After a tumultuous process to select a House Speaker, the 118th Congress will begin work this week. Among the ranks of this Congress are 97 lawmakers with military experience, 19 of whom are freshmen. The share of veterans in Congress increased a modest 1 percent from the previous session, but veteran representation in Congress has declined since the early 1970s when nearly three-quarters of members had a military background. Today, less than one in five members served in the military.
Many are alarmed by this decline in veteran representation and also point to the increased polarization and dysfunction in Congress. These concurrent trends motivate efforts on the campaign trail, and on Capitol Hill, to highlight the legislative benefits of military experience. The dominant claim guiding this movement is that electing veterans to Congress can foster bipartisanship and cooperation.
However, in the 2022 midterms, some outspoken conservative veteran candidates leveraged their military credentials in a very different way. These candidates claimed there is no evidence that veterans in Congress are more likely to compromise. Instead, they argued that their military service informs more extreme beliefs on issues such as the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, the justification of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, and the extent of the military’s intervention abroad.
Given these competing narratives, does military experience matter on the campaign trail or in elected office? Here are three things to know about veterans in Congress:
Little evidence suggests that military experience matters to voters. Invoking military service credentials is a campaign strategy as old as our republic. However, our research and that of others suggests veteran congressional candidates do not enjoy a universal electoral advantage. Support for veteran candidates is influenced by partisan preferences and ideological stereotyping. Voters perceive veteran candidates as more conservative, and accordingly, liberal voters tend to view these candidates less favorably.
The results of the 2022 midterms appear consistent with these findings. Of the 196 veterans who ran in the general election, less than half won their races. There is no indication that veterans performed any better than candidates without military experience. Among veterans who did win, three-quarters are Republicans. Additionally, it is unclear whether either of the two veteran campaign narratives were more effective at influencing voters. For example, veteran candidates Eli Crane of Arizona and Joe Kent of Washington both ran competitive races while promoting more conservative positions. Benefiting somewhat from redistricting, Crane unseated the three-term Democratic incumbent, Tom O’Halleran; whereas just last week, Kent finally conceded to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez after contesting the November results.
On the other hand, the more bipartisan narrative resonated with some voters, but not all. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.), Wesley Hunt (R-Texas), and John James (R-Mich.) will be sworn-in for their freshman term next week. These three Army veterans and West Point classmates are optimistic that their military bonds will be key to bipartisan legislative collaboration. However, in Georgia, veteran Marcus Flowers challenged incumbent Margorie Taylor Greene, criticizing her support for those who stormed the Capitol and emphasizing his Army values of honor and selfless service. Despite Flowers’ well-funded campaign, Greene easily won reelection.
Evidence suggests veterans in Congress are more likely to be bipartisan. While it is unclear that military experience influences electoral outcomes, military experience does seem to matter for some legislative outcomes. Research on Congress suggests that veteran lawmakers express distinct attitudes when it comes to the use of force or how much oversight Congress should exert on defense policy.
More fundamentally, though, are veterans more likely to reach across the aisle? Our research finds that they are. Veterans serving in the House tend to be more bipartisan, particularly in recent years. Veteran lawmakers are more likely than their nonveteran colleagues to cosponsor bills introduced by members of the opposite party. Additionally, assessments by the Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index reveal that veteran members consistently outperformed non-veteran members in bipartisan activity from 2013-2020. These results hold even when considering the other factors likely to influence legislative behavior.
While these findings may be encouraging for the many Americans who seek a more collaborative Congress, it is uncertain whether this bipartisan behavior among veterans will hold up in this particularly polarized environment. Of the 97 veterans who will serve in this upcoming session, 48 denied the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, including 10 of the 19 freshmen veterans. Disagreement on something as basic as the legitimacy of the electoral system does not bode well for the prospects of policy consensus. Six of the 20 representatives who voted against Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for speaker were veterans, underlying the potential departure from past trends of veterans as sources of cooperation rather than conflict.
Highlighting military experience in campaigns and in Congress may politicize the military. The phenomenon of lawmakers highlighting their military experience is likely to have unintended consequences for the relationship between the military and the society it serves. Over the past several decades, many have grown increasingly concerned with the politicization of the military. Many Americans watching in this contemporary political climate view the military through a partisan lens, unaffected by disclaimers that veteran politicians are not endorsed by the Department of Defense. As more veteran candidates use their military experience to claim political advantages — bipartisan or partisan — institutional trust in the military will likely continue to erode.
It is true that many veterans serve honorably in elected office, providing critical policy perspectives and cooperating to achieve legislative results. However, healthy relations between the military and the public rely on strong norms that are threatened when military experience is used to justify political distinctions. These democratic norms are cultivated to ensure the military remains nonpartisan, subordinate and accountable to civilian government authorities — integrated in politics, but ultimately trusted for its accountability to the Constitution over partisan preferences.
Efforts aimed at increasing veteran representation in government, encouraging veterans to highlight their military credentials in campaigns, and harping on the exceptionalism of veterans in politics all risk further politicization of the military. In the end, few may benefit from the references to veteran status in politics and — most threatening to democratic norms — the military may suffer.
Richard M. Yon is an associate professor of political science at the United States Military Academy and the director of terrorism studies at West Point.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Joint Special Operations University, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.