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Friday, February 5, 2010

Capitalism, Socialism, and Public Opinion

In our chapter on civic culture, we note that American individualism has historically translated into a reluctance to embrace socialism. We also mention this point in our chapter on economic policy. New data from Gallup confirm the point:

Socialism" was one of seven terms included in a Jan. 26-27 Gallup poll. Americans were asked to indicate whether their top-of-mind reactions to each were positive or negative. Respondents were not given explanations or descriptions of the terms.

Americans are almost uniformly positive in their reactions to three terms: small business, free enterprise, and entrepreneurs. They are divided on big business and the federal government, with roughly as many Americans saying their view is positive as say it is negative. Americans are more positive than negative on capitalism (61% versus 33%) and more negative than positive on socialism (36% to 58%).

But in our chapter on public opinion, we note that pollsters must be cautious about assuming that the public has a great deal of knowledge about political terms. Gallup notes:

Exactly how Americans define "socialism" or what exactly they think of when they hear the word is not known. The research simply measures Americans' reactions when a survey interviewer reads the word to them -- an exercise that helps shed light on connotations associated with this frequently used term.