A few weeks ago I heard a story on NPR about Americans’ changing attitudes towards socialism. I was surprised to hear that 36% of Americans and 53% of Democrats have a positive impression of socialism.
I thought I must have misheard, so went to the Gallup website and sure enough my ears had not deceived me. No surprise, the terms free enterprise and capitalism had much more positive ratings (86 % and 61%respectively).
However, I didn’t expect the favorable responses for socialism to be this high given the way the term has been demonized and given that no elected officials holding national office (except for Vermont’s Bernie Sanders) have embraced the term.
From the Gallup website:
Socialism had the lowest percentage positive rating and the highest negative rating of any term tested. Still, more than a third of Americans say they have a positive image of socialism.
Exactly how Americans define "socialism" or what exactly they think of when they hear the word is not known. The research simply measures Americans' reactions when a survey interviewer reads the word to them -- an exercise that helps shed light on connotations associated with this frequently used term.
There are significant differences in reactions to "socialism" across ideological and partisan groups:
A majority of 53% of Democrats have a positive image of socialism, compared to 17% of Republicans.
So what gives? I decided to check other polls to see if the Gallup poll was an outlier.
An April 2009 Rasmussen poll showed even higher favorable responses for socialism—a story I somehow missed.
Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.
The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.
The most amazing statistic:
Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided.
Something is going on here. Perhaps when those who like President Obama hear all these ( ridiculous) charges that Obama is a socialist, instead of feeling less positive about Obama, they feel more positive about socialism?
Those who find the tea party crowd small-minded and mean-spirited might think if these guys think socialism is so awful, then maybe it’s not that bad after all.
What just about all polls have found is that Americans don’t pay much attention to complicated public policy debates. Most are stressed out, overworked, struggling to keep their heads above water. They don’t have much time (or inclination) to pay serious attention to politics.
But when folks hear ideas grouped together over and over again, unexamined associations can form. The Obama = socialism craziness of the far right might just be having the unintended consequence of making the word socialism a lot less scary!