I know the military is supposed to be apolitical to a certain degree. But I have found a Pew poll saying that military veterans lean right. This is more pronounced when comparing younger vets to younger non-veterans.

Is the idea of serving in the military a predominantly right-wing concept? Among left-wingers that I know (including myself), none of us could imagine voluntarily serving in the army. Is this a general trend, which results in a US Army which is primarily composed of Conservatives?

  • 6
    The correct way to self-answer questions on this site is not to include the answer in the question, but to post it as an answer. I've removed your answer from the question so that you may self-answer if you wish.
    – Joe C
    Sep 5, 2020 at 14:41
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    Not sure I agree with your edit Joe. It wasn't really an answer, more part of the context and prior research (The OP was giving a personal impression). A self answer should be something that happens after the question is asked: If the questioner comes back tomorrow with data, that is a self answer. So I think I'll roll back the edit.
    – James K
    Sep 5, 2020 at 16:38
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    "Among left-wingers that I know (including myself), none of us could imagine voluntarily serving in the army." Self-fulfilling prophecy. Sep 6, 2020 at 1:41
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    This suffers from a common problem, which is that US politics can't really be understood by imposing a simplistic left-right categorization. E.g. if you consider left = socialist, you won't find many leftists in the military. If you consider left = libertarian, you might find quite a few. Likewise with the definition of conservative, as witness the recent statements of a prominent "conservative" elected official, who considers soldiers to be losers.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 6, 2020 at 6:03
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    Your poll is from early in Trump's presidency. More recent Military Times polls indicate that Biden is pulling in more vets than Trump, so the entire premise of the question is suspect.
    – dandavis
    Sep 7, 2020 at 7:48

5 Answers 5


The modern US military is self-selecting — a professional army, not a conscripted one — so I doubt this effect would hold true historically. But as a rule, the political Right tends to value military service as a symbol of deep patriotism. As a consequence, those who lean politically Right who want to serve the nation will be more likely to think of the military than those on the Left (who will think of such service more in terms of domestic political action), and those who lean politically Right will be even more likely to consider the military as a career, not a mere tour of duty. Further, all the branches of the military (with the exception of the 'Space Force' which is too new for this to be relevant) are deeply committed to tradition and history, commitments that foster a conservative outlook. For example, few people outside the Marines think about Tripoli and the 19th century Barbary Wars, or understand the point of a Marine Color Guard; but few Marines forget them, and it is unwise to disrespect either to a Marine's face.

In short, the modern professional military both attracts people with the kind of national pride that is typical of conservatives, and fosters conservative attitudes through its attention to tradition, history, and honor. In a way, we can see this as the flip side of why academia tends to be liberal, as academia draws in and fosters liberal attitudes.

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    It's also heavily male, which skews conservative. They also draw from rural areas, which see military service as one of the few ways to make a decent living or leave. Rural areas are very right-leaning nowadays. Sep 5, 2020 at 18:51
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    on the other hand BAME people are over represented in the army, a group that skews strongly left.
    – James K
    Sep 5, 2020 at 19:05
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    @BobE: No, I was thinking more in terms of political action: non-profits, academic research, and political organizing. The Right tends to see honor in the application of the sword; the Left in the application of the pen. I'll leave the debate of which is mightier to others; I see them both as essential. Sep 5, 2020 at 19:32
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    @JamesK: BAME is UK jargon; most of us in the US won't know what it means... 🙃 Sep 5, 2020 at 19:33
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    @JamesK - The armed forces are 16% Black, America is like 15%, so it's a very slight overrepresentation. The armed forces are 4% Asian American - the US as a whole is 5.6%. As for "minority ethnic" in general, the armed forces are 57% White, and the US is like 60-70% depending on how things are measured, but keep in mind that 6% pick other or do not respond. So there is an effect, but it is not necessarily that large - easily overwhelmed by other factors.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 6, 2020 at 0:02

Person serving in the military is self-selected to work in hierarchical authoritarian system (except for people who have it as a family tradition).

It is well documented that conservativism, traditionalism and authoritarianism are correlated

I refuse the notion that conservatives are more patriotic. It is about priorities, Left-leaning are more interested in the teaching instead (as a low-paid service to own country).

Also, during WW2, left-leaning resistance in most countries occupied by Axis was at least as involved in resistance as right-leaning, if not more.

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    Somewhat confused by the point your final paragraph. Those who resisted the nazis fought against an imperialist occupation force; those who join the US army actively support an imperialist occupation force, so of course we should expect them to be politically distinct.
    – gerrit
    Sep 7, 2020 at 12:05
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    @gerrit - but they both considered themselves patriots. Feeling patriotic is not limited to conservatives. Also, US military does not consider themselves imperialist occupation force. In many places, they did not occupy at all, only land they claimed was for the military cemetery to bury their dead. Sep 7, 2020 at 15:27
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    More to the point, there's no reason to suppose that resistance to occupation of one's own country and willingness to occupy other countries are at all discordant attitudes in the minds of most people. If, in some hypothetical future, China were to conquer the US, I doubt that most members of the US military, or the American right for that matter, would be very happy about it, and I do not think they would decide to capitulate simply because of their love of imperialism writ large.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 7, 2020 at 18:33
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    Umm, where exactly do you get the idea that teaching is a "low-paid service"? Teachers as a general rule make good money and have fantastic pensions.
    – Gryphon
    Sep 8, 2020 at 2:43
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    @Gryphon - maybe in some countries. In USA, in some states teachers sometimes get a second job. Sep 8, 2020 at 22:32

The linked poll did not separate or adjust for gender, and since the military is mostly male, and males are more likely to support Trump and GOP, it's only natural that the veterans are more likely to support Trump and GOP than other Americans are.

