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Gallup's new poll on socialism is full of bad news

A few months ago, Gallup released some polling that prompted a surge of sensational headlines: in NY Mag, one typical article asked "Are Democratic Voters Abandoning Capitalism for Socialism?" The answer, it turns out, was no: support for capitalism cratered by nine points in that poll, but support for socialism dropped too (by a single point). But the shift in their relative positions, giving socialism (at 57%) a clear lead over capitalism (at 47%) for the first time in a decade, was enough to spark lots of media coverage.

Last week, Gallup released a new round of polling on socialism. You may have noticed that this received much less coverage than the last round; nevertheless, I think these numbers are actually a bit more interesting than the ones from August, and that they're worth a walk through.

FINDING ONE: Socialism is more polarizing than it used to be.

Gallup reports these numbers as "More Americans Now See Socialism as a Good Thing," but the polling is much more ambivalent than this suggests:

The major trend here is that far fewer people pick "no opinion" today (6%) than they did in 1942 (34%). The anti-socialist position's lead over the pro-socialist position narrowed by 7%, but it remains in the lead - and in fact, it now holds a majority position rather than a plurality position.


This poll asks whether "most nations of the world will have a democratic government, a communist government, or a socialist government" during the next 50 years. Honestly, I don't think these numbers are worth spending much time with, for reasons Gallup makes clear: "in much of the political rhetoric of [the 1940s], the terms democracy and capitalism were...perhaps synonymous to many."

Polling that distinguishes "communism" from "socialism" is equally problematic, in my view, since so many Americans use the words interchangeably. Layer the semantic problems that "democratic" rather than "capitalist" add on top of that, and I don't think there's much meaning that can be salvaged from this poll.

FINDING THREE: People prefer a free market economy, by wide margins.

This, I think, is the most significant section of the poll - because instead of simply dealing in loaded signifiers like "socialism" and "capitalism", Gallup asks respondents to answer substantive questions about how the economy should work. Here, they do this by simply asking whether the "free market" or the "government" should be responsible for various social functions:

Remarkably, there are only two areas - environment protection, and online privacy - where respondents prefer that the government take the lead. In every other aspect of our economy, respondents preferred a role for the free market - often by an overwhelming margin. This preference was particularly strong when it came to some of the core functions of capitalism, such as the distribution of wealth, wage setting, and innovation.

FINDING FOUR: Americans have a distorted view of our economy.

A plurality of Americans (25%) think that our economy is run by "mostly government control"! Another 25% believe that our economy is an "equal mix" of free market and government control, and only 18% believe that the US economy is run by "mostly free market control".


In general, I think these polls paint a pretty grim picture for socialism in the United States. The first tells us that the Cold War and the second Red Scare managed to dramatically polarize public opinion on socialism, and that a majority of Americans now oppose it. The third tells us that while nominal support for socialism may be a little stronger than usual, substantive support for socialism is still extremely weak. And the fourth finding may give us a reason why: Americans profoundly overstate the role the government plays in our economy, which suggests that they may view a move towards liberalization as a move towards moderation.