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Why eroding public confidence in the Supreme Court should worry the military

A new Pew survey of public opinion shows approval of the Supreme Court at an "all time low." I think these numbers are a warning sign for the U.S. military. What’s more, I am pretty sure the senior military leadership understands that falling public respect for the Supreme Court could portend a similar fate for ...

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

A new Pew survey of public opinion shows approval of the Supreme Court at an "all time low." I think these numbers are a warning sign for the U.S. military. What's more, I am pretty sure the senior military leadership understands that falling public respect for the Supreme Court could portend a similar fate for them, if they are not careful.

For the past several decades, the Supreme Court has vied with the U.S. military for the honor of being the public institution in which Americans have the greatest trust and confidence. The military has usually had first place, but the Supreme Court was near the top as well. The bottom feeders were Congress and, of course, the media.

The military was not always held in high esteem, however, and the climb to the top coincided with the Reagan years. There were many reasons for the high public respect for the military, as David King explained, including a string of remarkable operational successes, a focused campaign of outreach to the public, and the elite's desire to get beyond the poison of the Vietnam era.  

A new Pew survey of public opinion shows approval of the Supreme Court at an "all time low." I think these numbers are a warning sign for the U.S. military. What’s more, I am pretty sure the senior military leadership understands that falling public respect for the Supreme Court could portend a similar fate for them, if they are not careful.

For the past several decades, the Supreme Court has vied with the U.S. military for the honor of being the public institution in which Americans have the greatest trust and confidence. The military has usually had first place, but the Supreme Court was near the top as well. The bottom feeders were Congress and, of course, the media.

The military was not always held in high esteem, however, and the climb to the top coincided with the Reagan years. There were many reasons for the high public respect for the military, as David King explained, including a string of remarkable operational successes, a focused campaign of outreach to the public, and the elite’s desire to get beyond the poison of the Vietnam era.  

One important reason, which bears on the Supreme Court numbers, was that the public viewed the military as non-partisan and functional, as distinct from the institutions paralyzed by partisanship (Congress) or unacknowledged bias (media). This reputation for being above politics is what the military shared with the Supreme Court, until the latter started to lose that reputation.

As the latest Pew poll survey shows, public attitudes toward the Supreme Court are increasingly filtered through the lens of partisanship. The enormously controversial decision to uphold Obamacare may have looked to many like just another act of a partisan institution, not much different from a party-line vote in Congress. Conservative partisans lost a lot of respect for the institution; liberal partisans, while glad that they won, began to worry that an institution operating along partisan lines could turn on them.

So far, the public still views the military as relatively "above politics," but a study I did last fall with James Golby and Kyle Dropp shows that beneath the surface there is a strong partisan tilt shaping public views of the military. This is precisely the slippery slope down which the Supreme Court has slid.

Today’s military leaders understand the importance of staying out of partisan politics, but the fight over the sequester — and the painful defense cuts that appear inevitable in any "sequester fix" — will make it harder and harder for the military to stay pure in both appearance and reality.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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