Saturday, July 3, 2010

Socialism, shmocialism

For some time now, conservatives have been trying to tar policies they don't like with the brush of socialism, and it hasn't seemed to work very well, judging, for example, by the 2008 election, the passage of health care reform, the revulsion in the wake of the BP disaster, etc.  The latest installment in the series periodic reports on American attitudes toward key political terminology by Pew Research may suggest why.

In many ways, the results were unsurprising:  By a ratio of just over 2:1, Americans react negatively to "socialism," and by only a slightly lower margin, positively toward capitalism. However, the numbers diverge sharply with age and party affiliation:
A large majority of Republicans (77%) react negatively to "socialism," while 62% have a positive reaction to "capitalism." Democrats' impressions are more divided: In fact, about as many Democrats react positively to "socialism" (44%) as to "capitalism" (47%).

Reaction to "capitalism" is lukewarm among many demographic groups. Fewer than half of young people, women, people with lower incomes and those with less education react positively to "capitalism."
The most striking partisan differences come in reactions to the word "socialism." Just 15% of Republicans react positively to "socialism" while 77% react negatively. By more than two-to-one (64% to 26%), independents also have a negative impression of "socialism." However, Democrats are evenly divided -- 44% have a positive reaction to "socialism" while 43% react negatively.

"Capitalism" elicits a less partisan reaction. About six-in-ten Republicans (62%) react positively to "capitalism," compared with 29% who have a negative reaction. About half of independents (52%) have a positive impression while 39% react negatively. Among Democrats, 47% react positively to "capitalism" while nearly as many (43%) react negatively.
On "libertarian," the split is almost dead-even.

 Nothing very unexpected here.  But among the most intriguing findings:
Perhaps surprisingly, opinions about the terms "socialism" and "capitalism" are not correlated with each other. Most of those who have a positive reaction to "socialism" also have a positive reaction to "capitalism"; in fact, views of "capitalism" are about the same among those who react positively to "socialism" as they are among those who react negatively (52% and 56%, respectively, view "capitalism" positively). Conversely, views of "socialism" are just as negative among those who have a positive reaction to "capitalism" (64% negative) as those who react negatively (61% negative).
I'm not quite sure what that says about us.

For better or worse, the survey measures only attitudes toward words:  no definitions are provided, so the terms are empty vessels, which the respondents fill with the meaning of their choice.  The results may have less to do with attitudes toward socialism than with both the applicability and the political resonance of the term, which simply does not carry the weight it did during the economic crisis of the interwar years or the height of the Cold War.  I would thus think the exercise  complicated by the fact that there is little classic socialism in the world:  The Soviet Bloc is history.  Most major parties of the Socialist International have become reformists participants in entrepreneurial capitalism and the welfare state.

Ideally, one would want to compare these figures with results from previous years and data from other countries with different political traditions.

Here, at any rate, it would seem that the partisan divide has hardened in some ways, even as adherence to actual rigorous political and economic dogmas has softened.  The results aren't irreconcilable in a world in which capitalism in one form or another has become the only game in town.  Maybe the peculiar lack of correlation between attitudes toward capitalism and socialism is yet another sign of the continuing onset of a "post-ideological" or an "anti-ideological" mentality (which is itself an ideology in the Marxist sense of the term).

Or, maybe we just don't know what we're talking about.

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