What are the effects of political polarization and institutional politicization on public support for bureaucratic bodies such as the armed forces? Existing studies of public opinion of the military often focus on advanced developed democracies, where the armed forces tend to possess high bureaucratic neutrality. However, in many places in the developing world, militaries lack neutral competence and suffer from politicization. In these contexts, existing insight is less useful in understanding the effects that both politics and military behavior have on public opinion.
I argue here that a loss of agency neutrality activates voters’ partisan commitments, inducing them to judge that agency on the basis of their perception of the government. Because partisan commitments play such a large role in shaping attitudes toward political objects, politicization should lead individuals to identify agencies as a partisan extension of the administration. Under bureaucratically neutral conditions, demographic factors, levels of interpersonal trust, the nature of interpersonal contact, and agency performance should all help determine public opinion toward the armed forces, as the scholarly literature indicates. However, as neutrality erodes, partisan attachments to the government should become a much more salient structuring factor.
Confidence in public institutions is crucial in linking ordinary citizens to the institutions that are intended to represent them (Bianco 1994). It enhances not only the legitimacy of institutions, the state, and its leaders (Kramer and Tyler 1996; Hetherington 1998; Tyler 2001) but also their effectiveness (Braithwaite and Levi 1998; Tyler 2006). Public trust in justice, for instance, builds institutional legitimacy and thus public compliance with the law and commitment to the rule of law (Hough et al. 2010).
This is especially relevant to the armed forces. Leal (2005) argues that public opinion of the military may affect both funding and enlistment rates. The armed forces must secure funding through the appropriations process and politicians will have less incentive to increase or to maintain funding without strong public support. In an examination of thirty years of military budgets, Goertzel (1985) shows that political and ideological movements, rather than economic or institutional forces, are the primary determinants of variation in spending. And although government defense spending is virtually guaranteed, Hartley and Russett (1992) demonstrate how changes in public opinion toward military spending consistently exert an effect around that baseline budget. The same tendency holds true for enlistment. If segments of the population are less enthusiastic about the military, the result could be future recruiting difficulties. Scholars have shown that as early as World War I, public enthusiasm for the military and public opinion regarding war have influenced recruitment efforts, broadly across the population (Maartens 2016) as well as for different racial/ethnic groups (Armor 1996).
In this article, I use five waves of survey data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project to track public confidence in the Venezuelan Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana (National Bolivarian Armed Forces, FANB). Since 1999, the FANB has become a highly politicized institution aligned with the governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV). In the country’s polarized political context, I show that respondents’ approval of the government exercises a statistically and substantively significant effect on confidence in the FANB. Robust over a number of specifications, Venezuelans sympathetic to the government are more likely to have a favorable view of the military, whereas those critical of the government are more likely to have a negative view.
The findings show how agency politicization and political polarization may detract from popular trust in institutions beyond the armed forces, underscoring the centrality of bureaucratic neutrality to organizational legitimacy. In the case of a neutral military, the danger most democracy advocates fear is that the armed forces can exercise more autonomy when they disagree with elected government policy. However, in Venezuela, politicization and lack of trust in the military from the political opposition pose an equally dangerous risk. Especially with a change in government, a distrustful public is likely to choose insecurity by removing politicized elements of the military—forces that may contribute to agency expertise and state security capacity.
These results also constitute a novel finding for scholarship on public trust. Unlike past studies focused on agency performance and individual-level characteristics, the results suggest that confidence in the Venezuelan armed forces is politically endogenous, conditioned on a combination of judgments about the government as well as perceptions of institutional performance. In other words, winning citizens’ hearts and minds in such a politicized context depends as much on partisan identification as actual military effectiveness.
Civil-military relations constitute a crucial element in democratic transitions and consolidation (Pion-Berlin 2001). In Latin America, the focus has been on the transition from military to democratic rule (O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986; O’Donnell, Schmitter, and Whitehead 1986) as well as the subsequent process of democratic consolidation (Zaverucha 1993; Linz and Stepan 1996; Fitch 1998). For instance, what determines whether a newly established democratic regime becomes consolidated, under which circumstances do the armed forces submit to a subordinate role under civilian government, and how do civilian-military interactions have an impact on democratization? Setting and maintaining limits on the military’s power and autonomy is necessary (Cruz and Diamint 1998). In general, a democracy is not consolidated until its armed forces are subordinated to the legitimate authority and control of civilian authorities (Huntington 1957; Stepan 1988). Maximizing civilian control of the military therefore involves minimizing the scope of military prerogatives and areas of state policy in which the armed forces holds exclusive jurisdiction (Pion-Berlin 1992; Trinkunas 2005).
