The Democratic Party needs candidates who can win in red regions of the country, and it thinks it has found them. A former Marine in Kentucky. An Army veteran in Wisconsin. A former Air Force officer in Pennsylvania. The list goes on, and with reason; as the Associated Press reported in May, the party is 24 seats short of a majority in the House. The math is simple: Pick a veteran to run in a red district, reap the profits.
There’s some validity to this strategy. Seth Lynn of Veterans Campaign told the AP that candidates with a history of military service enjoy a polling bump of about two points on average when they run against candidates with no service record. Democratic veterans in office could also help defeat Republican attempts to shrink or entirely privatize the VA. But this is not a new strategy for Democrats: In 2006, the party’s “Fighting Dems” campaign didn’t actually put many new Democrats in office. “Ever since the Iraq War, Democrats have always recruited a robust slate of military vets,” Bill Scher wrote in Politico earlier this month. “And they usually lose.”
It’s not clear that conservative voters prioritize military service above party affiliation, among other considerations. They supported Donald Trump, who infamously took five deferments to avoid service in the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the Swiftboating of John Kerry, the recipient of three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star, helped cost him an election.
But beyond the horse race, there are other reasons to be skeptical of the way Democrats have recruited veterans and tried to take advantage of their appeal. By running veterans in conservative areas, Democrats have reinforced conservative principles when it comes to issues of foreign policy and national security. This not only undercuts their ability to craft a distinct identity, but also leaves progressive veterans out in the cold.
Republicans elevate veterans because it fits their jingoistic conception of American national identity; it’s not quite Starship Troopers, but it’s close. Veterans play a starring role in any performance of American exceptionalism. Democrats could subvert that narrative if they wanted to, because there are veterans out there who could offer a different vision of what it means to be patriotic and what it means to serve.
The typical American veteran isn’t Captain America. He isn’t a CPAC attendee, either. According to a May 2017 Pew Research Center poll, veterans overall still support Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but veterans under 50 are more likely to report dissatisfaction with Trump’s job performance compared to their older counterparts. During Vietnam, many joined the anti-war movement. Kerry is a particularly famous example: “Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, ‘the first president to lose a war,’” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. Nixon reportedly called anti-war veterans “bastards.”
Even after World War II, a conflict we typically characterize as an unambiguous moral necessity, veterans disrupted an emerging nationalist, anti-communist consensus. Robert Saxe, the author of Settling Down: World War II Veterans’ Challenge to the Post-War Consensus, told the New Republic, “A lot of World War II veterans came back and had some pretty significant critiques of America.” Those critiques ranged from dissatisfaction with the military itself, where the divide between officers and enlisted men reflected broader class tensions, and with civilians, who benefited from a wartime economic boom without risking their lives in battle.
But Americans possessed limited patience for their complaints. “Around 1947, people want them to shut up,” Saxe explained. “They really want this critique to go away. And you see this because the Cold War is starting. They want these guys to get on board to talk about how great America is.” Saxe described this as a “bipartisan” effort. Furthermore, veterans on the left—especially people of color—soon discovered that their service records didn’t grant them much social capital. “It doesn’t protect you from charges of anti-communism. It doesn’t help African-Americans as much as you might think it helps them,” Saxe said. “If you are a progressive, well, you don’t count.”
Our wars have changed, and the military has changed with them; it is now an all-volunteer force, mired in the longest-running conflict in American history. But Democrats and Republicans still uphold a political fiction based on the happy, unquestioning patriotism of veterans. In conversations with the New Republic, veterans criticized that fiction, and the Democratic Party’s seeming inability to counter it.
“Language about service and veterans is more or less monopolized by Republicans,” Ian Boudreau, an Army veteran who identifies as a socialist, told me. “I just want to hear Democrats talk about it. They seem a little uncomfortable with it.” Boudreau says that when Democrats do talk about veterans’ issues it can feel like tokenization, even if there are important exceptions in the party, like Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Wisconsin congressional candidate Randy Bryce, who are both veterans themselves.
Josh Manning, a progressive Army veteran based in Montana, told me that the Democratic Party still doesn’t know what to do with veterans. “I think the Democrats are scared of believing that veterans can be allies or that veterans are even Democrats,” he said. “There are many different flavors to the veteran community. We’re not all Trump-loving conservatives, although there are some of those; we’re not all American Legion guys, even though there are some of those. But people in their 30s and 40s and even 50s and 60s are coming forward and saying, ‘We’ve been quiet for a long time because we’re scared of the American Legion guys and the VFW guys who have such a powerful presence and who really have been overtaken by the Republican Party. We are starting to find our voice in numbers.”
Amber Mathwig, a Navy veteran who belongs to the Democratic Socialists of America’s Veterans Working Group, said voters see the word “veteran” attached to a candidate and they think they know everything about her. “They feel like they don’t have to go any further than that because the public ownership of the veteran identity has already told them what that person believes in and what they’re going to vote on,” she explained. “It’s definitely a tokenization.”
Others are even more critical of the Democratic Party’s approach. “We are very convenient rhetorical devices and everybody wants to claim us as long as we are the right kind of veterans,” said Andrea Chandler, a Navy veteran who also belongs to the Veterans Working Group. Chandler credited the Democratic Party for its commitment to funding the VA, but blamed both major parties for promoting “hero” rhetoric that hyperbolizes the veteran experience. “Everybody wants us to stand up next to them until we start asking uncomfortable questions. Until we deviate from their party line. And then suddenly nobody wants to hear these uncomfortable questions we raise,” she added.
Mathwig echoed that thought, saying she didn’t think the Democratic Party really wanted to hear from left-wing veterans. “They would have to re-evaluate all of their foreign policies,” she asserted.
These “uncomfortable questions” can undermine the most beloved assumptions of a foreign policy establishment that straddles both parties, particularly its propensity for American military intervention. They also point to an untapped resource that veterans can offer. If their service imparts moral weight, then that weight should apply to criticisms of American foreign policy as well. But as Saxe noted, veterans who make these criticisms are often ignored or attacked by the political establishment just like anyone else.
Chelsea Manning may be the most famous recent example of this erasure at work. Though her status as a whistleblower of national importance separates her from most veterans, public reaction to the commutation of her prison sentence illustrates the degree to which both conservatives and liberals embrace the stereotype of the nationalistic veteran and reject anyone who subverts it. “This is treason, espionage at the highest level,” Democratic Senator Joe Manchin complained. Virginia Senator Mark Warner, another Democrat, said Barack Obama’s decision to release her sent “the wrong signal.” (Manning served seven years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, and there’s no evidence that her leak of classified information endangered any American lives.)
Democratic interest in veterans and veterans’ issues, then, can feel opportunistic, especially to veterans on the left. “Stop dragging us up on stages to give speeches to endorse your candidates,” Chandler said. “It’s what the Republican Party does.”
None of this means that Democrats should stop running veterans for office. And veterans should be represented in government, period. But the party has to think carefully about the politics of military experience. “Veteran” must be more than code for a conservative-leaning candidate who is willing to vote with Democrats on individual issues like health care. If there’s little difference between its candidates and Republican candidates, it can’t offer voters an authentic alternative to a militaristic foreign policy. The party also misses an opportunity to reframe military service and undermine the chauvinistic civic religion conservatives have built around it. It can start by running veteran candidates who are actually on the left.