Democrats, young voters favor socialism over capitalism, but what does that mean?

In this June 27, 2018 photo provided by Ocasio2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, 28, celebrates her Democratic congressional primary victory over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley. (Ocasio2018/Corey Torpie via AP)

WASHINGTON (Circa) -- A new poll indicates a widening disparity between Democrats and Republicans and young voters and the rest of the electorate on the virtues of socialism, but experts say different age groups and political factions have vastly different ideas of what socialism is and what impact socialist policies may have.

In a poll released Monday, Gallup asked adults for the fourth time since 2010 if they have positive views of capitalism and socialism, and the results raised a number of far-reaching questions.

Aside from a slight spike in favorability toward socialism in 2012, Republican views of both ideologies have been fairly consistent, with approximately 70 percent backing capitalism and about 15 percent viewing socialism favorably. Democratic support for socialism is up from 53 percent in 2010 to 57 percent in 2018, but positive views of capitalism among Democrats have plummeted from 56 percent to 47 percent since 2016.

Among the 18-29 age group, positivity toward socialism has been around 50 percent since 2010, and it actually dropped from 55 percent to 51 percent from 2016 to 2018. Support for capitalism in that demographic has fallen from 68 percent to 45 percent in the last eight years.

Overall, the poll showed public opinion of capitalism has slipped four points to the lowest level on record at 56 percent. Support for socialism sits at 37 percent, staying pretty much steady since 2010.

With Sen. Bernie Sanders still looming as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promoting unabashed democratic socialism in interviews and rallies, and some in party leadership acknowledging the party’s future leans further left, Democrats viewing socialism more favorably than capitalism was not a surprise.

The yawning generation gap is not unexpected either, experts said, but they offered a variety of reasons why younger Americans might be more open to socialism than their parents and grandparents.

“What’s easy to explain are the low opinions of socialism among older folks,” said Gary Nordlinger, a political media consultant and a professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. “They remember things like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”

Arnie Arnesen, a progressive radio host based in New Hampshire who supported Sanders in 2016, noted Tuesday marks the 83rd anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt signing social security into law. Despite dire warnings about the ills of socialism, young adults see socialized programs like social security and Medicare are still very popular.

“They’re looking at the economic stability, the health care stability of what’s happening with older people,” she said.

For those who came of age in the 2000s living through a damaging financial crisis and glacial recovery more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, the contrast between capitalism and socialism may look very different than for previous generations.

“Younger people have a different view of capitalism because of the economic situation many of them find themselves in,” said John Carroll, an assistant professor of journalism at Boston University. “You’ve got student debt, you’ve got the high cost of health insurance, you’ve got low wage jobs. All that adds up to a condition that young people want an alternative to.”

William Trumbull, a professor of economics at the Baker School of Business at The Citadel who studies socialist and post-socialist economies, also pointed to the financial crisis as a formative experience for young adults who saw it as an inevitable consequence of unbridled capitalism, but he added they may not fully grasp the ramifications of socialism.

“I think there’s this romantic image among people who are young before they’ve had a whole lot of experience in life that there’s something inherently good about socialism,” Trumbull said. “It’s all this emphasis on equality. In their youth and relative lack of sophistication, they equate equality with justice without thinking about the mechanism by which you get to equality and whether those mechanisms are just.”

Advocates for some degree of socialism often point to Scandinavian countries and other places in Europe where socialist policies have been enacted without incurring disaster. Critics cite places like Venezuela where socialist systems have collapsed.

“You want to embrace socialism?” Arnesen said. “Run to IKEA, quick.”

Although people often use Sweden as an example of socialism, Trumbull stressed that Sweden is not a truly socialist country. The country has high taxes and government-run social programs, but personal property rights and individual wealth are still protected. It scores nearly an identical overall rating to the U.S. on the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index.

“I don’t think these people who say, ‘Yeah, we should become socialist like Bernie says,’ I don’t think the version of socialism they have in mind is Soviet socialism…,” Trumbull said. “They have in mind something very different, something that has never existed and I would argue cannot exist.”

What Arnesen has in mind is a system where people can succeed and become rich without the benefits overwhelmingly going to the wealthy and powerful, not a traditional socialist economy where the government controls the means of production.