Janowitz (1960) was one of the first scholars to conceptualize civil-military relations in terms of the relationship between the military and society. Indeed, social institutions like the military require public support as one source of legitimacy. O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986) emphasize how military dictatorships may affect public opinion of the armed forces, which in turn may have an impact on democratic consolidation and subsequent military autonomy in a post-transition context. They argue that military government abuses and a failure to guarantee economic development will make militaries less popular and provide greater impetus for a democratic transition.1
Part of what determines whether the armed forces become integrated into democracy is whether the government and civil society are willing to allow them. Norden (1996) argues that the more discredited the military government, as with Argentina’s Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (National Reorganization Process, NRP) from 1976 to 1983, the less autonomy civilian authorities were willing to delegate. There, the NRP was politically ineffective, lost a war over the Falklands/Malvinas, and largely failed to convince civilians of the legitimacy of their domestic suppression, thus coloring perceptions of the organization and helping shape future policy toward the military. Upon coming to power in 1983, the Raúl Alfonsín government made significant budget and personnel cuts to the armed forces, and passed two laws (23.077 and 23.554) that limited the institution’s political role. Moreover, the number of people training to be officers fell by 50 percent, a consequence of the declining prestige of the armed forces (Norden 1996, 92–94).2
Even in places where democracy has endured, public attitudes and civilian control over the military is an ongoing challenge (Battaglino 2015; Diamint 2015). Armed forces throughout Latin America continue to seek autonomy from civilian oversight through domestic policy initiatives such as food distribution and policing (Pion-Berlin and Trinkunas 2005), internal disaster relief and security (Pion-Berlin 2016), and economic entrepreneurship (Mani 2011a), indicating the dynamism of civilian-military relations. However—or perhaps as a consequence—citizens generally profess a high degree of confidence in the institution. In the 2014 Americas Barometer survey, Latin American respondents found the armed forces more trustworthy than any other state institution (60.1 percent) and second to the Catholic Church (62 percent) overall (Pérez 2014).
Two dominant theoretical perspectives compete as explanations for the origins of trust in political institutions. Cultural theories hypothesize that trust is exogenous, originating outside the political sphere in long-standing and deeply seated beliefs about people that are rooted in cultural norms and communicated through socialization in early life (Banfield 1958; Almond and Verba 1963). They maintain that institutional trust is an extension of inherent individual characteristics and interpersonal trust, learned early in life and, much later, projected onto political institutions.
Micro-level theories of political trust emphasize that socialization nonetheless may allow for substantial variation among individuals according to demographic characteristics like gender, family background, education, and so forth (Dalton 1996; Inglehart, Basañez, and Moreno 1998). Many studies of public opinion of the armed forces focus on sociodemographic causes, arguing that men have greater confidence in the armed forces than women, and, in the United States, that minority groups tend to have greater trust in the institution than the majority group does (Leal 2005; Rohall, Ender, and Matthews 2006). Outside the United States, Tiargan-Orr and Eran-Jona (2016) found that the Israeli public’s trust in the Israel Defense Forces is generally high across demographic indicators, although it increases during periods of military confrontation. Similarly, in an examination of the Brazilian armed forces, Kaipper Ceratti, Moraes, and Silva (2015) found that trust varies by socioeconomic and regional conditions, as well as by individuals’ perceptions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of specific public policies.
Institutional theories, by contrast, hypothesize that political trust is politically endogenous. They argue that it is a consequence of individual evaluations of agency performance. Speaking to this issue, Serra (1995) found that the two most potent shapers of citizens’ satisfaction with bureaucracy are their assessments of both process that the agency went through (promptness, efficiency, and fairness) and the behavior of street-level bureaucrats with whom they personally interacted in terms of knowledgeableness, courtesy, and openness to criticism.
These theories advance the argument that political trust reflects the expected utility of institutions performing satisfactorily (Hetherington 1998). Trust is rational and hinges on institutional performance: organizations that perform well generate it, whereas poorly performing ones generate distrust or low confidence. This suggests that an organization like the armed forces should be able to shape public confidence on the basis of how it carries out things like external defense, international peacekeeping, internal defense missions, disaster relief, and social development projects. In essence, public trust in the military is the result of military effectiveness rather than demographics or interpersonal trust.
In a survey of the comparative literature, Malešič and Garb (2018) found that this explanation holds great explicative power. In some cases, the participation of European armed forces in international peacekeeping missions can increase their legitimacy and prestige, strengthening public trust (Kuhlmann 2003; van der Meulen 2003). In other cases, poor performance in peacekeeping can reduce trust, as in Canada (Pinch 2003) and Germany (Collmer 2011). In Russia, public trust fell during the failure of the first Chechen war, rebounded after initial success in the second Chechen War, then bottomed out again as the war entered its insurgency phase (Rukavishnikov 2003).
In Latin America, low levels of effectiveness in realms beyond defense also lead to variation in public opinion of the military. This is especially true with regard to performance in social or national development, as in Ecuador and Cuba (Mani 2011b), but also to the economic performance and level of repression under military governments (O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986). For instance, military-civilian relations in Argentina and trust in the armed forces reached their nadir toward the end of the state-sponsored terrorism of the Dirty War and in the wake of the disastrous Falklands/Malvinas War under the NRP. However, the military was able to rehabilitate its image: in a break from the past, it stayed in the barracks during the economic and political crisis of 2001–2002, a move that helped democracy endure. This led to the military’s favorability rating reaching its highest level since 1983 (Mani 2011a). As public opinion of the military improved in the 2000s, its budget more than doubled (Battaglino 2013).
