Let’s Use Peer Pressure to End Political Endorsements by Retired Generals

A U.S. Air Force general speaks to retired general officers during the service's annual Retired General Officer Summit in 2010.

U.S. Air Force / Rich McFadden

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A U.S. Air Force general speaks to retired general officers during the service's annual Retired General Officer Summit in 2010.

A review of more than 1,000 endorsements by former senior military officers shows that most are just favors for a friend.

Just before the final presidential candidates meet to debate national security this fall, I predict, President Trump’s campaign will release a list of about 300 retired admirals and generals who endorse him; his Democratic challenger, about 35. That’s based on my review of retired flag officer endorsements in American elections going back to 1988. And even if my predictions are off — perhaps because of President Trump’s often-strained relationship with retired officers — there’s little doubt that a substantial number of former generals and admirals will decline to stay on the sidelines.

Since 1988, at least a handful of retired senior officers, and sometimes many more, have offered public endorsements in each presidential election. Evidence suggests that this is harming civil-military relations in three important ways. First, such endorsements are likely part of the reason that senior political leaders increasingly suspect senior military officers of partisan leanings. As described by Kori Schake and James Mattis, this is eroding political leaders’ trust in the military’s advice. Second, public partisan displays by senior leaders could erode troops’ adherence to the military’s non-partisan policy. And finally, partisan political activity may undermine the public’s confidence that the military is an unbiased institution — and could even lead the public to expect the military to inject itself as the arbiter of political disputes in today’s polarized political environment. Any of these outcomes would harm our democratic traditions.

Having recently taught American Politics at West Point and published research into retired flag and general officer motivations, I suggest a solution: counter-mobilization. 

Retired admirals and generals endorse because their friends ask them. Only 10 of 1,041 past endorsers appeared motivated by money; just 193 showed signs of endorsing primarily for ideological reasons. Most weren’t motivated by future financial gain or even their political beliefs. After some three decades of service, retired military executives rely on their tight social networks for information. Some 81 percent of retired flag officers offered their endorsement after being nudged by their peers. In my interviews with eight officers, each indicated they’d been asked by a friend to endorse – and then to ask their friends. 

Counter-mobilization could turn this dynamic on its head. An open letter signed by 1,000 retired admirals and generals will send a strong signal that the collective body of retired senior military officers disapproves. One thousand seems an appropriate target. It is about double the record number who endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012; it represents about one-seventh of living retired flag officers. While not a majority, this plurality would send a clear message of unity to their peers: stop endorsing. 

Related: Keep Your Politics Private, My Fellow Generals and Admirals

Such a letter would work better than the “just say no” approach advanced by two former and one sitting chairmen of the Joint Chiefs during the 2016 election cycle. Articulated on this site by Martin Dempsey, the retired U.S. Army general who served as the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this approach was largely echoed by Michael Mullen, a retired admiral, and by Gen. Joseph Dunford, then the JCS chair. While 2016 did see a decrease in the total number of endorsements, President Trump’s unusual candidacy likely accounts for more of this difference than the intervention by these three former chairmen. 

Convincing 1,000 retired admirals and generals to sign this open letter will be hard, but worth it. The costs of endorsing outweigh the benefits. A 2012 report by Jim Golby, Kyle Dropp, and Peter Feaver found that endorsements from retired admirals and generals hardly help candidates. However, these endorsements come with the costs outlined earlier. 

Such a letter is our best shot of resetting national norms about military political participation. It would present unambiguous criticism of partisan political endorsements. Retired admirals and generals have all the resources to mobilize against endorsements: education, financial security, leadership experience, political power, and strong peer networks. To rally their peers, the letter-writing campaign should launch with a thunder run of op-eds and media appearances. Once signatories are solidified, the letter itself should be released in June, critically wounding campaigns just as they start building out their lists. 

Retired generals and admirals, eliminate these harmful endorsements. 

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or any part thereof.

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