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According to the conventional wisdom, the US is a center-Right country. But a new poll by Pew casts
doubt on that idea. It shows widespread skepticism about capitalism and
hints that support for socialist alternatives is emerging as a
majoritarian force in America’s new generation.
Carried out in late April and published May 4, 2010,
the Pew poll, arguably by the most respected polling company in the
country, asked over 1500 randomly selected Americans to describe their
reactions to terms such as “capitalism,” “socialism,” “progressive,”
“libertarian” and “militia.” The most striking findings concern
“capitalism” and “socialism.” We cannot be sure what people mean by
these terms, so the results have to be interpreted cautiously and in
the context of more specific attitudes on concrete issues, as discussed
Pew summarizes the results in its poll title:
“Socialism not so negative; capitalism not so positive.” This turns out
to be an understatement of the drama in some of the underlying data.
Yes, “capitalism” is still viewed positively by a majority of
Americans. But it is just by a bare majority. Only 52% of all Americans
react positively. Thirty-seven percent say they have a negative
reaction and the rest aren’t sure.
A year ago, a Rasmussen poll found similar reactions. Then, only 53% of Americans described capitalism as “superior” to socialism.
Meanwhile, 29% in the Pew poll describe “socialism”
as positive. This positive percent soars much higher when you look at
key sub-groups, as discussed shortly. A 2010 Gallup poll found 37% of all Americans preferring socialism as “superior” to capitalism.
Keep in mind these findings reflect an overview of
the public mind when Right wing views seem at a high point – with the
Tea Party often cast as a barometer of American public opinion. The
polls in this era do not suggest a socialist country, but not a
capitalist-loving one either. This is not a “Center-Right” America but
a populace where almost 50% are deeply ambivalent or clearly opposed to
capitalism. Republicans and the Tea Party would likely call that a
The story gets more interesting when you look at two
vital sub-groups. One is young people, the “millennial generation”
currently between 18 and 30. In the Pew poll, just 43% of Americans
under 30 describe “capitalism” as positive. Even more striking, the
same percentage, 43%, describes “socialism” as positive. In other
words, the new generation is equally divided between capitalism and
The Pew, Gallup and Rasmussen polls come to the same
conclusion. Young people cannot be characterized as a capitalist
generation. They are half capitalist and half socialist. Since
the socialist leaning keeps rising among the young, it
suggests—depending on how you interpret “socialism”—that we are moving
toward an America that is either Center-Left or actually majoritarian
Turn now to Republicans and Democrats. Sixty-two
percent of Republicans in the Pew poll view capitalism as positive,
although 81 % view “free markets” as positive, suggesting a sensible
distinction in their mind between capitalism and free markets. Even
Republicans prefer small to big business and are divided about big
business, which many correctly see as a monopolistic force of
capitalism undermining free markets.
The more interesting story, though, is about
Democrats. We hear endlessly about Blue Dog Democrats. But the Pew poll
shows a surprisingly progressive Democratic base. Democrats are almost
equally split in their appraisal of capitalism and socialism.
Forty-seven percent see capitalism as positive but 53% do not. And 44%
of Democrats define socialism as positive, linking their negativity
about capitalism to a positive affirmation of socialism.
Moreover, many other subgroups react negatively to
capitalism. Less than 50% of women, low-income groups and less-educated
groups describe capitalism as positive.
for the view that Obama does not have a strong progressive base to
mobilize. In fact, “progressive,’ according to the Pew poll, is one of
the most positive terms in the American political lexicon, with a
substantial majority of almost all sub-groups defining it as positive.
You may conclude that this all add ups to little,
since we can’t be clear about how people are defining “capitalism” and
“socialism.” But in my own research, summarized in recent books such as The New Feminized Majority and Morality Wars,
attitudes registered in polls toward concrete issues over the last
thirty years support the interpretation of the Pew data, at minimum, as
evidence of a Center-Left country.
On nearly every major issue, from support minimum
wage and unions, preference for diplomacy over force, deep concern for
the environment, belief that big business is corrupting democracy, and
support for many major social programs including Social Security and
Medicare, the progressive position has been strong and relatively
stable. If “socialism” means support for these issues, the
interpretation of the Pew poll is a Center-Left country.
If socialism means a search for a genuine systemic
alternative, then America, particularly its youth, is emerging as a
majoritarian social democracy, or in a majoritarian search for a more
cooperativist, green, and more peaceful and socially just order.
Either interpretation is hopeful. It should give
progressives assurance that even in the “Age of the Tea Party,” despite
great dangers and growing concentrated corporate power and wealth,
there is a strong base for progressive politics. We have to mobilize
the majority population to recognize its own possibilities and turn up
the heat on the Obama Administration and a demoralized Democratic
Party. If we fail, the Right will take up the slack and impose its
monopoly capitalist will on a reluctant populace.