A second manifestation of the institutional trust hypothesis is Gordon Allport’s (1954) intergroup contact theory, which proposes that political trust is born of personal experiences and interactions with those from different groups. There are numerous examples in the behavioral literature. In the United States, a number of scholars have shown that racial differences in attitudes toward another bureaucratic body, the police, emanate in part from differences in direct experience: people’s good or bad encounters with judicial actors give rise to positive or negative evaluations of police and court officials and of the justice system as a whole (Weitzer and Tuch 2006; Peffley and Hurwitz 2010). Therefore, individuals’ perceptions of bureaucratic organizations are shaped by the degree of positive intergroup contact versus negative intergroup contact (Paolini, Harwood, and Rubin 2010).
Despite their predictive accuracy in certain contexts, these theories possess decreased explicative power in other environments. Specifically, they are generally drawn from developed countries where agencies have historically possessed high degrees of bureaucratic neutrality—the idea that civil servants and their institutions are not formally aligned with any political party, movement, or ideology, but instead display political impartiality (Huber 2007).
However, across much of the developing world, public agencies are often politicized (Asmerom and Reis 1996; Van de Walle 2006), and key institutions like the armed forces may lack neutrality (Meyer 1991–1992; Osha 2017) even if they are professional (Stepan 1973). Bellin (2004, 2012) has shown how executives in the Middle East may manipulate their armed forces, and research on neopatrimonialism in Africa discusses how militaries aligned themselves with the executive but then defect under circumstances such as economic crises (Bratton and Van De Walle 1997).3 Likewise, literature on historical Latin American military development is replete with examples of politicized forces, to say nothing of more recent examples from Brazil (Stepan 1988), Argentina (Pion-Berlin 1997), and Venezuela (Norden 2008). In these contexts, existing insight is less useful in understanding the effects that both politics and military behavior have on public support for the armed forces.
There are different types of military involvement in politics. Significantly, being political is not the same as being politicized, as Huntington’s (1957) old professionalism might have suggested. Instead, following Stepan’s (1973) new professionalism, bureaucratic neutrality is not the same as being professional, and even professional militaries can be politicized. Politicization is “the substitution of political criteria for merit-based criteria in the selection, retention, promotion, rewards, and disciplining of members of the public service” (Peters and Pierre 2004, 2). This includes when a political principal appoints someone of the same political persuasion to a key post or when key civil servants are appointed on the basis of their loyalty to a particular political party. A politicized military exercises loyalty to a single political party and advocates for and defends partisan political positions and fortunes. The bureaucratic politics literature shows that these actions can negatively affect agency performance and effectiveness when compared to a neutral competence bureaucracy (Peters and Pierre 2004; Lewis 2007; Gallo and Lewis 2012), as well as the ideological tenor of the implemented policy (Epstein and O’Halloran 1999; Gailmard 2002).
As civil-military relations scholars show, neutral competence in the armed forces helps safeguard the peaceful transfer of power between administrations and ensures that voters can exercise their voice free from the threat of coercion (Janowitz 1960; O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986; Pion-Berlin 2001). With a neutral military, decisions about the funding, size, shape, and use of the military are much less likely to be motivated by a desire to defend partisan power and much more likely to be driven by wider strategic, economic, and public values. Moreover, knowing that partisan intentions do not inform professional military advice also enables elected officials to trust the expertise and advice provided by senior officers. In addition to all of this, politicization may lead the public to judge the agency through the prism of their ideological leanings, a condition that undermines accountability and weakens the institution’s mandate.
Instead of evaluating an agency such as the armed forces on its own merits and performance, individuals may associate a politicized bureaucratic body with the governing party or individual and therefore use their evaluations of the government in power as a heuristic for evaluating the agency. In other words, politicization should matter to public agency support and public agency legitimacy insofar as it activates voters’ political leanings, leading individuals to identify the agency as a partisan extension of that particular administration.
The behavioral literature supports this expectation. In The American Voter, Campbell and colleagues (1960) argued that partisan commitments play a vital role in shaping attitudes toward political objects. Since then, others have shown how partisanship structures individuals’ assignation of credit or blame to politicians (Malhotra and Kuo 2008), as well as their evaluations of the economy (Evans and Anderson 2006; Popescu 2013), war (Gaines et al. 2007), and other politically sensitive issues (Slothuus and de Vreese 2010). This implies that political affiliations, ideological preferences, and biases all have an impact on how individuals perceive policy propositions and government behavior. A loss of neutrality should therefore induce voters to judge an agency as a function of their perception of the government.
This divergence should grow sharper in a polarized political environment. In fact, given the importance of elite cues to the formation of public opinion, scholars have repeatedly shown that elite polarization also splits public opinion (Levendusky 2010; Nicholson 2012; Druckman, Peterson, and Slothuus 2013). In his examination of public support for war, Berinsky (2007) shows that when political elites disagree as to the wisdom of military action, the public tends to divide as well. In contrast, when elites come to a common interpretation of a political reality, the public gives them great latitude to wage war. In other words, attitudes toward the military should be correlated to respondents’ perception of the government—via identification with the governing party, the president, or the respondent’s dominant ideology. In this sense, individuals who view the government favorably will have greater confidence in a politicized armed force than will citizens opposed to the government.
