Spiraling Confidence in Military Is Being Driven by Perceived Politicization, Survey Finds

President Trump departs the White House with Gen. Milley and SecDef Esper.
In this June 1, 2020 photo, President Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church, in Washington. Walking behind Trump from left are, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Americans' confidence in the military is being depressed by broad concerns from the left and right over perceived politicization, according to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute's latest defense survey.

The armed services, one of the few institutions that had remained largely popular in the last decade as other government entities have seen support plummet, continued a recent trend of lower approval ratings. The survey released Thursday found that those with "great confidence" in the military grew slightly over the last year, from 45% in 2021 to 48% now.

But that's still far below the 70% who said they had great confidence in the military in the survey's first iteration in 2018.

Read Next: Pentagon Getting First Senate-Confirmed Watchdog in 7 Years

This year's survey sought to find out in more detail why confidence in the military has dropped so precipitously, asking about the extent to which eight factors contributed to respondents' declining confidence.

The most popular answers were "military leadership becoming overly politicized" and "the performance and competence of presidents, as the commanders-in-chief," with both eroding 34% of respondents' confidence in the military a "great deal."

In both cases, Republicans were more likely to point to those as the cause for their declining confidence in the military than Democrats, with 43% of Republicans saying both caused their confidence to drop a great deal, compared to 24% of Democrats.

There was also a stark partisan split in the extent to which respondents saw "woke" policies and extremists in the military as issues.

For Republicans, 47% said "'woke' practices undermining military effectiveness" was the reason their confidence declined a great deal.

Democrats also voiced concern about politicization in the military, with 32% identifying "far-right or extremist individuals serving in the military" as the reason their confidence has dropped.

The military has been at the center of a number of political controversies in recent years, with firestorms particularly engulfing the end of the Trump administration. For example, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley accompanied then-President Donald Trump in 2020 on his walk across Lafayette Square after law enforcement violently cleared the area of protesters. Milley later apologized, saying his presence "created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

Since President Joe Biden took office, Republican politicians have in turn accused him and his Pentagon leadership of politicizing the military by promoting policies the critics have labeled as "woke." Republicans have applied the term to a wide range of policies they disagree with, from efforts at making the military more inclusive for women and minorities to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Milley also angered Republicans, prompting them to accuse him of being a political actor, by forcefully defending the need to understand critical race theory, an academic theory exploring the intersection of racism and legal structures that is largely confined to graduate school courses but which Republicans have used to describe any diversity training.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has been prioritizing efforts to root out extremists from the ranks after several people arrested in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters were found to have military backgrounds.

As the political controversies simmer, the military has been facing a recruiting crisis, something military officials have blamed on a strong job market and Republicans have blamed on "wokeness."

The Reagan survey for the first time this year asked respondents aged 18 to 29 about their willingness to join the military, though it did not ask about their reasons for wanting or not wanting to serve.

About 13% said they're "extremely" or "very" willing to serve, 25% were "somewhat" willing, 20% were "not very" willing, and 26% were "not at all" willing.

Even amid the drop in confidence, the military remains the most trusted institution in the Reagan survey, ahead of law enforcement, Congress, the Supreme Court, the media, the presidency and election administrators. All those other institutions have also seen declining confidence since the Reagan survey began, except for Congress where confidence has grown from 5% in 2018 to 9% now.

The survey also found a continued willingness to support Ukraine in its war against Russian invaders. The finding comes amid concerns that Republican lawmakers could try to pull back support when they take control of the House in January.

Fifty-seven percent said the United States should "continue to stand with the people of Ukraine," including 73% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans. By contrast, 33% said America "has enough problems at home and cannot afford to spend more on the conflict," including 41% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats.

The survey was conducted from Nov. 9-17 by a bipartisan team from Beacon Research and Shaw and Company Research. Results were gathered from 984 live telephone interviews and 1,554 online surveys, and were weighted based on age, gender, race, region and education. The survey has a margin of error of 2%.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Public Confidence in the Military Drops Again, Survey Finds

Story Continues