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Corie Whalen
Corie Whalen

Voters and Politicians Disagree on Military Spending

Corie Whalen

In the October 2012 issue of Reason Magazine, pollster Scott Rasmussen has a piece that features polling on the attitudes of American voters toward reducing federal spending, particularly in the area of our military. While voters see American engagement around the world as a net positive, they think our continuously growing military budget, which represents our third largest federal spending commitment after Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security, can be responsibly reduced.

As Rasmussen notes:

At a time of deep cynicism about large institutions 81 percent have a favorable opinion of the U.S. military. Yet this respect and admiration for the troops co-exists with doubts about the jobs they’ve been asked to do. Most voters now believe it was a mistake for the U.S. to have gotten involved in Iraq, and most now want to see troops brought home quickly from Afghanistan. Support for the military action in Libya peaked at 20 percent.

Americans are also in a mood to dramatically reduce our security guarantees for other nations. Less than half (49 percent) believe the U.S. should remain in its bedrock military alliance, NATO. Out of 54 countries with which Washington has signed mutual-defense treaty obligations, plus two others (Israel and Mexico) that receive our implicit backing, a majority of Americans supports defending just 12. Countries that don’t reach the 50 percent threshold include our oldest ally, France, along with Japan, Poland, and Denmark. The only four countries that 60 percent of Americans are willing to defend are Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Israel.

These findings highlight the central 21st-century gap between the citizenry and its political class. Three out of four Americans believe U.S. troops should never be deployed for military action overseas unless vital national security interests are at stake. Yet the last several presidents have adopted far less restrictive criteria for sending troops abroad. The military is often dispatched for humanitarian purposes or in the belief that the U.S. should police the world, but only 11 percent of voters believe Uncle Sam should play global cop.


Ramussen also provides interesting insights about just how much our military budget has increased, and polling that reflects how little American voters actually realize this.

For example:


Only 58 percent of voters are aware that the United States spends more on defense than any other country in the world. And just 33 percent recognize that Washington spends roughly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. Military spending has grown disproportionately compared to Americans’ own priorities, dwarfing other countries in ways that could soon make taxpayers blink.

Consider: The United States spends more than $2,500 per person on national defense; Russia and our NATO allies each spend about one-fifth that amount, at a time when only 46 percent of Americans have a favorable view of NATO. In the aggregate, while the U.S. is spending close to $900 billion a year on the military and veterans’ affairs, China is coughing up less than $200 billion. North Korea, Iran, and Syria combined spend less than $30 billion. The Pentagon spends more just on research and development than Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and Japan each spend on their entire defense budgets.


Ultimately, regardless of your views on the issue of military spending, it’s obvious that something is amiss in our system when the attitudes of voters so distinctly differ from the policy decisions politicians make. Certainly, self-governance requires citizen engagement – but what really, is the root of the problem? A lack of voter knowledge? Too much special interest influence in Washington? Or perhaps a combination of both?

What do you think? Does this disconnect in the attitudes of Americans versus our elected officials on the issue of military spending pose a threat to self-governance? Scott Rasmussen ultimately concludes that sooner rather than later, our military budget will have to reflect the desires of voters and the realities of our nation’s fiscal situation. To achieve this, citizens will have to pressure our elected officials on a bipartisan basis. As we always say, the key to successful self-governance is active participation.