It also follows that the intensity of those ideologies may further color individuals’ perceptions of the armed forces. As such, the more intense a voter’s party identification or sympathy, the more strongly their opinion of the politicized armed forces will reflect their support for the government. Under bureaucratically neutral conditions, where the military serves the political constitution or country through obedience to democratically elected civilian officials without regard for political party or partisan positions, endogenous factors like military effectiveness and exogenous factors like demography and levels of interpersonal trust should all help structure public opinion toward public agencies like the armed forces. However, as this neutrality erodes and politicization increases, public opinion of the government should become a much more salient structuring factor, regardless of the professionalism of the military.
To test the effects of politicization on institutional trust, I draw on survey data of citizens’ opinions of the Venezuelan Armed Forces. This case is useful since Chavista Venezuela features politicization of the military from the ideological left rather than the right. Under the Southern Cone military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s that were allied with the political right, it is difficult to disentangle whether divided public support for the military is a function of the respondent’s ideology and endorsement or criticism of the government, as conservative views are generally more consistent with support for the military. However, in Venezuela, there is no reason a priori to believe that trust in the military is driven by respondents’ ideologies.
Countless scholars have noted the acute polarization of Venezuelan politics since 1999 between the governing Chavista movement and the political opposition (Ellner and Hellinger 2003; Corrales and Penfold-Becerra 2011; Canache 2014; Mallén and García-Guadilla 2017). This division roughly falls along class lines and has its origins in the extensive process of social marginalization and disarticulation that took place throughout the country’s economic decline in the 1980s and 1990s (Roberts 2003). Nonetheless, political and social polarization deepened under the presidencies of Hugo Chávez Frías (1999–2013) and his successor Nicolás Maduro Moros (2013–present).
Chávez, a left-wing populist, used polarization as a political strategy. He denigrated political opponents as escuálidos (feeble ones) and pitiyanquis (little Yankees), and his bombastic, Manichaean discourse was highly divisive (Hawkins 2010). The resulting polarization pervades Venezuelan political life and even shapes who believes in different political conspiracy theories (Carey 2019). In fact, Chávez even polarized public opinion in places outside of Venezuela (Sagarzazu and Mouron 2017).
Beyond rhetoric, Chávez clientelistically rewarded his supporters and punished opponents through the selective distribution of goods and provision of the state-run social missions (Penfold-Becerra 2007). He also adopted a majoritarian-style plebiscitary interpretation of democracy that largely ignored the views and values of his opposition and rarely tolerated the dissenting voices characteristic of democratic pluralism (Corrales and Penfold-Becerra 2007, 2011). Among other actions, the president targeted individuals for criminal prosecution who publicly opposed his “Bolivarian Revolution.”4 Actions from the political opposition exacerbated polarization and intransigence, such as a failed military coup against Chávez in April 2002, an opposition-led general strike in 2002–2003 to remove the president, and a recall referendum against him in August 2004.
In this polarized political milieu, the line between the civilian government and the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) began to blur. As early as 1999, the government involved the FANB in domestic policy implementation, especially the antipoverty distribution and relief efforts that were a part of the government’s so-called social missions. Further, in an effort to monitor the destination of government-subsidized products such as food and to combat scarcity, senior officers have long played a role in auditing the transportation and distribution of goods. In July 2016, Maduro appointed Secretary of Defense Vladimir Padrino López head of national food distribution and a coordinating chief of staff, making the military the linchpin of one of the country’s most strategic sectors (Delgado 2016).
Military officials have also played an increasingly prominent role in civilian politics. Chávez appointed hundreds of active duty and retired military officers to high-level government positions, ranging from cabinet portfolios to the upper echelons of government ministries and state-owned enterprises (Norden 2003). Moreover, in the period prior to the 2018 elections, eleven of twenty-three state governors were retired military officers, up from seven in the previous period.
The FANB’s role in politics, economics, and society is intimately tied to its historical experience, the many failures of civilian governments in the 1980s and 1990s, and its recent evolution. From the transition to democracy in 1958 until Chávez’s failed coup d’état in 1992, the Venezuelan military enjoyed considerable professional autonomy but did not exert substantial influence over democratic politics. Upon re-democratization in 1958,5 the military returned to the barracks and political leaders agreed to the Pact of Punto Fijo, which called for mutual acceptance of election results and the preservation of democracy. In an attempt to guarantee civilian control of the armed forces, article 132 of the 1961 Constitution mandated political neutrality by defining the armed forces as “apolitical, obedient, and non-deliberative” (República de Venezuela 1961). Although the two major political parties, Acción Democrática (Democratic Action) and Copei, cultivated personal ties among the officer corps during this time, the military was less politicized than it had been prior to the Fourth Republic (Norden 2014).
