USMA Research Unit Affiliation
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation analyzes the relationship between the American public and the military institution as a source of political information. As much of the study of international relations and domestic institutions suggests, leaders considering policy options are sensitive to public opinion regarding those policies; as such, it is of considerable import to understand how the public forms those attitudes. Though traditional study has focused on the influence of partisan leaders and media elites in shaping the public's base of information, comparatively little has been devoted to understanding the role of military elites in this process. As the value and veracity of political information is subject to increased public skepticism based on its source, the military is by contrast a highly trusted institution whose representative fiigures continue to play a public role in politics. In this project, I examine not only the potential influence that such figures can have on public political attitudes, but how the credibility of the military and its elites as a source of information operates in an environment of partisan polarization, selective media exposure, rising acceptance of illiberal norms, and falling confidence in government and traditional expert communities. The dissertation that follows comprises three papers that incorporate original survey experimentation, observational time-series and social media data, text-as-data, and qualitative case studies in order to contribute to our general understanding of how politicization of the military affects - and is affected by - the credibility of military elites in the political information space. The first paper measures the potential political influence of military elites on public attitudes towards proposed military interventions. Using original survey experimentation,
I build on previous knowledge of elite cuing and public attitudes for war by placing the political preferences of the military and the president in opposition, providing the military source a variety of mechanisms by which to challenge the stated preferences of the executive. Not only do I find that the military voice is a potentially influential one, but that this effect is tied considerably to impressions of the military elite as a credible source of information. Military elites, both active and retired, possess not just an independently powerful voice, but one that remains significant even when conditioning on the partisan identities of the president and the individual. The second paper envisions this concept of elite credibility not as a moderator, but as a dependent variable in its own right, seizing on the empirical puzzle presented by the partisan "gap" in expressed confidence for the military. Using time-series data and text-as-data on media reporting I find that partisans are likely to be exposed to widely different media environments when acquiring information on military institutional quality. Furthermore, using original survey experimentation, I find that even conditional on being presented with negative information on the military, partisans exhibit different pathologies in using it to update their impressions in a rational (Democrats, Independents) or biased (Republicans) fashion. The third paper takes this concept one step further, measuring not only the nature of elite credibility, but its limits. This chapter captures how partisan activism by military elites affects the perceived credibility of these figures and their parent institution. Using the results of original survey experimentation, I find that the public, contrary to much of the established literature on civil-military norms, is not normatively opposed to political activism by retired military elites. Instead, partisans asymmetrically - and significantly - reduce their estimations of credibility for military elites only on the other side of the political aisle. Using analysis of social media data for several prominent military elites, I further reveal an environment of weakened civil-military norms that is ripe for continued politicization into the future.
Robinson, Michael, "Danger Close: Military Politicization and Elite Credibility" (2018). West Point ETD. 19.