This week I’ve seen a lot of confused military spouses waffling online about whether they’re “allowed” to get involved in political activism. With Black Lives Matter protests erupting all over the country, and a presidential election coming this fall, this seemed like an appropriate opportunity to address these concerns.
Traditionally, politics and the military mix as poorly as oil and water, and for good reason. The military as an institution must remain neutral and nonpartisan to avoid the perception of preference for any politician or political party.
Military spouses, however, are not bound by DOD’s political rules. (The only ones that apply to us have to do with shared property — for more details, we wrote about that here.)
That said, many of us still feel like there are unwritten social norms telling us the military is no place for political opinions. So even though we may feel strongly about a candidate or issue, many hesitate from getting involved.
Let’s dispel some common fears around military spouse political involvement.
Hurting your spouse’s career
A JAG spouse told me she doesn’t speak about politics because, “I worry about affecting my husband’s career”. Unsurprisingly, she’s not the only one. In fact, I encountered this fear head-on myself as a young military spouse.
Years ago, I volunteered on a presidential campaign. I felt empowered to step out of my comfort zone and was proud to help elect a leader I truly believed in. My husband’s commander found out and didn’t hesitate to tell me what he thought about my extracurriculars. “You’re working for the wrong guy, Kate,” he told me. “In this squadron we support [the other candidate].” I was rightfully horrified and immediately worried that somehow, he would “take it out” on my husband. (For the record, he didn’t.)
The bottom line: I didn’t do anything wrong, and I’m far from alone in my political passions. There are countless examples of military spouses with successful careers in politics — even running for office themselves — without consequence. Almost always, this fear is overblown.
We recommend having a conversation with your spouse to determine your family’s policy when it comes to speaking out. Figure out what level of engagement you’re most comfortable with. And that might change based on current events, duty station, or chain of command – that’s okay! It’s truly up to you.
Moving around a lot can make it difficult to find new friends, and some spouses fear their outspoken political views may complicate an already fraught task. “I fear being ostracized, especially when moving onto a new installation. I need to make friends but am afraid people will judge me based on my political views,” an Army spouse told me.
Another spouse indicated that he doesn’t want to risk the social support network he has worked hard to build. “I don’t want my views to end a friendship.” Politics are polarizing, so it’s easy to understand why he’d be concerned.
Political opinions are inherently personal and often grounded in deeply-held values and morals. The most rewarding relationships require vulnerability — to be honest, to be open to criticism, and to risk emotional exposure. Dr. Brené Brown says, “authentic friendships are the ones you can share your vulnerability with.”
Friendships don’t require lockstep opinions, but they are infinitely richer when you are free to be yourself.
Not knowing enough to take a position
Some military spouses worry they don’t know enough about issues to express an opinion. Whether discussing a local political race or debating the merits of a military intervention, it can feel intimidating if you’re not confident about the facts.
It’s true that having a family member in uniform doesn’t make us master military strategists. One senior Navy spouse said, “I think sometimes the assumption is made that if you are a military spouse, you obviously know a lot about what the military is being involved in. And sometimes that’s just not true.”
But don’t discredit the authority of your story. The fact that being at war has made things harder on you and your family is just that — a fact. Your lived experience counts as its own form of expertise.
Additionally, I think we forget that it’s OK to say “I don’t know” sometimes, or have a discussion without needing to “win” it. Not knowing an answer makes you relatable and human. Chances are the person you’re talking to — if they’re worth the hassle, that is — will appreciate your honesty and transparency even more than being a star debater.
Disrupting the institution
Members of the military are prohibited from being political, and many spouses believe that means they should be apolitical, too. Indeed, a spouse’s respect for the military itself as a nonpartisan body might preclude them from wanting to criticize, for fear of undermining the whole concept.
A chaplain spouse expressed her fear of muddying the water between her spouse’s church and military leadership: “I want to be clear about my faith and how that worldview creates my political thinking. All the while not abusing this implicit ‘authority’ trying to influence people.”
This fear is tricky because erring on either side can have horrible consequences. If every order were questioned, that would clearly undermine the chain of command. But if our political leaders are never held accountable for their decisions, how will anything ever change for the better?
I’ve found it goes a long way to remind folks that my criticisms come from a place of love. My family and I have given up a lot for the military, and willingly so, because we believe in the institution’s potential to do good in this world. So why wouldn’t I push for the military and our country to be the best it can be? I owe that to the future generations of military families.
Not your grandma’s military (thank goodness!)
For years, we were told that being a “good” military spouse meant fitting in, supporting everything the military did, and avoiding making waves. By that definition, being political is almost inherently “bad”. But like nearly every other stereotype about military spouses, that definition is harmful and outdated. Today’s military spouse writes their own rulebook, knows their truth, and tells their stories.
We make enough sacrifices as military spouses. Standing up for what we believe in shouldn’t be one of them.