Although American-styled democracy demands a vigorous military-civilian divide when it comes to political power, American voters are comfortable electing officials with military service on their resumes. This pattern can perhaps be traced to U.S. military men and women’s predominantly civilian-oriented outlook and demonstrated commitment to public service.
However, the rapidly decreasing numbers of veterans within the general population, combined with the minuscule numbers of individuals who do volunteer for the armed forces today, has directly contributed to the steadily declining numbers of veterans in Congress. Hence, there’s an increasing shortage of members who come to their seats with the experience of military life and war—a policy area of unique constitutional responsibility for Congress.
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At first blush, the decline of veterans in public office appears to be the natural consequence of the diminishing numbers of veterans in the overall population. Yet, the decline of veterans in public office has been sharper than the decline of veterans within the general population. Factors contributing to the decline include cuts in force levels following the end of the Cold War, the end of the draft, and now five decades of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). Cultural factors have also been in play, such as Vietnam-era debates that artificially inflated the distance between the military and America’s political elite. But for that matter, there’s been a more recent decline among Americans generally when it comes to any interest in running for political office.
Barriers to increasing numbers of veterans in Congress include the high cost of mounting congressional campaigns and the difficulty of veterans gaining the political experience required for running for federal office. Veterans also need time to establish or reestablish roots in their post-service communities (military service being marked by frequent relocation), which is necessary both to understand the issues facing those communities and voters’ thoughts about them, and also to create a fundraising base.
But not all veterans can—or should—run for political office. Veterans, while they may have some unique tools and experiences at their disposal with which to combat hyper-partisanship, are people too, experiencing (and exhibiting!) all the same virtues and foibles as their civilian peers. Likewise, no matter their aspirations and stated intentions, once veterans are elected into political office, they’ll inevitably have to act politically in order to fulfill their responsibilities to their constituents.
Furthermore, dynamics within the House of Representatives as well as within the Senate over the past few decades have reshaped the power centers of those institutions, away from the Committee heads and to party leadership, which trickles down to increased legislative partisanship on the part of every member of Congress. Veterans as elected members of Congress will thus necessarily exhibit more partisan behavior once in office than they might have on the campaign trail.
This doesn’t mean that there is no remedy for our current polarization or hyper-partisanship—just that veterans are not our political saviors, and that it is unwise to place such unrealistic expectations on their shoulders. (Though there has been evidence to suggest that shared military service is a bonding agent that helps with collaborative, bipartisan reaching-across-the-aisle behavior.)
So when it comes to strengthening democracy, one place where we can look to veterans for guidance and imitation is in their civic leadership by example.
When it comes to civic behavior, veterans consistently outshine their civilian counterparts. According to Civic Enterprises, over 90% of veterans express an interest in continuing their public service outside of the uniform. What this means in practice is that on the whole, veterans are more civically engaged than nonveterans. In their most recent study of the civil health of veterans, the National Conference on Citizenship noted that not only do veterans “outperform non-veterans in multiple forms of civic engagement including voting, donating, and volunteering,” but that veterans have actually been increasing their levels of civic engagement over the past decade-plus. Veterans are now 20% more likely to spend time with neighbors than nonveterans and consistently outscore civilians in “all measures” of interpersonal social connectedness.
In the 2022 elections, the turnout rate among veterans was 62.7% compared to 51.3% among nonveterans. On average, veterans spend around 95 hours volunteering a year compared to 74 hours for non-veterans. And nearly 60% of veterans—including more than half of young veterans (under the age of 50)—regularly contribute money to charity, compared to 52% of nonveterans.
These data points all underscore an important point of clarification that the RAND Institute published about veterans and politics via an extensive report this past spring: Despite the hyperventilating headlines by the media to the contrary in the wake of January 6, veterans are more resilient than the general public against efforts to be recruited by extremist groups. Veterans, in fact, exhibit significantly less support for extremist groups and extremist ideologies than can be found in the general public.
And thus, whether they choose to run for political office after their military service has ended or not, veterans are still choosing to strengthen their democracy by their conscious, ongoing decision to participate actively in the civic life of the nation. For that, veterans should be not just celebrated but imitated.