Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 9, 2009

POLL OF THE DAY.... For a couple of months, every sentence from Republican officials and Fox News personalities had to include the word "socialism" while attacking the president. It didn't have much of an effect.

Maybe the smears didn't connect because people don't think "socialism" is all that bad.

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.

Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better.

Specifically, Rasmussen asked respondents, "Which is a better system -- capitalism or socialism?" A narrow majority (53%) supported capitalism as the superior system. One in five backed socialism, and a surprisingly high 27% weren't sure.

You just can't have an effective red scare with numbers like these.

In terms of interpreting these results, the numbers certainly aren't what I expected, and it's hard to know why respondents answered as they did. Perhaps "capitalism" lost some of its appeal when our economy collapsed. Maybe a lot of people heard the media connect Obama and "socialism," and since they like the president, they figure socialism can't be that bad. In a similar vein, if right-wing blowhards like Limbaugh keep screaming that socialism is manifestly evil, there may be some who assume the economic model must have merit.

But I was especially intrigued by the 27% who weren't sure which was better. Talk about a sign of the times -- more than one in four aren't quite sure whether capitalism or socialism is the superior system.

As Chris Good concluded, "[A]fter all, who is sure of anything these days? When it comes to the economy, certainty isn't exactly the spirit of the age. After learning that we're on the brink of "nationalization" anyway, perhaps the respondents to this poll, when they got automated calls from Rasmussen, just felt more inclined to say 'Well, my 401k is worthless, so who the hell knows?'"

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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The numbers are a bit surprising. Perhaps socialism is being equated to regulation, and regulation is what we've been needing for about 8 years now! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on April 9, 2009 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

I think Wall Street has really run capitalism into a hole. I don't think people necessarily like socialism, but they certainly know capitalism isn't working for them.

The thing I don't understand is why does it have to be one or the other. We like Social Security because we all know that capitalism isn't fail safe, but then we like 401k's because they are much more profitable then Social Security.

One has little risk with little reward, the other has more risk with more reward. This goes beyond retirement, it can be applied to health care and education or even cap and trade and poverty, just about any facet of our lives in which the government is involved. A fair balance of both will keep our risk to a minimum while insuring a hearty reward.

Posted by: ScottW on April 9, 2009 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Sort of hard to answer a question with such a black and white response. I want to live in a system that takes traits from both text Capitalism and Socialism (open markets and universal health care) but that's not an option on the survey.

Posted by: kellygreen on April 9, 2009 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

It's likely there was a high undecided factor because, like so many Rasmussen polls, it was a stupid question. If history since Reagan and the Laffer Curve have taught us anything, it's that the best system contains elements of both. It's likely that would have been the winning answer, if only it were asked.

Posted by: ericfree on April 9, 2009 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

The funny thing is, nothing that Obama has done or plans to do will bring us anywhere remotely close to socialism. At least not what I understand socialism to be.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on April 9, 2009 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

It might have a lot to do with what the gop has tried to define as inherently socialist-i universal health care. After so many people have lost their jobs and job-bound insurance more people may inclined to think gov't health care is better than what we have now.

Also, demonizing social safety nets as "socialist" is stupid when so many are losing their jobs and homes. People who never thought they'd need help need it.
Regardless, none of this bodes well for their red-baiting tactics. I'm 33 abd wasn't raised thinking that communism or socialism are inherently evil or anti-american.

Posted by: zoe kentucky on April 9, 2009 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

Most Americans have little if any formal knowledge about economics and political economy. This poll is entirely a result of who gets taught what, when. People who lived significant periods during the Cold War learned from constant repetition that the Soviet Union was evil, it's economic system was bad, socialism was a stepping-stone on the way to economic disaster, and socialist sympathizers were a constant danger - so their poll numbers are reasonably anti-socialist. But under-30s were 10 or younger when the Cold War ended, and 30-something were in their teens. They haven't actually heard the word "socialism" all that much, except in the context of Republican attacks. So they probably don't have many real negative associations for it, other than the fact that one party clearly wants them to think it's bad, along with a lot of other things they may or may not think are bad. Republicans are drawing on a negative stereotype without having considered how enduring it is without constant re-teaching; and that resource is aging out of existence over time.

Posted by: NK on April 9, 2009 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

I suspect that if the Republicans called universal healthcare "draconian economics" and the current system "faith based economics", a lot of people would tell pollsters they consider themselves draconian.

Posted by: Danp on April 9, 2009 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

I have it on good authority (Benen’s posts on crazed killers and Shrub’s boot lickers) that a quarter of the population is anarchist and/or fascist. Yet this pool did not afford them the opportunity to choose their preferred form of governance, thus further marginalizing their sense of self worth. No good can come of this.

