February 16, 2006
Polar Opposites

By Will Marshall

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 culture wars.

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.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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