For upward of two centuries, countless Americans have dedicated anywhere from several months to decades of their lives to the military defense of their country, animated by a variety of motivations but united in their confidence that they would return to civilian life at the end of their formal service. While the nation occasionally has requested or compelled citizens to serve militarily, individuals have always also donned its uniform voluntarily. Viewing military service as public service, many individuals have unsurprisingly followed their military tenure by pursuing other forms of civic service, notably in the halls of government.
Military experience has been a frequently recurring trait across the resumes of elected officials throughout American history. Of the first 25 presidents, 21 had military experience, beginning with George Washington, whose chief cabinet officers during his two terms—Henry Knox, Edmund Randolph, Timothy Pickering, and Alexander Hamilton—all had also served with him as Continental officers. Despite this commonality, military service has never been a prerequisite to holding public office in the United States. Quite the contrary: the need for sharp distinctions between political and military power, and political office and military rank, has been an American national norm since the time of the Declaration of Independence.
But George Washington’s own careful course of action from the latter days of the Revolution to the ratification of the new United States Constitution, culminating in two terms as president after retiring from public service, seems to have also established a paradoxical tradition in American politics. While American-styled democracy demands a vigorous military-civilian divide when it comes to political power, American voters have demonstrated a comfort with electing officials with military service on their resumes.
But under the new circumstances of an all-volunteer force—in which individuals who have served or have some relationship with a member of the military represent a minute segment of the population—that preference in the voting booth appears less certain. For one thing, such a choice is often not present. But four-plus decades of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), the end of the Cold War, and the post-9/11 rise of a new generation of veteran-citizens tempered by 20 years of war have all contributed to a differently shaped political landscape, in which new concerns about the interplay of political and military elites and power remain juxtaposed against long-standing and traditional democratic ones.
Of all the government institutions, the military enjoys the highest confidence of the American public. Presidential candidates across both major political parties now regularly woo military personnel for their public endorsement. At the same time, retired and even uniformed officers seem to have become more vocal and visible in their public criticism of presidential administrations and express more overt political opinions than in the past. This behavior, which is ensconced in a hyperpartisan and polarized electorate that generally also believes the military is Republican and conservative, has caused some alarm among watchers of civil-military relations on all sides.
However, there also has been a well-publicized note of concern at the diminishing numbers of elected lawmakers—especially in Congress—with a history of military service. From the high-water mark of the 1970s when veterans made up three-fourths of Congress, with 72% in the House of Representatives and 78% of the Senate, current levels of veterans in Congress have receded by about 75%. When the 117th Congress convened on January 3, 2021, only about one in every six members had military experience, the lowest since at least the start of World War II. This included 74 veterans serving in the House and 17 in the Senate, of whom 28 were Democrats and 63 were Republicans. Fifty elected veterans had served in the military after 2000, while more than half (49) had overseas combat deployments. Six elected veterans were women.
In the 2022 midterm cycle, more than one-third of all congressional races on the ballot this week feature a veteran. The 196 veterans who have won major-party primaries represent the largest group of candidates with military experience in a decade—and tellingly, includes 130 non-incumbent challengers. This year, 43 states will have at least one veteran on the ballot for national office. Sixteen races will feature two veterans facing off against each other. Ninety-five veteran candidates have had a combat deployment; 90 have served in the Army; 58 enlisted after January 1, 2000; 16 are women veterans.
According to a Pew Research Center analysis, around a fifth (21%) of the roughly 1,000 candidates for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, or state governor claim some degree of military experience, nearly two-thirds of whom are Republican. Ten of the 72 gubernatorial candidates reported military experience, six Republicans and four Democrats. (Among currently serving state governors, six of the 50—12%—are veterans.) Seven of these candidates for governorship are challenging incumbents.
Given that military veterans make up less than 7% of the adult population in America, even despite the declining numbers of veterans in society and in Congress, veterans are still overrepresented in elected offices, highlighting the tendency of those who join the military to continue their public service, even after they’ve laid aside their military uniforms.