No, Socialism Isn’t More Popular Than Capitalism

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India Walton poses as she campaigns to replace four-term Mayor Byron Brown in Buffalo, N.Y., December 15, 2020. (Lindsay DeDario/Reuters)

Media outlets are insistent that capitalism is unpopular, and that a clear majority of Americans, especially young people, prefer socialism over capitalism. A quick look at the headlines from major newspapers reveals stories that start like “Millenials support socialism because . . . ” or “Why are Americans warming to Socialism?” Another example appeared today, as Axios published the article “America’s continued move towards Socialism.” However, this recent Axios report says more about the media than it does about Americans. 

The mainstream media’s interpretation of the Axios report is clear. The author of the article, Felix Salmon, wants his readers to believe that the new study shows socialism is winning the battle for public opinion. He writes,

The pandemic has caused millions of Americans — including many younger Republicans — to re-evaluate their political and economic worldview … Politicians looking to attack opponents to their left can no longer use the word “socialist” as an all-purpose pejorative. Increasingly, it’s worn as a badge of pride.

Salmon argues that “the tangible upsides of unprecedented levels of government intervention” are convincing Americans to become more socialist. However, the very first sentence of the study Salmon is reporting on says that “a majority of Americans continue to have a more positive than negative view of capitalism.” Furthermore, while 57 percent of Americans think positively of capitalism, barely 40 percent of Americans view socialism positively. 

The raw numbers of the Axios|Momentive poll seem to be spun to make socialism look more popular than it is. For instance, the report finds that the ratio between positive and negative feelings for capitalism is 42–54 percent among respondents age 18–24. This, according to Axios, means capitalism is “truly underwater” for Gen Z. However, socialism’s total positive-negative ratio among respondents is about the same, at 41–52 percent. 

Interpreting the data to show an increase in socialist tendencies isn’t impossible, but that’s just what it is: an interpretation. Many reporters seem to have the preexisting idea that voters will always gravitate more towards leftism. Voters know about socialism, there are socialist candidates, and the system is widely discussed and promoted. Nevertheless, the ideology is still “truly underwater” with the public. Thus, the real story here is that the majority of Americans still reject socialism. 

Since recent presidential projections have been inaccurate and because polling reports seem to rely on interpretation more than dispassionate facts, there is a tendency to just distrust polling altogether. We ignore polling information at our own risk, though — polls such as these matter, especially when comparing similar polls over time. The Axios|Momentive poll cited by Salmon does show that 18–34-year-olds who responded to the survey have significantly more negative views of capitalism than they did in the same poll in 2019. That’s important. It also has interesting insights about how Republicans may be changing their minds about issues such as income inequality. 

This is relevant important information and helps politicians and commentators react to changing public opinion. It’s also why it’s so frustrating to read Salmon’s dubious interpretation of the data. Yet conservatives should feel encouraged by the numbers, which show free markets are still popular, no matter how the mainstream media spins the report.