Another reason is likely the military's intrinsic nationalism, i.e. protecting the interests of your nation against the interests of other nations. Trump claimed to be a nationalist also.

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    While the questioner's link was, in part, about support for Trump, the question was not.
    – Rick Smith
    Sep 6, 2020 at 1:36
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    @RickSmith The question is about the poll results, if you go by the body of the question rather than the title.
    – user29456
    Sep 6, 2020 at 1:43
  • Well, I'm not satisfied that it is a good question. The only part supported is the second sentence, which is supported by the next to last paragraph in the link. The one beginning with "When the partisan leanings of independents are taken into account, ...". Nonetheless, Trump is not mentioned in the question and; therefore, including Trump in the answer really does not answer the question[s] posed.
    – Rick Smith
    Sep 6, 2020 at 1:56

In short, the conditions that drive someone to join the military are correlated to a propensity to vote right wing.

It's established that the poor are more likely to vote for a right wing party. The same can be said for a lack of education. It just so happens that the people entering the military tend to do so because it's one of their only options for either education or employment, as many of them come from small towns which have fewer opportunities compared to bigger cities, and it is certainly true that small towns tend to be more right wing than bigger cities.

As a side note, the Harvard study I linked happened to have been looking at British education and voting, not American, however I have seen many graphs, maps, and studies over the years which also show the same conclusions to hold true for American voters.


A few other observations.

Gender, Geography and Religion

Gender (as it intersects with race)

The Pew study controls for many other factors, but not for gender. Military veterans are overwhelmingly male (about 92%). There is a strong gender divide between men and women on overall liberal to conservative political inclinations at this time. Consider, for example, this hypothetical election map based upon polling results:

enter image description here

The political divide is likely to be even greater among veterans than the general public, because female veterans are disproportionately non-white relative to active duty service members as a whole, and non-white women tend to lean more strongly to the political left than white women, white men, or non-white men.

An October 2018 survey from the Military Times (whose readership and samples skew towards more senior soldiers who are more politically engaged and conservative than the military as a whole) confirms this trend:

enter image description here

Also, women who join the military are engaged in an act contrary to traditional gender roles that is often considered feminist, while me who join the military are affirming traditional gender roles which tends to be an act that leans conservative.


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The Pew study does not note the fact that "Red states" in which the general population is more conservative overall, accounts for a disproportionately large share of volunteer military recruits, especially among soldiers who are white. This influences the politics of soldiers, and in turn, of veterans. (New Mexico and Utah are exceptions that prove the rule.)


Furthermore, and not independent of the geography issue, active duty military service people are about twice as likely to be Evangelical Christians as the general public.

In rough numbers, one-third of American Christians are Protestants who belong to mainline Christian denominations described by the military for purposes of assigning its chaplains as "liturgical Christians" such as Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists, about one-third are Roman Catholics, and about one-third of American Christians are "non-liturgical Christians" by the U.S. military which are predominantly members of Evangelical Christian denominations such as Baptists and Pentecostals.

But among active duty service members, there are about five non-liturgical Christians for every two liturgical Christian, even though the numbers are roughly even in the general population.

Specifically, the divide between the Evangelical Protestants (a.k.a. "low church Protestants") and the "liturgical" Protestants, based upon data from a lawsuit in the late 1990s revealed that 15% of service members are liturgical Protestants, 41% are non-liturgical Protestants, 24% are Catholic and most of the rest do not have a religious affiliation.

Non-liturgical Christians are among the most reliably Republican and conservative demographics in the United States.

For what it is worth, the Air Force Academy, which produces a significant share of Air Force officers, is somewhat less skewed in this regard and has a much larger share of religious non-Christians than the other military services, possibly because service enlistment is significantly influenced by family history and families with a long history of military service in multiple generations, by definition largely lack a history of Air Force service.

Subtypes of Military Veterans

It is worth observing that there are at least three subgroups of veterans with distinct ideological profiles.

For example, the blog 538 reported in 2009 that:

about two-thirds of majors and higher-ranking officers identify as conservative, as previous studies found. But that tilt becomes far less pronounced when you expand the pool of respondents. That is because only 32 percent of the Army’s enlisted soldiers consider themselves conservative, while 23 percent identify as liberal and the remaining 45 percent are self-described moderates. These numbers closely mirror the ideological predilections of the civilian population.

Very few military officers identify as "liberal" and the balance identify as "moderate".

Former conscripts

Most living military veterans who were not military officers who served prior to the of the draft on July 1, 1973 were conscripts who did not volunteer for the military. A typical age at conscription was 20 years old. So, most living military veterans who were not military officers born in 1953 or earlier (i.e. age 67 or older) were conscripts.

Conscripts have historically been almost identical politically to the general population with the same age, gender, education, race, etc., despite the fact that select groups on the left (conscientious objectors) and the right (clergy) were exempted from service.

Enlisted Volunteers

Surveys of active duty service members in the U.S. military who enlisted voluntarily have consistently shown only a slight deviation to the political right from demographically similar members of the general public.

The partisan skew of enlisted volunteers tends to be slightly more centrist in times of widespread patriotic military enlistment, such as following the 9-11 attacks, and slightly more right leaning in ordinary times.

Military Officers

Currently, about one in six active duty military personnel are commissioned officers, and historically, the percentage has been a bit lower (there is a somewhat higher percentage in the Air Force proportionately and a bit lower percentage in the Marines).

Historically, surveys have shown that 80%-90% of military officers are Republicans, and the skew is even greater among white male military officers who make up a disproportionate share of the commissioned officer corps relative to military officers as a whole.

Military officer veterans, despite making up a minority of all veterans, account for a large part of the partisan skew of military veterans after controlling for age, gender, race and education.

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