Posted by: Chopin on April 9, 2009 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Most people probably don't have even a simple understanding of capitalism or socialism. Capitalism obviously benefits those with capital, but if you don't have any, then you might not benefit from such a system. This is a system designed to alter the point at which profits are made. It moves from those who produce to those who own/control the means of production.

As long as we think that capitalism is great because it provides us with jobs, it would be good to keep in mind that the point is to transfer the fruits of labor to those who produce jobs, not those who perform work.

Capitalism demands a certain level of unemployment so that wages remain low. Failing that, it demands policies which allow importation of labor from low wage countries to keep wages low even with low unemployment. These are direct known features of capitalists: lower costs so that profit can be extracted at the top.

This is why lowering taxes on corporations is such a bad idea. Corporate profits measure transfer of labor profits to the owners.

Posted by: tomj on April 9, 2009 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe a lot of people heard the media connect Obama and "socialism," and since they like the president, they figure socialism can't be that bad.

Or they've been to Europe and weren't really offended by the "European Socialism" the wingnuts rant about

Posted by: martin on April 9, 2009 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

What a stupid way to ask the question! It offers a false choice. Our economy has never been purely capitalism, or purely socialism. Neither system works well (or at all!) in its pure form.

How about "Is the American economy tilted too far in favor of Capitalism? Or too far in favor of Socialism? Or about right like it is?"

Posted by: okie on April 9, 2009 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

I think most people probably have no real idea of what socialism and capitalism are. They're just words with emotional reaction value. I'd like to see someone ask these same respondends to define the concepts and explain they think one is better. It would also be interesting to see who in the sampl votes and education levels.

Posted by: kahner on April 9, 2009 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

When I became interested in politics and started forming my own views, I was often dismissed as being a socialist. After hearing that so many times, I began to wonder what was so terrible about socilaism and did a little research. And you know what? There are aspects of socilaism that make a lot of sense to me, for example, health care and education. I imagine that I'm not only person who was driven to research soocialism based on its use as an insult.

Posted by: VT Idealist on April 9, 2009 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

NK, I think I just prooved your point.

Posted by: VT Idealist on April 9, 2009 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

That's what's wrong with this country today, it should be mandatory that all Americans learn that Socialists are big hairy ugly reptilian would-be Tom Cruise superspies who have invaded this country disguised as dung beetles! They will take your guns away and inoculate you with freewheeling homosexual ideas!!! Wake up America!!!!

Posted by: Glenn Beck on April 9, 2009 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

Could be that a lot of people just aren't sure what socialism means in the minds of the frothing bobbleheads who shriek the word continuously but with a complete lack of context or definition.

Wouldn't surprise me if a lot of the younger folks think it might refer to a really good party or something.

Posted by: Curmudgeon on April 9, 2009 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Eight percent of Americans are unemployed. Perhaps another 4-8 percent are underemployed (part-time). A much larger percentage of us are professionals with mid-range imcomes who are being squeezed by run away capitalism in the form of outrageous health insurance premiums and costs that we simultaneously can't afford and can't afford not to pay.

To not paraphrase Sammy Sosa, Capitalism has not been bery, bery good to me. Put me in the not sure category.

Posted by: Winkandanod on April 9, 2009 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder if Obama has succeeded in introducing nuance to our political discussion. I suspect that folks weren't thinking of a choice between Ayn Rand capitalism and Stalinist socialism. Instead I believe they were thinking Canadian or European socialism versus New Deal or Great Society capitalism. It's not as stark a choice and there is a lot of room for "maybe" and "how about".

Posted by: CH on April 9, 2009 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps this is an ironic effect of the demise of the Soviet Union. Without that hideous distortion to obscure the issue, people can see the basic idea of society controlling certain key structures (for example the finance system)rather than private interests. And right now, it is not at all obvious that private control of the finance sector is such a great idea.
To put it more simply, Stalin's crimes are in the history book. Wall Street's are in our faces.

Posted by: Jessica on April 9, 2009 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

NK has it exactly right. 19 years after the end of the Soviet Union, and the incredible dumbing down of the American pubic, scare words like 'socialism' really don't resonate very much any more. The right-wingers, as always, are living in a past the present has largely forgotten.

Those of us who lived through the entire Cold War, and who were subjected to the endless propaganda about the evils of 'communism', which wasn't always equated with 'socialism', can still provide a reasonable distinction between the two, and with capitalism. However, I would be surprised to learn that any 16, 18, 20, or 22 year-old, or even a 35-year-old is able to compose a coherent paragraph about the differences, positives and negatives, or the implications for society of the different economic systems.

