The first presidential election I witnessed as a member of the military was George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000. I was in college, as a naval R.O.T.C. midshipman, and on Election Day I remember asking a Marine lieutenant colonel who was a visiting fellow at my university whether he’d made it to the polls. In much the same way one might say “I don’t smoke” when offered a cigarette, he said, “Oh, I don’t vote.” His answer confused me at the time. He was a third-generation military officer, someone imbued with a strong sense of duty. He then explained that as a military officer he felt it was his obligation to remain apolitical. In his estimation, this included not casting a vote on who his commander in chief might be.
Although I don’t agree that one’s commitment to remain apolitical while in uniform extends to not voting, I would over the years come across others who abstained from voting on similar grounds. That interaction served as an early lesson on the lengths some in the military would go to steer clear of politics. It also illustrated that those in uniform have by definition a different relationship to the president than civilians do. As that lieutenant colonel saw it in 2000, he wouldn’t be voting for his president but rather for his commander in chief, and he didn’t feel it was appropriate to vote for anyone in his chain of command.
As it turned out, the result of that election was contested. Gore challenged the result after Florida was called for Bush, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court between the election and the inauguration, by which point he’d conceded.
There are many ways to contest an election, some of which are far more reckless and unseemly than others, but our last two presidential elections certainly qualify. In 2016, Democrats contested Donald Trump’s legitimacy based on collusion between his campaign and Russia. In 2020, Republicans significantly escalated the level of contestation around the election with widespread and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, which ultimately erupted in riots on Jan. 6.
Little progress has been made to understand this cycle of contested elections we are trapped in, with the most recent attempt — the Jan. 6 commission — failing to pass in Congress. Today, dysfunction runs deep in our politics. While the images from Jan. 6 remain indelible, the images of entire cities in red and blue states boarded up in the days before last Nov. 3 should also concern us. If contested elections become the norm, then mass protests around elections become the norm; and if mass protests become the norm, then police and military responses to those protests will surely follow. This is a new normal we can ill afford.
This takes us back to that lieutenant colonel I knew in college and his conviction to stay out of politics. Increasingly, this view has seemed to fall out of favor, particularly among retired officers. In 2016, we saw large speaking roles doled out to prominent retired military leaders at both parties’ national conventions. This trend has accelerated in recent years, and in the 2020 elections we saw some retired flag officers (including the former heads of several high commands) writing and speaking out against Trump in prominent media outlets, and others organizing against Joe Biden’s agenda in groups like Flag Officers for America.
The United States military is one of the most trusted institutions in our society, and so support from its leaders has become an increasingly valuable political commodity. That trust exists partly because it is one of the few institutions that resists overt political bias. If this trend of increased military politicization seeps into the active-duty ranks, it could lead to dangerous outcomes, particularly around a contested presidential election.
Many commentators have already pointed out that it’s likely that in 2024 (or even 2022) the losing party will cry foul, and it is also likely that their supporters will fill the streets, with law enforcement, or even military, called in to manage those protests. It is not hard to imagine, then, with half of the country claiming an elected leader is illegitimate, that certain military members who hold their own biases might begin to second guess their orders.
This might sound alarmist, but as long as political leaders continue to question the legitimacy of our president, some in our military might do the same.
After I served in Afghanistan and Iraq, I covered the war in Syria as a journalist. It’s often forgotten that the refusal of Sunnis in the military to follow the orders of Bashar al-Assad was a key factor in pushing that political crisis into a civil war. That’s because when the military splinters, the defecting elements take their tanks, their guns and their jets with them. Obviously, we are very far from that sort of instability. But cautious speculation has its uses; it can be critical in heading off conflict. My experience in the military and my understanding of past conflicts have convinced me that the forces our politicians are playing with when they contest elections are dangerous ones.
Last week, Senator Joe Manchin expressed his hopes of reviving the Jan. 6 commission with a second vote in Congress. Understandably, lawmakers crave answers and accountability, and perhaps he’ll find success in that effort. But the solution to our troubles isn’t in looking backward, it’s in looking forward: by passing bipartisan voting rights legislation like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which could create at least some consensus on the terms under which the next election takes place. Consensus on anything in Washington is hard to come by these days, but there is a common interest here: Both parties will certainly agree that if they win the next election, they won’t want the other side to contest it.
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