American public opinion and the S-word

In April 2009, interviewers working for the Rasmussen agency asked 1,000 people: ‘Which is a better system – capitalism or socialism?’ 53% said capitalism, 20% said socialism, and 27% were not sure.

Although ‘capitalism’ came out the clear winner, commentators were shocked that almost half the respondents failed to give the ‘correct’ response on a matter so crucial to the dominant ideology.

‘Capitalism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘the free market’

The interviewers did not define ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’, so we are left to guess what respondents understood by these words. No doubt most of those who answered ‘socialism’ did not have a clear or accurate idea of what it means. Nevertheless, socialists can take encouragement from the evident ability of a sizeable proportion of people to resist indoctrination by the corporate media, which never have anything good to say about any kind of ‘socialism’. Even the fact that so many Americans do not react negatively to the S-word itself is significant: people who do not take fright at the word are more likely to be open to consideration of the idea.

A clue to how Americans interpret ‘capitalism’ is found in another Rasmussen poll (May 2009). Here people were asked: ‘Is a free market economy the same as a capitalist economy?’ 35% replied yes, 38% no. This result puzzled the hired ideologists of capital, who do equate the two concepts and like to use ‘the free market’ as a euphemism for ‘capitalism’.

Yet another poll (December 2008) asked: ‘Which is better – a free market economy or a government-managed economy?’ 70% preferred a ‘free market economy’ and only 15% a ‘government-managed economy’. This implies that there is a substantial body of people (about 17%) who are in favour of ‘the free market’ but against ‘capitalism’.

In the US ‘capitalism’ is widely associated with big business and ‘the free market’ with small business. Hatred for big business commonly goes along with admiration for small business. In the frequent polls that compare the approval ratings of various occupational groups, small business owners regularly come out on top, while corporate CEOs (together with politicians) end up at the bottom.

Those who are ‘against capitalism but for the free market’ are, perhaps, still influenced by the old populist idea of the good society as a relatively egalitarian community of small independent producers – farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, doctors, etc. This utopia has its roots in an idealized image of early rural colonial society in New England and Pennsylvania, before its transformation by industrial capitalism.

Young people more inclined toward ‘socialism’

The proportion of respondents who say that ‘socialism’ is a better system than ‘capitalism’ varies with gender, age, race and income. Women are slightly more likely than men to prefer ‘socialism’; people with high incomes (over $75,000 per year) more than twice as likely as people with low incomes (under $40,000); and blacks almost twice as likely as whites, with equal proportions favouring ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ (31% each).

Variation with age is especially striking. Proportions preferring ‘socialism’ in the older age groups (40 and over) are well below average. In the 30 – 39 age group the proportion rises to 26% and in the 18 – 29 age group to 33% (with 37% favouring ‘capitalism’). If we focus specifically on women aged 18 – 29, we again find an equal division of opinion: 36% for ‘capitalism’ and 36% for ‘socialism’.

Why?

How might these very hopeful findings be explained?

If we believe widespread stereotype, nothing needs explaining: young people are ‘naturally’ rebellious and older people ‘naturally’ conformist. In fact, this is far from always the case. Rebellious and conformist generations tend to alternate. The young rebels of the 1960s gave way to the young conformists of the 1980s. The pendulum is now swinging back. For three reasons.

First, deteriorating economic conditions. This is the first generation of young people since the Great Depression who have no hope of maintaining, let alone improving on, their parents’ standard of living. They face a grim and uncertain future.

Second, an increasing number of young people pay less attention to the corporate media, preferring to rely on the Internet. This exposes them to a broader range of ideas, including socialist ones.

Finally, the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ were associated with a forbidding external enemy. Advocating them marked you out as a traitor. We protested that what we stood for was something quite different, but our voice was barely audible. We hoped that with the end of the Cold War it would become easier to spread socialist ideas. We felt disappointed that this did not seem to happen. The disappointment was premature. Attitudes do change in response to circumstances – but only when a new generation comes of age. For today’s young Americans the Cold War is ancient history.

The Socialist Standard, No. 1266, February 2010


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