Posted by: rRk1 on April 9, 2009 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

In the mind of a wingnut:

Obama is both Hitler-the-bad-guy who will wreak tyranny on them, as well as Hitler-the-good-guy who said that white people are the most awesome.

Obama is both a strong bad-ass socialist who controls the whole planet, as well as a weak pacifist who gives up all control to the French and the Arabs.

In short, in the mind of the wingnut, logic, time and space cease to exist.

Posted by: Ohioan on April 9, 2009 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

I meant to say: "Obama is both Hitler-the-bad-guy who will wreak tyranny on them, as well as the opposite of Hitler-the-good-guy who said that white people are the most awesome."

Posted by: Ohioan on April 9, 2009 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

If your life was run by a bunch of people who kept insisting that low wages indicated prosperity, that high energy prices were good for the economy, and layoffs saved corporation profits and reduced government spending you might be rather skeptical of their claims that unregulated capitalism benefits you and your friends.

American capitalists are sooo lucky, if this was 19th century France the heads of major corporations, leaders of the republcian party, and right wing talk show hosts would be on pikes by now. Remember those whom the Gods would destroy they first turn into right wing Republicans.

Posted by: Kurt on April 9, 2009 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

I think part of the problem lies in what the term as used means. I think most reasonable people think it means a wide social safety net like many western European nations have, but the right-wingers want it to mean Soviet communism. The question that asks you to choose one over the other implies socialism = Soviet communism, because otherwise, as in western Europe, there is no contradiction between socialism and capitalism.

Posted by: Rian Mueller on April 9, 2009 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

... so capitalism is about as popular as ketchup, while socialism is twice as popular as Mayo.


Posted by: JM on April 9, 2009 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

"but then we liked 401k's because we were told they would be much more profitable then Social Security."

There, fixed it for you.

Posted by: Cal Gal on April 9, 2009 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

I'd consider an explanation of the results based on not quite so recent events. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics did a whole lot of damage to the socialist brand. People under 30 were, at most, 13 when the USSR collapsed.

How much of previous dislike of socialism in the US public and continuing dislike among the not so young is based on dislike of western European social democracy and how much is based on dislike of self declared "really existing socialism" ?

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on April 9, 2009 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Nowadays, socialism = Europe. Yeah, gimme some a-dat! I want six weeks paid vacation, health CARE instead of "health insurance" AND the ability to go on strike and hit the streets in protest over any damned thing without being afraid of being mowed down by SWAT teams. Looks kinda like the freedoms we're supposed to have...

Posted by: sjct on April 9, 2009 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure whether I would have answered "undecided" because I don't support either in absolute terms, or whether I would have answered socialism, since a poll indicating a high number of people favoring socialism might cause GOP heads to explode (and anyway, using their own definition, I actually do support socialism). Needless to say, it's a ridiculous polling question.

Posted by: ibid on April 9, 2009 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Chalk it up to (1) the fact that Communism disappeared almost everywhere around 1990 (including China, which reverted to capitalism while retaining dictatorship), leaving people with no contemporary reference points for socialism except benign Scandinavian countries and (2) the failure of the American education system. Add to that the failure of unbridled capitalism over the past two years and you have your poll results.

Posted by: Mimikatz on April 9, 2009 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

Is socialism universal healthcare for all, government provided primary and secondary education, social security for the elderly and disabled, government housing for the homeless, guaranteed employment (at a living wage)for the unemployed, and tax rates of 90% on those with incomes that exceed, say $2,000,000 per year?

I'll take socialism.

Posted by: DeeCee on April 9, 2009 at 8:50 PM | PERMALINK

They should have polled kleptocracy too, since there's such broad fucking bipartisan consensus on that.

Posted by: failed state on April 9, 2009 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

Then again, it's just remotely possible that people are starting to realize that capitalism sucks.

Posted by: Quico on April 9, 2009 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

I'm sure there are right wingers out there who honestly believe in their heart of hearts that Obama is a socialist bent on remaking America into a collectivist hellhole (like, say, Switzerland). But I think Fox News and the GOP high command have only cranked up the "socialist" smear because they've discovered, much to their horror, that their old favorite -- "liberal," as in "shockingly liberal" or "Massachussets liberal" -- has lost its kick.

And considering the poll numbers that Steve cites (which surprised the hell out of me -- who would have thought we'd have a new Red Diaper generation) the Republicans may need to move on to "communist" pretty quickly now.

Posted by: Peter Principle on April 10, 2009 at 12:18 AM | PERMALINK



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