Conditions changed in the 1980s, as low oil prices and rising interest rates on international debt led to grave economic problems. In 1989, newly elected president Carlos Andrés Pérez implemented a series of unpopular neoliberal economic reforms that resulted in a deadly wave of protests, riots, and looting known as the Caracazo. The government called on the military to contain the riots, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of protesters and dividing junior and senior officers (Trinkunas 2002). This crisis further galvanized the radical left-wing Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (Revolutionary Bolivarian 200 Movement, MBR-200) led by Army Lieutenant Colonel Chávez. On February 4, 1992, the group launched an unsuccessful coup d’état that marked the beginning of the end of puntofijista democracy (Agüero 1995).6 A deep institutional crisis followed during the 1990s, with the impeachment of President Pérez and then a major financial and economic crisis under President Rafael Caldera (1994–1999).
This context helps explain the rise of Bolivarianism. Chávez was a military officer, charismatic outsider, and radical populist leader who cultivated political support among traditionally excluded and marginalized sectors of the population. As president, he redesigned the relationship between the military and the government. Rather than seeking “objective” control, Chávez sought to transform the military into a revolutionary partner (Norden 2008). In this renovation of civil-military relations, he repeatedly justified the 1992 coup as legal, relied on active-duty and retired officers to perform political and administrative functions, and directly intervened in officer promotions and assignments (Trinkunas 2005, 210). The president also reoriented the military’s role from national defense to internal security and national development, even using the new 1999 Constitution to create a legal justification for the sudden centrality of the armed forces to domestic politics.
Reliance on the military to carry out domestic task implementation increased substantially after a 2002 coup that temporarily removed Chávez and led him to identify and penalize coup perpetrators. The fallout from this event led the administration to tighten its circle of trusted supporters and give influential government positions and lucrative contract opportunities to loyalists within the military. By 2016, around two hundred avowed Chavista military officers controlled the FANB’s most sensitive positions.7
The government has done much to indoctrinate and dictate the political beliefs of the officer corps. A 2007 reform demanded soldiers to salute with the phrase “¡Patria, socialismo o muerte! ¡Venceremos!” (“Fatherland, socialism or death. We will prevail!”), an example of rhetoric privileging ideology over professionalization. In addition, the 2008 Organic Law of the Bolivarian Armed Forces changed the name of the military from the National Armed Forces to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces, invoking the defense of a specific political project rather than the nation. This law and subsequent reforms reinforced Chávez’s tendency to create a parallel military structure that would respond directly to him and his political-ideological project.
Correspondingly, the country’s top political leadership is intolerant of opposition voices within the officer ranks. Since 2002, the government has punished perceived support for the political opposition from senior officers by removing them from office (Romero 2009). Significant purges have continued since, even against officers who had been prominent PSUV allies. In one example from 2007, Chávez denounced retired general Raúl Isaías Baduel, a onetime supporter who had helped the president regain power in 2002. However, Baduel publicly opposed Chávez’s proposed constitutional reforms, leading the president to accuse Baduel of abuse of power, misappropriation of funds, and violation of the military code while he was an officer. Baduel was sentenced to nearly eight years in prison (Mogollon and Kraul 2010). By rooting out critics from the military, and through frequent turnovers within the officer corps, the military’s politicization is clear.
To test my hypotheses, I use data from five waves of surveys from the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP).8 Each wave consists of 1,500 randomly sampled individuals from across Venezuela.
To operationalize the dependent variable, trust in the FANB, I use the closely related variable confidence in the armed forces, an ordinal response gathered during all five survey waves (1 = no confidence, and 7 = full confidence). Figure 1, which displays the responses weighted by size of the group (circles) and the best-fit linear relationship (dashed line), shows that, on average, confidence has dropped over time. What is more, while in 2006 a plurality of Venezuelans possessed full confidence in the institution, by 2014 a plurality professed no confidence in it.
I use a number of variables to capture the opinion of the government and partisan cues. The first is presidential approval, an ordinal variable that measures respondents’ opinion of government performance (1 = very bad, 5 = very good). Because of possible collinearity among other measures of partisan cues or ideology, I instead use them as robustness checks whose results I include in the appendix.9 These operationalizations are a dummy variable for whether the respondent voted for Chávez (2006, 2008, 2010, 2012) or Maduro (2014); whether the respondent identifies as Chavista; the frequency with which the respondent attends government-run Communal Council meetings (1 = never, 2 = one or two times a year, 3 = one or two times a month, 4 = once a week); and ideology, a ten-point scale that measures the left-right ideological self-placement of the respondent.
To account for the intensity of partisan beliefs, I include an ordinal variable, party meetings, that measures how often the respondent attended meetings (1 = never, 2 = one or two times a year, 3 = one or two times a month, 4 = once a week).
The descriptive data in Figure 2 bear out that partisanship structures beliefs toward the armed forces. The graphs plot respondents’ mean confidence in the FANB over survey wave by evaluation of the government, from “very good” to “very bad.” There is a clear and constant polarization in attitudes toward the military by constituency over time. Respondents who positively evaluate the government display greater confidence in the armed forces, whereas those who negatively evaluate the government have almost no confidence in the institution.
