- 23% in U.S. understand socialism as referring to some form of equality
- 17% say socialism means government control of business and the economy
- In 1949, 34% defined socialism as government control of business
When asked to explain their understanding of the term “socialism,” 17% of Americans define it as government ownership of the means of production, half the number who defined it this way in 1949 when Gallup first asked about Americans’ views of the term.
Socialism has re-entered the public discourse over the past several years, in part due to the high profile candidacy of socialist Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, as well as the surprise victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America organization, in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District. According to a news report from Axios, over 40 socialists have won in primary elections this year, and the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has grown from 7,000 members to 50,000 since 2016.
This increased visibility of socialism and the prevalence of candidates who in one way or the other are associated with the socialist label makes it important to understand how this concept is understood by average Americans — the objective of the current research.
The broad group of responses defining socialism as dealing with “equality” are quite varied — ranging from views that socialism means controls on incomes and wealth, to a more general conception of equality of opportunity, or equal status as citizens.
In addition to the 17% of Americans who define socialism as government ownership of the means of production, other more traditional or historical views of socialism include those who say it means modified communism (6%) or restrictions on freedom (3%).
That leaves 19% of all mentions which are focused on a “gentler, lighter” view of socialism — government provision of benefits and services, liberal government or some type of cooperative plan. In addition to 6% non-specific derogatory comments, 6% describe it as getting along with other people, 8% give miscellaneous responses, and about a quarter of Americans (23%) said they couldn’t answer the question.
The biggest difference between 1949 and now in terms of Americans’ understanding of the term socialism is the drop in the percentage who define socialism as government ownership of the means of production. This drop is offset by the increased number of Americans who say that socialism means equality and an increase in those who define socialism in terms that are closer to what might be considered a more standard liberalism. Americans today are also more likely to have an opinion than was the case in 1949 when over a third gave no opinion.
Republicans More Likely to Understand Socialism as Government Control
Previous Gallup research has shown that socialism as a concept is viewed positively by less than a majority of Americans (37% in a late July, early August survey) and that these attitudes have not changed materially since 2010. However, 57% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents view socialism positively, particularly telling in light of the 47% of Democrats who view capitalism positively. Republicans are, unsurprisingly, much less positive about socialism (16% view the term positively).
The current research shows that Republicans are significantly more likely to view socialism as government ownership of the means of production than are Democrats and are more likely to describe socialism in derogatory terms. For their part, Democrats are modestly more likely to view socialism as government provision of services and benefits. Democrats are also more likely to say they don’t have a view of socialism than Republicans.
Although young Americans are in general more positive about socialism as a concept than those who are older, there are few significant differences by age group in self-reported understanding of the term.
About Four in 10 Say We Have Socialism in the U.S. Today
Do we have socialism in America today? That was the question Gallup asked Americans in the 1949 survey when 43% said “yes.” There has been little significant change in the affirmative response to this question over the years, with 38% of Americans saying that there is socialism in America today. However, in 1949, with almost one in five Americans not giving an opinion, the affirmative responses outnumbered the negatives. Today, negatives are more prevalent than those who say yes.
There is little significant difference in these views by partisanship today, with Republicans just a bit more likely to say “yes” than Democrats, 42% to 36%.
Socialism historically has been associated with the concept of public or collective ownership of property and natural resources and has long been associated with Marxism and communism.
In 1949, with the Chinese Communists just having taken control of China, and with the Communist Soviet Union creating fear of an aggressive effort to spread their ideology around the globe, Americans’ view of the term embraced the classic elements bound up in these types of movements.
Now, almost 70 years later, Americans’ views of socialism have broadened. While many still view socialism as government control of the economy, as modified communism and as embodying restrictions on freedoms in several ways, an increased percentage see it as representing equality and government provision of benefits.
These results make it clear that socialism is a broad concept that can — and is — understood in a variety of ways by Americans.
Republicans, who are overwhelmingly negative about socialism, tend to skew toward seeing socialism as government control of the economy and in derogatory terms, while Democrats, a majority of whom are positive about socialism, are more likely to view it as government provision of services.
No doubt candidates who are affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America or in other ways lay claim to a socialist approach to government will continue to define what the term means in ways that fit their personal viewpoints.