Who knew? Americans like socialism

Tea Party demonstrators carry signs calling President Obama a “socialist.” Fox News warns of a “socialist takeover of the United States.” GOP talking points focus on the “Democratic socialist agenda.” Not since the Cold War have the words “socialism” and “socialist” had such a prominent role in our political dialogue. It’s as if Glenn Beck brought Senator Joseph McCarthy and his “red baiting” back from the dead. But the political noise aside, how do Americans really feel about socialism?

Two recent national surveys shed light on this question: One conducted by the Pew Research Center, and the second by Rasmussen.

The Pew Research Center tested reactions to words and phrases frequently used in current political discourse. “Socialism,” “capitalism” and “progressive” were among words tested, and the results are surprising. Indeed, socialism is a negative for the majority of Americans, but not all Americans. And, only a slight majority of Americans regard capitalism positively.  In one of the most unexpected outcomes, a whopping 68% of respondents reacted positively to the world “progressive.”

According to the Pew survey, when considering respondents as a whole, 29% say they have a positive reaction to the word “socialism,” while 59% react negatively. When it comes to the word “capitalism” 52% react positively compared with 37% who say they have a negative reaction.

Who knew that one in three Americans has negative feelings about the word “capitalism”, and that one in four has a positive reaction to the word “socialism?” This is an amazing survey result in a country that rarely teaches about socialism in its schools, or has any meaningful media coverage of socialist countries or European social welfare states.

It gets even more interesting when we look at the Pew survey results by political affiliation:

Not surprisingly, 77% of Republicans react negatively to “socialism,” while 62% have a positive reaction to “capitalism.” Democrats are more evenly divided: 44% react positively to “socialism” and 47% react positively to capitalism”

When it comes to young people, women, people with low incomes, and the less educated, fewer than half react positively to “capitalism.” This makes sense, as these would be the groups who benefit least from a capitalist system.

No surprise, about six-in-ten Republicans (62%) react positively to “capitalism,” compared with 29% who have a negative reaction. About half of independents (52%) have a positive impression while 39% react negatively. Among Democrats, 47% react positively to “capitalism” while nearly as many (43%) react negatively.

When it comes to the word “progressive” 81% of Democrats, 64% of independents and 56% of Republicans have a positive reaction.

Other interesting findings in the Pew Survey:

  • Among those younger than 30, identical percentages react positively to “socialism” and “capitalism” (43% each), while about half react negatively to each.
  • More than twice as many blacks as whites react positively to “socialism” (53% vs. 24%). Yet there are no racial differences in views of “capitalism” – 50% of African Americans and 53% of whites have a positive reaction.
  • Those with a high school education or less are more likely to express a positive view of “socialism” than do those with more education.
  • Only 51% of moderate and liberal Republicans have a positive impression of “capitalism.”

The recent Rasmussen survey on opinions about socialism and capitalism also had interesting and surprising results.

According to the survey:

Sixty percent (60%) of U.S. adults nationwide say that capitalism is better than socialism, whereas 18% disagree, and 21% are not sure. So, according to Rasmussen, fully 39% are not completely with the American capitalist program. Young people under 30 are closely divided on the question. While Republicans and unaffiliated voters overwhelmingly say that capitalism is better, just 43% of Democrats agree. Twenty-four percent (24%) or almost one in four Democrats say socialism is better.

Additional Rasmussen findings suggest Americans are not happy with the behavior of capitalist institutions and the current corporate/government relationship:

  • Seventy-three percent (73%) of Americans believe that Goldman Sachs is likely to have committed fraud as charged by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • Seven-out-of-10 Americans believe that government and big business work together against the interests of consumers and investors.
  • Just 24% believe the government is capable of adequately monitoring the dealings of Wall Street financial firms. Fifty-three percent (53%) say it is not.

What is remarkable about these two surveys is that, while capitalism is still the favored economic system of most Americans, a surprising number are open to socialism.  And this at a time when Republicans and corporate owned media are churning out socialist scare stories and misinformation 24/7. Perhaps it is a sign of widespread economic distress and a loss of trust in the capitalist institutions that is shifting the American opinion on both capitalism and socialism.

The weakness of these surveys is that there is widespread confusion over the meaning of the word  “socialism.” For sure, confusion exists about socialist countries with state-run economies, such as Venezuela, vs. social welfare states with heavily regulated capitalist economies, such as Norway and Sweden.  Many respondents had positive feelings about both capitalism and socialism suggesting a desire for a European social welfare state model.