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What do people think socialism is?

It's usually pretty difficult to get good information about public attitudes towards socialism, but the past month has been a real watershed. First came a Gallup poll that I covered here which asked whether various political concerns should be managed by the government or the free market. Now comes a poll by Axios asking respondents what "a socialist system" means to them. The results, I think, are pretty intuitive, though they also send a mixed message to activists and intellectuals working within the historical socialist tradition.

General findings

First, let's look at the overall trends. This is a graph of how respondents answered - yes, or no - when asked if various items were features of "a socialist system". Unsurprisingly, the top three items are all social programs that socialists have pushed into the national debate in recent years. One reason they've been able to do this, of course, is that these programs are also admissible within orthodox welfare-state liberalism.

And yet: the next two items indicate that supermajorities of Americans still associate socialism with state control of the economy (66%) and private property (61%). This is much closer to the historical socialist tradition, though it is also directly at odds with some of the less radical perspectives we find among contemporary socialists - for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has claimed that socialism "doesn't mean government owns everything".

The rest of these overall trends present a similar mixed message. One more point of interest are the handful of features that only a minority of respondents identify with socialism. For instance, only a 49% minority identifies socialism as "dependent on dictatorship" - but people who associate it with "democratically elected government" form an even smaller minority (46%). And the feature I would say is indispensable to a socialist system - worker control of the means of production - seems to only figure in 48% of popular definitions.

How certain are we?

As we begin to drill into this poll's demographic trends, one simple question we can ask is how certain different groups are about their answers. Ordinarily we might investigate this by looking at noncommittal responses (like "maybe" or "I don't know") - but since this poll only allowed people to answer "yes" or "no", we will need to take another approach. Here, I am going to look at how strongly groups tend to lean towards one answer or the other, figuring that groups that are even split between "yes" and "no" are more conflicted and ambivalent.

This chart shows how key demographic groups tended to answer different survey questions. (Oddly, the crosstabs do not break down respondents by race, an unusual and unfortunate omission.) Different colors indicate different survey questions, but I didn't include a legend here because this is beside the point: the point here is to look at how far different groups tend to depart from a 50% yes/no split. Just eyeballing it, for example, we can see that people aged 35-44 never give a 75% "Yes" response for any given question, and don't get too far less than 50%. This suggests that they may be more conflicted and less certain in their ideas about socialism than other groups.

If we calculate the average distance of answers from 50% among each group, we can quantify this question instead of simply looking at the chart:

By that measure, we can say that different groups talk about socialism with levels of certainty that are different, but not that different. Old people are relatively emphatic in their views about what socialism entails, while people who have not yet attended college are the most ambivalent. Significant divides appear along dimensions of age, income, and education; among other groups, differences in certitude fall within the margin of error.

How do views of socialism vary by demographic?

The first chart displayed under "general findings" tells us how certain the public is that various items are features of a socialist system, and we can also read this as an implicit ranking: universal healthcare is the most-agreed upon feature of socialism, while democratically elected government is the least agreed upon feature. But this ranking isn't consistent across different demographics. If we look at the crosstabs and give each demographic their own "features of socialism" ranking, we find significant variation looking something like this:

Remarkably, every single group has found the most consensus around universal healthcare as a feature of socialism - often by a significant margin. After that, however, we start to find differences; for example, while most groups associate democratically elected government with socialism the least, different groups under 65+ associate it with socialism more strongly.

By far, the biggest divide in views about socialism - and the biggest aberration from the norm - is between the rich and the poor. Here's how their rankings look:

Here, I think, is where conflicting views of socialism are emerging. Older people whose impressions of socialism were forged during the Cold War tend to associate it much more strongly with state control, and do not associate it with democracy (in the government or in ownership of the workplace).

Among young people, consensus views about socialism seem to be weaker, but they primarily associate it with various social programs and high taxes - in other words, a strong liberal welfare state. There is also reasonably strong (but below average) consensus among the young that socialism entails a vaguely-described "state controlled economy"; after that, the associations are even more tenuous. Basic tenets of socialism - state control of private property, democratized business, and worker control of the MoP - only get a "Yes, this is a feature of a socialist system" from 53-55% of young respondents. Meanwhile, young people tend to not associate socialism with various illiberal items like state controlled media (48%) and dictatorship (40%).


These responses, and the way they break down along demographic lines, fit into a pretty simple and intuitive narrative that does a lot to explain the character of modern socialism in the United States.

Today, older people have relatively strong views about socialism that were largely informed by their experiences growing up in the era of ascendant communism. In some ways, their views of socialism seems to align closely with historical orthodoxy: for example, older people may not approve of the idea of a state-controlled economy, but they are pretty convinced that this is what socialism entails. In other ways, their views of socialism are at odds with historical orthodoxy: in particular, they tend to position it at odds with democracy. This idiosyncratic view of socialism has long been the dominant view in the US, which is why people who are highly educated by the US educational system are more likely to share  it.

Young people, meanwhile, primarily associate socialism with various social programs and high taxation - in other words, strong welfare-state liberalism. Old people do too, but in contrast to their elders, young people are much more conflicted about socialism's relationship with economic management and democracy. Typically, they reject associating socialism the illiberal prospects of dictatorship, state control of the media, and so on; but their conception of socialism as a democratizing force for state economic management is relatively weak, too.

These conflicting tendencies are most visible among along age lines, but they appear elsewhere, too. Thus, the socialist has two tasks: to overcome the entrenched opposition of anti-socialism, and to channel enthusiasm for material gains towards something resembling class consciousness.