Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Military, the Universities and the Polarization of America

Will Marshal, writing for the DLC publication Blueprint, points out that it’s not just our politicians who are polarized. It’s also two of our greatest institutions: the universities and the military.

According to 2004 exit polls, 34 percent of the voters in the presidential election were conservative, 45 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal. But an Annenberg School study in the same year found that, in the military, 40 percent of the officers say they are conservative, 40 percent moderate and just 7 percent liberal. Only 15 percent of the officers were Democrats, while 47 percent were Republicans and 31 percent independents.

If fighters tilt right, thinkers lean even further to the left. According to a national survey of college faculty, almost three-quarters professed left-of-center views, while only 15 percent identified themselves as conservatives. Only 11 percent owned up to being Republicans.

Whether conservatives join the military or whether the military produces conservatives is impossible to say just as it’s hard to know whether liberals go to college or whether college produces liberals. But I have long noticed that conservatives tend to think they have a monopoly on virtue while liberals tend to think they have a monopoly on intelligence. It is quite possible that such false beliefs are not only buoyed but actively nurtured within the cultures of the military and university system respectively.

For two of our most important institutions to be so ideologically one-sided is not a good thing. As Marshal writes:

[U]nlike political parties, these institutions are supposed to transcend narrow, factional interests and instead advance our society’s common aspirations. It’s not good for America’s civic health when the formative institutions of democracy are commandeered by one side or the other in the baby boomers’ perennial culture wars.

Not too long ago, American society was more-or-less ordered on a worker versus wealthy basis with serious veins of racial and religious divisions coursing through all classes. But most Americans still shared a basic set of values. I’m not so sure that we share the same values anymore—or at least a good swath of us don’t.

On the one hand, the liberal infatuation with postmodern deconstruction has severed context from meaning and reduced such concepts as honor and duty into meaningless constructs. On the other hand, conservative infatuation with the duty and virtue of the individual has left their philosophy with very little patience for assisting those individuals who can’t help themselves. The result is that liberals often have little use for (or at least little understanding of) honor and duty while conservatives have little tolerance for unconditional compassion.

Those deficiencies are almost certainly not the product of the universities and the military, but that is clearly where they’ve gone home to roost.

To be clear, I’m speaking in broad terms. There are many liberals and conservatives who do not fit the descriptions above. But there are many more who do. And that’s a problem because our society is strongest when we combine the personal virtues of duty and honor with the greater societal obligation to lift up the weak and help the downtrodden. We need to believe fully that each person has a responsibility to society while society has a responsibility to each person. Once a nation starts tipping the responsibility toward the individual or toward the society (read: government) chasms will form within the populace.

Our nation has chasms because one ideology wants to minimize personal responsibility while maximizing government’s and the other ideology wants to maximize personal responsibility while minimizing society’s. We need a better balance in our ideologies. Perhaps one way to achieve that is to moderate the military and universities.

A draft or mandatory national service would possibly work. The military would be chock full of people of all beliefs and ideologies and many, many college students would enter after learning the virtues of honor and duty.

Unfortunately, a draft or mandatory national service is extremely unpopular. Hopefully such a drastic course of action will not be required. But I do believe those of us not on the hard right or hard left need to work to maintain the balance of this nation.


Blogger Callimachus said...

Prussia, in the 19th century, used the idea of universal (male) military service to overcome social and ideological differences and create a more unified national culture. For better or worse, but predictably, it turned out to be a highly militaristic culture, with certain consequences for European history.

A main objection to a draft today comes from the military itself: hard experience has taught it that a volunteer army works better in modern warfare than a drafted one.

I agree that a period of universal service might replace the shaky public school system as the American melting pot experience, but there's a lot about it to give one pause.

Not least of which is the lesson learned -- again -- in Iraq that to make military decisions for purely political reasons is a deadly thing for a civilian government to do.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Yeah, the draft poses a lot of issues and would have many unintended consequences. I would be more interested in looking at some kind of mandatory national service, of which joining the military would be one way to complete your service but not the only way.

I don't know whether I would ultimately support such a bold program, but I'd consider it.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Callimachus said...

Philosophically, I agree with the "mandatory national service" idea. But then I look -- again -- at Germany. This time, modern Germany, which has such a program. And talking to my young friends in Germany, they regard it as an enormous clusterf### and a waste of a key year of their lives.

11:33 PM  

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