October 22, 2004

Oh that conservative military

The New York Times files yet another report on soldiers and their political preferences. I should say that I find this all fascinating, really I do, but it's hard to derive some ultimate significance from the fact that the military leans one way or the other. (Or that parts of the military lean one way or the other.) Michelle Malkin and other conservative seem to get a kick out of the fact that X percent of soldiers support Bush. But that doesn't really validate Bush, at least not in any rational sense. The military has always been largely Republican, and that pre-existing fact tends to pressure a lot of new soldiers into becoming Republican. And since political affiliation is extremely path dependent, that leaning tends to get magnified over time.

Here's an example. I have a friend, call him, oh I don't know, "Thad". Thad went to a liberal arts college, read a lot of heart-rending books about the oppression of women and minorities, had a lot of smart liberal friends, and so Thad became a liberal himself. Now imagine Thad starts reading and thinking a lot about politics. Because he started out as a liberal, or with liberal leanings, he tends to read more liberal source material than conservative source material. He comes across a lot of anti-Bush stuff, and maybe Thad's not quite so, uh, vociferous as say Paul Krugman, but he feels like the anti-Bush stuff is more right than not. When Thad reads the newspaper, he tends to remember and over-emphasize the anti-Bush stuff, and either forget or shrug off the anti-Kerry stuff. Maybe he does so only slightly, but it adds up over time. And so it goes, as little bits of liberal information continue to stick to Thad's brain, creating a rather cumulative worldview. When you ask Thad why he supports the Democrats, he rattles off all sorts of cogent and well-reasoned arguments. It sounds like he's really thought hard about this. But of course much of it only comes from his living in his own personal echo chamber—something he can't help, no matter how widely read or open-minded he tries to be.

Now swap out "liberal" for "conservative" in the above account, and swap out "small college" for "boot camp," and you have a reasonable account of the Republican armed forces. Most of these soldiers, I'm guessing, don't come in from a hard day's worth of trading bullets with insurgents, only to sit down and deliberate over their political philosophy, their stances on various national security issues, and the all-important question of how their war experience informs their electoral choice. Or if they do that, they often do so ingenuously, since many of them will only let their experience confirm their initial Republican leanings—the path dependency effect. And many of them no doubt have initial Republican leanings only because the military was Republican when they got there. Pure chance.

Now that doesn't make their political leanings invalid—like I said, this is how most of us choose sides, regardless of how rationally we can defend our positions. What's interesting, though, are the soldiers who experience enough cognitive dissonance from the war to actually switch sides. Or the soldiers who struggle with that cognitive dissonance and don't switch sides. But we have no way of knowing who's doing that.
-- Brad Plumer 3:08 AM || ||