 16, 2006
If you don’t like how polarized U.S. politics has become,
don’t just blame Republicans and Democrats. Consider two
other key contributors to today’s politics of polarization—the
military and the academy.
Since the draft ended in 1973, the U.S. military has become one
of the nation’s most conservative and rock-ribbed Republican
bastions. Around the same time, New Left activists began storming
the ramparts of higher education, moving universities sharply
to the left. As a result, these two ostensibly nonpartisan institutions
now define opposing poles on the contemporary political spectrum.
Each institution harbors a particular set of mores and beliefs
that doesn’t mesh easily with the other’s. The U.S.
military is the repository for the stern martial virtues of honor,
valor, nationalism, discipline, and self-sacrifice. The academy
is the wellspring of the post-modern values of personal autonomy,
self-expression, cultural diversity, and profound skepticism of
authority of any kind.
In the barracks, where televisions are usually tuned to Fox news,
military personnel are socialized to view liberals as unpatriotic
twits. On campuses, anti-war and anti-military attitudes remain
de rigeur. More than three decades after the Vietnam War ended,
some elite colleges still ban Reserved Officers Training Corps
programs. And a coalition of law schools has gone to court to
keep military recruiters off their campuses, as a way of protesting
the Pentagon’s policies toward gays.
Yet there is nothing natural or inevitable about antagonism between
the military and the academy. Before the tumult of the 1960s,
many U.S. universities were staid places more likely to be roiled
by fraternity pranks than sit-ins and demonstrations. And mass
conscription, begun in World War II and continued through the
first half of the Cold War, ensured that the military faithfully
mirrored U.S. society, with its dominant New Deal coalition and
“natural” Democratic majority.
Now, thanks to self-selection, the all-volunteer army has moved
to the nation’s right flank. According to 2004 exit polls,
34 percent of the voters in the presidential election were conservative,
45 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal. But an Annenberg School
study in the same year found that, in the military, 40 percent
of the officers say they are conservative, 40 percent moderate
and just 7 percent liberal. Only 15 percent of the officers were
Democrats, while 47 percent were Republicans and 31 percent independents.
If fighters tilt right, thinkers lean even further to the left.
According to a national survey of college faculty, almost three-quarters
professed left-of-center views, while only 15 percent identified
themselves as conservatives. Only 11 percent owned up to being
Republicans. In the humanities and social science departments,
Democratic professors outnumbered Republicans by 7-1.
These polarities parallel what William A. Galston and Elaine
C. Kamarck have called “the great sorting out” —the
two parties’ tendencies to become less heterogeneous and
more ideologically pure. Interestingly, though, this phenomenon
doesn’t seem to reflect fundamental changes in Americans’
political outlook. Since the 1970s, say Galston and Kamarck, voters
have shown a remarkable ideological consistency, averaging 33
percent conservative, 47 percent moderate, and 20 percent liberal.
Why, then, does polarization matter? For one thing, it makes
it harder for elected officials to define the common good, much
less find common ground. The Kulturkampf between the military
and the academy is arguably worse for the country, because unlike
political parties, these institutions are supposed to transcend
narrow, factional interests and instead advance our society’s
common aspirations. It’s not good for America’s civic
health when the formative institutions of democracy are commandeered
by one side or the other in the baby boomers’ perennial
The existence of a political monoculture in the Pentagon isolates
military leaders from the full spectrum of opinion in the society
it is charged to protect. It probably also discourages kids from
progressive families from serving. The hard-left takeover of the
universities has imposed a stifling conformity of thought on the
very institutions that should be cultivating the spirit of free
inquiry. Instead of playing a vigorous and constructive role in
the nation’s public debates, the professoriat seems to be
immured in an obtuse, “multiculti” scholasticism that
prides itself on being radically alienated from mainstream politics.
What can be done to make the military and academia more representative
of the society they serve? Bringing back the draft would surely
diversify the former, though there’s little public appetite
for it. As for colleges, maybe it’s time for progressive
students to resurrect the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, taking
aim this time at the new establishment of political correctness.
Or maybe progressives should begin simply by serving notice to
the arch-conservatives in uniform and tenured campus radicals:
The institutions you have temporarily colonized belong to all
Americans, not to you.
Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.