Are Democratic Voters Abandoning Capitalism for Socialism?

Shown here with Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, Senator Bernie Sanders and soon-to-be-congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aren’t leading Democrats toward any scary kind of socialism. Photo: J Pat Carter/The Washington Post/Getty Images

One of the big narratives of contemporary politics is that the Democratic Party is rapidly trending socialist, fed by young people whose main personal impressions of the rival capitalist system were derived from the Great Recession. The narrative is obviously of interest to self-identified democratic socialists like Senator Bernie Sanders and soon-to-be-congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But it’s also being flogged by pro-Trump media as a counterpoint to or distraction from the rather more obvious ideological extremism the Republican Party is indulging in these days.

In its latest report, Gallup appears to reinforce the Democratic Red Tide meme:

For the first time in Gallup’s measurement over the past decade, Democrats have a more positive image of socialism than they do of capitalism.

But that’s not necessarily a matter of Democrats developing fond feelings toward Scandinavia, much less Marx:

The major change among Democrats has been a less upbeat attitude toward capitalism, dropping to 47% positive this year – lower than in any of the three previous measures. Republicans remain much more positive about capitalism than about socialism, with little sustained change in their views of either since 2010.

While Gallup doesn’t offer partisan breakdowns on some of its related questions, they are pretty easy to infer. Ninety-two percent of Americans still have positive perceptions of “small business”; 86 percent feel positive toward “entrepreneurs” and 79 percent toward “free enterprise.” Even assuming near-universal approbation among Republicans, these numbers suggest that a significant majority of Democrats like these private-sector economic contributors, and aren’t about to expropriate their property or submit their use of resources to an all-powerful state. And as anyone who has paid serious attention to most democratic socialists knows, they aren’t talking about seizing the means of production or erecting a dictatorship of the proletariat anyway, but instead point to the sort of “mixed” system common in Europe, most famously in Scandinavia.

Relatively low levels of happiness with “capitalism” are almost certainly a product of disgruntlement with the political system undergirding “free enterprise” in this country, with its anti-competitive monopolies, aggressive use of government subsidies and favoritism, and scandalous levels of inequality alongside extraordinary concentrations of wealth.

However you choose to characterize Democratic attitudes toward socialism and capitalism, it does remain clear they are influenced by, and are highly congruent with, those of the rising millennial generation. Gallup shows 45 percent of millennials having a positive image of capitalism, and 51 percent feeling positive about socialism. Without question, the generational gaps on this subject have a lot to do with the association of “socialism” among older cohorts with communism, a mostly dead and discredited system that has little or nothing to do with present-day democratic socialism. But as memories fade of the Cold War, the U.S.S.R., and a People’s Republic of China that isn’t just a large state-directed capitalist society, then the old stereotypes will become about as relevant as a faded Che Guevara image on a threadbare sweatshirt.

Are Democratic Voters Abandoning Capitalism for Socialism?