Politics & Policy

The Veteran Vote

It can bring a congressional district with it, to the benefit of conservatives.

Each of the two major parties enjoys overwhelming advantages with certain demographic groups, and equally stark disadvantages with others. The Washington Post characterizes the divide this way:

Results from November’s midterm elections have exposed a deepening political divide between cities on the coasts and the less-dense areas in the middle of the country.

The Republican Party’s big gains in the House came largely from districts that were older, less [racially] diverse and less educated than the nation as a whole. Democrats kept their big majorities in the cities.

The Post story notes that “Democrats remained strong in areas with the party’s core of minorities and higher-educated whites” but suffered overwhelming setbacks among white working-class voters. “Exit polls,” it pointed out, “showed that Democrats lost white voters without a college degree — one way to measure blue-collar voters — by almost 30 percentage points in House races.”

The Post is on to something here beyond the long-overdue acknowledgment that the Republican party is not a wholly owned subsidiary of nefarious corporations. Congressional districts with heavy concentrations of two demographic groups — racial minorities (especially those who have low incomes or have not finished high school) and people who have earned post-graduate degrees — elect liberals almost 100 percent of the time, sending politicians such as Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Charlie Rangel, John Lewis, Barbara Lee, and Barney Frank to congressional swearing-in ceremonies.

But a review of Census Bureau data suggests that there may be another way to look at the divide. The GOP’s political advantage appears to correlate with the number of military veterans in a district. Here are some data to contemplate:

‐According to the Census Bureau, there are approximately 23.4 million military veterans in America. The average congressional district is home to about 53,700 of them, slightly more than 10 percent of its adult population. Of course, there is no such thing as an “average” district. In 20 districts the veteran population exceeds 15 percent of adults while in 25 others it falls below 5 percent.

‐In delivering the November 2 shellacking, Republicans won 45 seats, the majority of their gains, in the 218 districts with the most veterans. Most of these pick-ups, moreover, required a Republican challenger to defeat a Democratic incumbent.

‐The GOP now controls over three-quarters of these seats (164, by my count). To put this in perspective, the GOP will control 55 percent of all House seats when the new Congress convenes in January.

‐The attrition rate for Democrats representing these districts was nothing short of astounding. Show me a Democrat seeking to hold on to a district with large concentrations of veterans and I’ll show you a Republican pick-up opportunity. In fact, the GOP won nearly 50 percent of such seats, 47 out of 99, while Democratic challengers picked up just two of the 119 GOP seats in play.

‐Election Day was a yawner in districts with comparatively few veterans. In the 100 districts with the fewest veterans, Democrats lost but three seats while gaining back one.

What are we to make of this? For one thing, the emerging concern among conservatives that supporters of the Tea Party movement will back massive cuts in national-security spending seems misplaced. After all, the vast majority of House GOP freshmen — at least 20 of whom are veterans themselves — will return home each weekend to districts chock-full of former Marine drill sergeants, Navy fighter pilots, and Army tank commanders. It is safe to assume that these constituents won’t look kindly on lawmakers who propose to gut our armed services, especially in a time of war.

But the implications go well beyond concerns over national security. The correlation between veteran-rich constituencies and the election of conservative lawmakers deserves more scrutiny from political scientists, pollsters, and campaign strategists. Are we more likely to embrace the values, beliefs, and political inclinations of veterans when we live next door to or work alongside them? When they teach or coach our kids? What is it that makes these communities hostile to liberal schemes to insert the government into our everyday lives?

My suspicion is that the values military service instills in those who answer the call ultimately come to define the communities where they settle. Recall the values that Gen. Douglas MacArthur highlighted in his famous farewell address at West Point, in which he declared: “Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.”

To MacArthur, the military code of conduct and chivalry included “enduring fortitude,” “patriotic self-abnegation,” “invincible determination,” and “courage under fire.” These character traits, he argued, enable the soldier to serve as the “instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom.”

MacArthur anticipated that the soldiers of whom he spoke would confront a world beset by problems very similar to the ones we face today. He described an America where “our strength is being sapped by deficit financing, indulged in too long,” with “federal paternalism grown too mighty” and taxes “grown too high.” He foresaw a Washington overrun by “power groups grown too arrogant” and “politics grown too corrupt,” its “morals grown too low.” The military code of values, he argued, is the tonic to these ailments:

The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of mankind. Its requirements are for the things that are right, and its restraints are from the things that are wrong.

The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training — sacrifice.

Our nation stands at a precipice, pushed to the edge by the very forces of which MacArthur spoke. To defeat them, we will have to draw upon the character traits he identified as part of the military code. These values, one suspects, resonate most strongly in those communities where large numbers of veterans reside. It was precisely in these communities that the spirit of the Tea Party movement was strongest on Election Day.

Michael Franc is vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation.


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