To capture military effectiveness—or more precisely, individual evaluations of military effectiveness—as a plausible alternative explanation, I use three ordinal variables. The first, training, measures the extent to which the individual believes that the FANB is well trained and organized (1 = not at all, and 7 = a lot); the second, disasters, asks respondents how the FANB has done dealing with natural disasters (1 = not at all, and 7 = a lot); and the last, human rights, measures the extent to which respondents’ believe the FANB respects human rights (1 = not at all, and 7 = a lot). Of note, training and disasters are available for only the 2012 survey wave, whereas human rights is available for only 2012 and 2014. Additionally, I cannot simultaneously include all three measures in the same specification because of concerns about collinearity.10 As a result, I begin by running a baseline regression that includes all survey waves, and then rotate in different measures of military effectiveness across specifications.
To capture the interaction of civilians with the military, I include the variable bribe, a dummy that measures whether a soldier had solicited a bribe from the respondent in the previous twelve months. For demographics, I include a dummy variable for the sex of the respondent (man = 0, woman = 1), a dummy for whether they live in an urban (0) or rural (1) area, and the number of years of education (an ordinal variable from 0 to 20).
To test for interpersonal trust and demographic sources of public opinion, I include a number of control variables (summary statistics in the online appendix). These include interpersonal confidence, a four-point indicator of a respondent’s trust in others; neighborhood security, a four-point scale of the respondent’s perception of security; victimization, a dummy variable indicating whether the respondent had been the victim of a crime in the preceding twelve months; satisfaction, a four-point indicator of a respondent’s life satisfaction; and aggregate economic situation, a three-point evaluation of the country’s economic situation.
To test the effects of these covariates, I employ a series of ordered logistic regression models (ordered logit) with year fixed effects. Including year dummies allows me to control for time-specific effects, such as the decrease in the percentage of respondents identifying as Chavista from wave to wave. Because the outcome variable is ordered, I turn to an ordered response estimator instead of continuous response one. There is some debate in the literature about which is preferable as the number of response categories grows (Boorooah 2001). However, the proportional odds test, which measures whether the relationship between each pair of outcome groups is similar, indicates that the ordered response estimator does not violate the proportional odds assumption (null hypothesis cannot be rejected; p < 0.1853). As a result, I employ ordered logit in the text and report ordinary least squares (OLS) as robustness checks in the online appendix.
Given that the three military-effectiveness variables along with bribe are available for only one or two waves of data, as well as the fact that the three military effectiveness variable appear to be somewhat collinear, I use four specifications in the baseline regression and two in the subsequent one. Of these, the first model uses all survey waves and withholds the military effectiveness and bribe variables; the second, third, and fourth models rotate in each of them. Results are remarkably consistent across specifications and between the two types of estimators.
There is a strong statistical and substantive relationship between partisanship and confidence in the armed forces. As Table 1 shows, presidential approval and the series of proxies for government support are positive and significant across all specifications, as predicted. Venezuelans who support the government are more likely to have a favorable view of the military, whereas those who are supportive of the opposition are more likely to have a negative view. This relationship holds for the four alternative operationalizations of partisan affiliation (presidential vote, party identification, Communal Council meetings, and ideological self-placement; see the appendix).11
|Model 1||Model 2||Model 3||Model 4|
|FANB well trained||0.631***|
|FANB human rights||0.689***|
Moreover, presidential approval retains its sign and significance while controlling for citizen perception of military effectiveness in the form of FANB training (model 2), its response to natural disasters (model 3), and perceptions of its respect for human rights (model 4). On one level, the fact that these variables are positive and significant indicates that military performance—or at least perceptions of performance—does influence people’s opinions of the institution. On another level, it indicates that even when controlling for this perception, respondents’ confidence in the institution is just as strongly driven by political leanings. The variable bribe is not statistically significant in any model.
Although exogenous determinants of demographics and interpersonal trust are statistically significant to varying degrees and under different specifications, their substantive impacts pale in comparison to the effect of political leanings and perceptions of FANB performance. Education is negative and significant in three of the four models, indicating mixed support for the contention that increased levels of education are associated with decreased confidence in the armed forces. Regarding interpersonal trust, neighborhood security and life satisfaction are negative across models but only significant in models 1 and 4; by contrast, sociotropic evaluation is negative and significant for all four models, suggesting that the less satisfied people are with their surroundings, the less likely they are to trust the military. Curiously, interpersonal trust is not statistically significant in any of the models, casting doubt on this specific exogenous source of public opinion toward the FANB.
To illustrate the effects that partisanship have on the politicized military, I calculate the predicted probabilities of different levels of confidence in the FANB across views of presidential performance with all other variables from model 2 held at their means. As Figure 3 displays, the largest observable changes occur at the low and high ends of the spectrum: as a respondent’s evaluation of the president moves from very bad to very good, the percentage of respondents with no confidence in the FANB falls fifteen percentage points from 18 percent to 3 percent, whereas the percentage with “full confidence” rises twenty-four percentage points from 7 percent to 31 percent. The middle-range categories, whose patterns are similarly consistent, probably underreport change, because individuals who drop from, say, a confidence level of 7 to 6 are offset by those who drop from 6 to 5, and so on.