“I want an economy where the benefit doesn’t just go to the 1 percent. If that means I have to embrace some sort of strong safety net or democratic socialist policies, so be it,” she said.

According to Arnesen, young people look to places like Sweden and Denmark and see a healthy population that works hard and prospers with such a government safety net below them, and they wonder why that cannot happen in the U.S.

“They have a social conscience. That’s what they mean by democratic socialism,” she said.

The lack of a common understanding of what “socialism” entails makes the poll’s findings a bit difficult to interpret. Gallup did not give respondents a definition of the term or ask them what they believe it means.

“A more specific poll would be much more useful,” Carroll said. “If Gallup provided definitions or policies and said, which do you support, I think that would tell you a lot more. This question is so general that I think the conclusion you can draw has to be equally general.”

If many people who say they have a positive view of socialism are talking about the Bernie Sanders agenda and what Carroll described as “watered down socialism,” and those who have a negative view are picturing the last days of Soviet Russia, the results of the survey become muddled.

“Why have a debate when the participants in the debate misperceive what they’re debating about?” Trumbull asked. “It’s pretty irritating that people who have these debates equate Sweden with socialism when Sweden does not have a socialist economy.”

A separate poll conducted earlier this month by YouGov offers a more nuanced assessment of American attitudes toward socialism and politicians who espouse it. In that survey, 31 percent of respondents said calling someone a socialist is an insult, compared to 8 percent who consider it a compliment. Only 16 percent said calling someone a capitalist is an insult, and 19 percent said it is a compliment.

According to YouGov, 7 percent of American adults would be enthusiastic about voting for a self-described socialist for president, including only 10 percent of Democrats. About 20 percent of respondents said they would be comfortable voting for such a candidate, but the remaining 71 percent would either have some reservations or be very uncomfortable.

The YouGov poll also asked people whether they agreed with several quotes about socialism. About one-third, including 74 percent of Trump voters, supported the statement that “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy.” Nearly half of Clinton voters and 31 percent of respondents overall agreed that “Jesus was the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind.”

Whether a candidate is truly a socialist or not, being identified as one still appears to carry political costs.

“If I was a Democratic candidate, I would not be going around touting myself as a socialist in a competitive district,” Nordlinger said.

Arnesen believes Democrats should welcome the socialist label, though.

“Brand me as socialist. I want you to be able to go to a doctor when you’re sick. I am evil…,” she said sarcastically. “Fight me on this one. I would love the fight.”

The shift away from capitalism among Democratic voters and the ascendance of democratic socialist candidates like Ocasio-Cortez poses a political challenge for the party as it attempts to retake control of Congress and the White House in the years ahead. Republicans were already trying to hammer Democrats with the socialist label, and this only offers them new ammunition.

“Certainly in a general election, self-identifying as a socialist is going to limit the pool of voters you’re going to draw from,” Carroll said. “I think progressive Democrats probably do themselves a favor in the primaries by embracing the socialist term and do themselves a disservice in the general.”

They may also be setting themselves and their supporters up for disappointment, Trumbull suggested, because the free-market socialism they envision may not be possible.

“This whole democratic socialism thing is a dream,” he said. “It really is. There’s no way you could have what the democratic socialists describe in the real world. There’s a reason why every attempt to implement a socialist system has resulted like the Soviet Union or Cuba.”

If democratic socialists disagree with that assessment and want to challenge that perception, they need to start winning more elections and communicating their plans convincingly to a skeptical and distracted public.

“They have to take power. What is in power spends most of their time calling black people dogs and tweeting…,” Arnesen said, referring to President Trump’s Tuesday morning tweets. “It’s all about who has access to the airwaves and who actually has the control.”

While the new polls may offer some hope that younger generations are more open to their ideas, the data also suggests democratic socialists still have a long road ahead to overcome the lingering stigma older voters associate with the word.

“They care about free college tuition, they care about Medicare-for-all, they care about affordable housing…,” Carroll said. “There are specific problems and hurdles they face. I think they are seeing the current system is not addressing them, so they want an alternative. I don’t think they really care what it’s called.”

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