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Poll: US trust in military falls amid politicization, Afghan withdrawal

Chief Deputy Lamont Ruffin from D.C. District Court swears in 2,000 National Guard troops as Special Deputy U.S. Marshals. (Photo by Bennie J. Davis III, US Marshals/Released)
December 02, 2021

The trust the American people have in the U.S. military fell for a third consecutive year according to the Ronald Reagan Institute’s annual national defense survey. Concerns about the politicization of the military and the handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan were driving forces behind the losses in confidence.

The percentage of Americans who trust the military “a great deal” has fallen every year since the Reagan Institute began the survey in 2018 and has declined 25 points, from 70 percent to 45 percent in those three years. In the time between February 2021, shortly after President Joe Biden took office, and now, the U.S. trust in the military fell 11 points — the sharpest single-year decline since the survey began.

According to the topline survey results, 56 percent of respondents trusted the military “a great deal” in February 2021, as compared to 45 percent as of the most recent November results. 27 percent of respondents trusted the military “some” in February, as compared to 33 percent in November. Nine percent trust the military “a little” in February, compared to 11 percent in November. Six percent trusted the military “not much at all” in February, compared to 10 percent who felt that way in November. Two percent of respondents were unsure how much they trusted the military.

When asked to explain why they felt the level of confidence they did about the military, those with high measures of confidence felt that way because of confidence they felt in service members. Those who felt less confident cited a range of reasons.

“But political leadership is at the top of that list,” Rachel Hoff, the Reagan Institute’s policy director, told Military Times. “So that could range from anything from presidents of the United States ― whether that’s the current president, the previous president ― it could range from the way that our political leaders, say in Congress, talk about the military, the politicization of military leadership more broadly.”

The survey also found 40 percent of respondents had “a great deal” of confidence the military could act in a professional and nonpolitical manner. 31 percent had “some” confidence, 12 percent had “a little” confidence and 13 percent had “not much at all.”

The handling of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan was one issue where respondents showed the biggest loss in support since February.

59 percent of respondents felt the war in Afghanistan was a failure, up about 10 points since February. A 40 percent plurality of Americans (40 percent) believed the withdrawal from Afghanistan weakens the U.S., 35 percent felt it doesn’t make much difference and 14 percent felt the withdrawal strengthens the U.S.

47 percent of respondents approved of the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, while 27 percent said troop levels should have stayed the same as they were in February.

62 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the way the withdrawal was handled. About 49 percent said the problems associated with the withdrawal were the fault of poor judgment by Biden.

Despite the loss of trust, the military still leads as the most trusted public institution. Six percent of respondents had “a great deal” of trust in Congress in the November survey results. 18 percent had “a great deal” of trust in the Supreme Court. 10 percent had “a great deal” of trust in the news media. 19 percent had “a great deal” of trust in the presidency. 33 percent had “a great deal” of trust in police and law enforcement. 26 percent had “a great deal” of trust in public health officials.

Trust in all public institutions fell since February 2021, but the military and the presidency suffered the greatest loss in confidence, with both losing 11 points among those who trusted them “a great deal.”

Trust in the military fell across all major demographic subgroups, including age, gender, and party affiliation.

Republicans saw the biggest loss in confidence in the military, with a 17-point drop in those who had “a great deal” of trust, compared to a nine-point drop for independents and a six-point drop for Democrats.

In a potentially concerning sign for recruiting, confidence in the military among respondents under the age of 30 was at just 33 percent, following a 20 point drop since the start of the annual survey in 2018.

57 percent of respondents felt the military could keep the country safe.

42 percent of respondents felt the military could win a war overseas and 42 percent felt the military could deter foreign aggression.