Next, to examine the effect of partisan intensity on public opinion, I divide the sample into pro- and antigovernment subsamples and include party meetings as a covariate. Voters willing to take the time to attend party meetings are more likely to be party militants or to more intensely share that party’s beliefs. If voters respond to elite cues, party militants should exhibit more intense feelings toward the military (e.g., PSUV supporters who regularly attend party meetings should have more favorable opinions of the armed forces than other PSUV supporters, whereas activists of the opposition should be even less inclined to look upon the military favorably than less militant copartisans).
As earlier, I use an ordered logit estimator with fixed effects. The first two specifications divide the sample into opposition voters (model 5) and Chávez/Maduro voters (model 6) and leave out independent variables for which there are not five full waves of data; models 7 and 8 include the full range of independent variables.
The results in Table 2 only partially support the contention. As expected, more partisan Chavistas exhibit higher levels of support for the military (models 6 and 8). However, party meeting is not statistically significant in the opposition samples (models 5 and 7), which suggests that level of militancy with an opposition political party is not likely to sway citizens’ views of the armed forces. This result, however, should be interpreted with caution: the extreme fragmentation of the opposition party coalition and weak organizational capacity of many opposition political parties have made party militancy much more difficult for members of the opposition than for progovernment supporters. While 21 percent of government supporters attended a PSUV meeting at least once a year and 5 percent attended weekly, those numbers for members of the opposition were only 8 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively. In this same vein, these results may also indicate an asymmetric attachment to political parties between government supporters and members of the opposition.
|Model 5||Model 6||Model 7||Model 8|
|FANB well trained||0.570***||0.881***|
Beyond this, a belief that the FANB is well trained is associated with an increase in confidence in the institution, even controlling for party militancy and regardless of whether the respondent identifies as a member of the opposition or a Chavista. Likewise, including this proxy for belief in military effectiveness washes out the effects of interpersonal trust and demographic variables, with the sole exception of the negative effect of sociotropic evaluation.
Although views of the military are formed by perceptions of military effectiveness, partisan and elite cues are just as meaningful predictors of confidence in Venezuela’s highly politicized armed forces. The most statistically robust and substantively significant determinants of confidence in the armed forces is the respondent’s view of the government, party affiliation, vote choice, and ideology, along with perceptions of the military’s performance in areas of training, disaster relief, and human rights. In fact, unlike the rest of Latin America, where citizens who identify with the ideological right tend to express higher levels of trust in the armed forces (Pérez 2014), it is left-of-center Venezuelans who are more likely to have higher confidence in the FANB. The theory presented here suggests that these partisan divisions in attitudes toward the FANB are a consequence of a polarized electorate in combination with a politicized public agency. Neither element should be independently sufficient, but jointly they appear to drive confidence in the military.
This has a range of implications. To begin, public perception of the FANB—and by extension, any politicized public agency—may be orthogonal to that agency’s actual capacity or performance. That is, contrary to findings about popular support for the Israeli Defense Forces (Tiargan-Orr and Eran-Jona 2016), in Venezuela the public’s perceptions of politicians also shape its perceptions of a nonautonomous military independent of the military’s behavior. Instead, judgments may often simply be driven by political affiliation or ideology, which can severely weaken the military’s mandate. Therefore, to improve their public image and recover legitimacy, bureaucratic agencies should pursue neutrality before seeking to improve performance.
The results are concerning for Venezuela. The loss of FANB neutrality not only erodes the organization’s institutional legitimacy but, if past research is any guide, is likely to result in less public compliance with the law and a lower commitment to the rule of law (Hough et al. 2010). Moreover, popular trust in political institutions is vital to democracy (Kramer and Tyler 1996; Braithwaite and Levi 1998; Hetherington 1998; Tyler 2001, 2006), and both politicization and polarization appear to detract from it.
This augurs poorly for democratic stability and security. In the Soviet Union, military politicization in a context of divided public loyalties led to the (failed) 1991 military coup (Meyer 1991–1992). Bureaucratically neutral agencies are better positioned to retain the respect of governments, even when there is political change. In contrast, politicized agencies should be more vulnerable to rapid turnover, an action that may reduce agency expertise. This implies, for instance, that when Maduro or his party finally leave power, the military and other state bodies may experience a process of “de-Chavezation” similar to the de-Baathification that took place in Iraq. In that case, the purge of Baathist military elements led to a reduction in state security capacity and the continuing function of the Iraqi government (Pfiffner 2010). In Venezuela, this would mean a loss of expertise as well as agency capacity.
The results matter for other institutions. If similar survey data existed, one would expect to see comparable polarization of public opinion toward other Venezuelan public agencies. In the country’s polarized climate, politicization has helped undermine the FANB’s legitimacy by drawing the opprobrium of nongovernment supporters. By extension, a loss of neutrality of other government agencies, from the National Electoral Council to the Supreme Court, is likely to undermine their legitimacy and weaken their mandates. In all these cases, as government supporters defect and public opinion of the government decreases, confidence in these institutions should fall as well.
