Micaela Burrow on May 23, 2023
Veterans are less likely to support far-right or far-left extremist groups than the general public despite increased attention, particularly from Democratic lawmakers, on current and former military members’ ties to extremist organizations, according to a study released Tuesday by the RAND Corporation.
Among a survey of nearly 1,000 veterans representative of the national population, RAND, a nonprofit firm that conducts research for the Department of Defense (DOD), found no evidence to support the notion that veterans are more likely to support or be a part of extremist groups than Americans in general. Concerns that extremist groups may single out veterans for recruitment into their organizations, and the seemingly disproportional representation of veterans among the Jan. 6 Capitol protesters, prompted calls to investigate and address a perceived problem of extremism in the military.
“Given the anecdotal information about extremist group recruitment preferences and their active targeting of veterans, we would have assumed that these reported prevalence rates would be higher,” Todd Helmus, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and the study’s lead author, said in a press release.
Researchers suspected that extremist organizations could prey on active duty and former military members to bolster their legitimacy and take advantage of the skills and training military service affords, according to RAND. In addition, military members are more often white and male, factors associated with membership in right-wing extremist groups, and more likely to seek out the type of fellowship found in a tight-knit organization.
“Those initial reports spurred a lot of fear and concern,” Helmus told NPR. “But no one’s actually looked at the numbers.”
In January 2021, after the Capitol riots, 15 Democratic lawmakers pressed the DOD Inspector General to root out extremism in the ranks in a letter.
“White supremacists are joining the military and permeating the ranks,” the letter stated. “The spread of white supremacist ideology is dangerous for the military and threatens to rupture civil-military safeguards that our democracy requires.”
“Empirical evidence suggests that individuals with military backgrounds have become increasingly involved with violent extremist plots and attacks in recent years,” a 2022 Democratic House majority report stated.
However, the RAND survey found that veterans’ support for extremist groups ranged from 1% for white supremacists, 4.2% for the Proud Boys and 5% for black nationalist groups to 5.5% for Antifa, rates “generally lower than rates derived from previous representative surveys of the general population.”
In addition, most of those who indicated support for radical groups did not view political violence favorably. Overall, veterans endorsed political violence as a necessity at rates similar to the overall U.S. population.
Support for Antifa is as high as 10% in the general public, and about 7% of civilian Americans support white supremacist groups, according to RAND.
The study also examined preference for QAnon and the Great Replacement Theory, defined in the survey as “a group of people in this country are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants and people of color who share their political view.”
At 13.5%, support for QAnon was lower than in the general population, while support for the Great Replacement Theory, at 28.8%, appeared to equal that of the general public, according to the report.
The authors cautioned that it was unclear whether the veterans were more or less likely to answer the survey honestly, compared to Americans who completed similar surveys.