Sunday, January 16, 2011

Confidence in US military by political orientation over time

In a previous post where I examined self-reported levels of confidence in the US military among straights, gays, and bisexuals, as well as incidentally looking at the same by political orientation, TwoYaks noted that the time period used mirrored the beginning of the war in Afghanistan to the present. As Afghanistan and especially Iraq have been Republican initiatives, this leads to the conclusion that political conservatives have greater lasting confidence in the military as an institution than liberals do, when it could be the case that a war to ensure southern Sudanese independence would be more popular with liberals than with conservatives, and consequently the war in Sudan would lead to an inversion of confidence levels by political orientation, or at least something closer to parity.

His reasoning sounds entirely plausible, and as I'm consistently reminded that attitudes in the new millennium are not necessarily continuations of those of the nineties, eighties, etc, looking at the data struck me as worthwhile. The following graph shows the level of confidence by political orientation from the beginning of the GSS four decades ago. The confidence index is derived by taking the percentage of respondents reporting a "great deal" of confidence subtracted by the percentage reporting "hardly any" confidence (the effect of those reporting "some" confidence is thus neutralized):

As US involvement in Vietnam wound down, liberal confidence increased, while that of the rest of the country, presumably due to perceived failure there, declined. During the Reagan years, when military spending was ratcheted up, liberal confidence dropped back down to the floor, while the rest of the country maintained the same sentiments from the mid-seventies through the end of the eighties.

The Gulf War jettisoned public confidence in the military across the political spectrum. It was the perfect desert storm; an aggressive dictator invading a more peaceable neighbor to steal its resources, international 'consensus' of just that narrative, a battle terrain ideal for conventional warfare in which the US had no competitor, and a resounding victory with minimum casualties and somebody else picking up much of the tab (the Saudis).

The bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, in contrast, didn't have anything close to the same effect.

Post-911, reported levels of confidence in the US military has increased across the board, but the degree of increase has been most pronounced among conservatives, who were almost indistinguishable from moderates in their confidence in the three preceding decades. In 2006--the worst year of the Iraq war in terms of US casualties and about the time the popular right began questioning US involvement there--saw a dip of confidence from which there has yet to be a full rebound.

Vietnam offers a rebuttal, but over the last thirty years or so, it seems that when the US is engaged in some foreign conflict, confidence in the military is higher than when there aren't any forces deployed in combat zones. The Buchananite paleocon vision of a strong, capable military that nonetheless is used sparingly and only when the US national interest is at stake seems practically unattainable. Unfortunately so, in my opinion.

GSS variables used: CONARMY, YEAR, POLVIEWS(1-3)(4)(5-7)

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