Similarly, if politicization and polarization are necessary conditions for structuring attitudes, then there should be similar patterns in other countries with divided politics and similarly politicized public agencies. Peronist Argentina is a case in point. As president, Juan Domingo Perón polarized Argentine society around himself, a division that has endured even after death (Levitsky 2003). He also politicized the military, ordering his subordinates to disseminate Peronist doctrine and including this material as part of the curriculum at the Military Academy and the War School (Pion-Berlin 1997). Lastly, he sought the personal loyalty of military officers rather than institutional obedience through explicit loyalty tests and overtly attempted to incorporate the armed forces in his political movement (Norden 1996, 26).
One contemporary example is Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega. Between 1979 and 1990, the officer corps of the Nicaraguan military, known as the Sandinista Popular Army, was highly politicized and loyal to the Sandinista party’s socialist ideals (Walker 1991). However, after the electoral defeat of Ortega in 1990, the administration of Violeta Chamorro made great progress in developing a professional, apolitical institution, with much greater institutional autonomy (Ruhl 2003). Since returning to power in 2007, however, Ortega has repoliticized the military by promoting loyal Sandinista officers and continually intervening in internal institutional matters, including a period when he became the de facto defense minister (Pérez 2018). In all cases, a change in government may cause a change in public opinion, but confidence in the institution retains its upper limit because partisan affiliation will continue to structure respondent’s confidence in those institutions.
Although demographic and agency performance may affect public opinion of the armed forces during peacetime (Leal 2005; Kaipper Ceratti, Moraes, and Silva 2015; Tiargan-Orr and Eran-Jona 2016), the Venezuelan case demonstrates that the substantive effect of these factors may also pale in comparison to the effect of political leanings. In doing so, the results support the long line of political behavior research beginning with Campbell and colleagues (1960) that shows how important partisanship is in structuring political opinions toward a variety of areas, individuals, and institutions. They are also consistent with scholarship showing how elite polarization may also polarize public opinion (Levendusky 2010; Nicholson 2012; Booth 2013; Druckman, Peterson, and Slothuus 2013). Yet there is more to explore.
The dimensions of polarization and politicization and how they have an impact on public opinion is a potentially rich vein of research. For instance, what happens when the military is politicized but not polarized, or polarized but bureaucratically neutrality? Brazil offers a great laboratory for this latter scenario: it boasts a reasonably neutral military despite high social and political polarization (Bruneau and Tollefson 2014). Similarly, under which circumstances might polarization and politicization fail to produce divergence in public opinion? Exploring cases like these is necessary to understand whether polarization and politicization are individually sufficient to help structure attitudes toward public agencies or if they are jointly necessary conditions.
Politicization of the bureaucracy can damage agency performance and alter policy outcomes, but the Venezuelan case shows that it can also undermine the agency’s legitimacy in the public’s eye. Ultimately, this is damaging not only to representative institutions but also to democracy itself.
The additional files for this article can be found as follows:Data file 1
Data archives (Stata 15 format). DOI: https://doi.org/10.25222/larr.142.s1Data file 2
Stata .do files. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25222/larr.142.s2Supplementary Appendix
Descriptive statistics and model robustness checks using ordinary least squares (OLS). DOI: https://doi.org/10.25222/larr.142.s3
2Other post-transition Latin American governments, with the exception of Brazil, also decreased military expenditure (Zaverucha 1993).
4Chávez’s Bolivarianism, a loose ideology coined after the South American independence hero Simón Bolívar, espouses economic and political sovereignty, self-sufficiency, democratic socialism, and participatory democracy, among other things.
7Drawn from material compiled by the Asociación Civil Control Ciudadano, a Venezuelan NGO that monitors the Bolivarian Venezuelan Armed Forces (http://controlciudadano.org).
8The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), http://www.lapopsurveys.org, for 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014.
9Pearson’s r for presidential approval and Chávez/Maduro vote = –0.558, presidential approval and Chavista –0.494, and presidential approval and ideology 0.510, and Chávez/Maduro vote, Chavista, and ideology are likewise correlated.
|Presidential vote||Party ID|
|Model 9||Model 10||Model 11||Model 12|
|FANB well trained||0.669***||0.678***|
|Model 13||Model 14||Model 15||Model 16|
|FANB well trained||0.722***||0.654***|
Previously presented at the fifty-first meeting of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), Lima, Peru, April 29, 2017. The author thanks John Carey, Iñaki Sagarzazu, Matthew Taylor, Miguel Centellas, Juan Manuel Trak, and Benigno Alarcón for their comments and feedback, and the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University for use of its survey data. The views expressed in this report are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the United States Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.
John Polga-Hecimovich is an assistant professor of political science at the US Naval Academy and has taught at FLACSO-Ecuador. His research broadly focuses on the effects of political institutions on democratic stability, policymaking, and governance, especially in Latin America. He has published peer-reviewed scholarship in Journal of Politics, Democratization, Armed Forces & Society, Latin American Politics and Society, and Journal of Politics in Latin America, among others.
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