Are Democrats Actually Souring on Capitalism?

A new poll finds that Democrats now view socialism more favorably than capitalism. But what does that mean, exactly?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez waves to supporters at a fundraiser in Los Angeles.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez waves to supporters at a fundraiser on Aug. 2 in Los Angeles. Mario Tama/Getty Images

America’s burgeoning socialist movement got a bit of good news and a bit of bad news today.

The good: For the first time since Gallup began polling the issue in 2010, more Democrats (and Democratic-leaning independents) now say they have a more positive image of socialism than they do of capitalism. The party’s ideological balance seems to be tipping toward the Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez camp of new-wave leftists.

But here’s the bad: Socialism isn’t winning because it’s become more popular in the past couple years. Capitalism is just becoming significantly less popular.

According to Gallup, 57 percent of Democrats say they have a positive view of socialism, versus 46 percent who feel the same about capitalism. In 2016, the two dueling economic ideologies were effectively tied, with 56 percent of survey takers saying they were pro-capitalism and 58 percent saying they were pro-socialist, a difference that was within the survey’s margin of error. (Republicans, as you might expect, still say they prefer capitalism by overwhelming margins.)

A Gallup chart on views about capitalism and socialism.

The dynamic is not much different if you just look at young voters. Among all 18-to-29-year-olds (not just Democrats), 51 percent say they have positive views of socialism, the same as in 2010. Capitalism, on the other hand, seems to be quickly losing favor: 45 percent have a positive image of the concept, down from 57 percent in 2016 and 68 percent in 2010. Even among the youngs, socialism’s appeal doesn’t seem to be growing so much as capitalism’s is tanking. (I imagine that if you looked at young Democrats alone, the pattern might be a bit different; unfortunately Gallup doesn’t break them out.)

One tricky thing about Gallup’s poll is that it doesn’t define socialism. Instead, it asks participants to rate the phrase positively or negatively “just off the top of your head.” Some participants may be imagining a mixed economy with a generous welfare state. Some may be imagining a centrally planned economy where workers have successfully seized Amazon’s warehouses and robots from Jeff Bezos. Polling by YouGov found that Americans are pretty split in how they define the word: 41 percent equate socialism with a big welfare state and progressive taxes, 19 percent think it refers to collective ownership of property, and 12 percent think it means a one-party state with a centrally planned economy. (Socialism’s supporters in that poll were a bit more likely to think it meant the abolition of private property.)

There’s another detail that complicates Gallup’s results. Even though Americans seem to be souring on capitalism as a concept, they still overwhelming approve of words associated with it. For instance, 79 percent of Americans still have positive vibes about free enterprise, while 86 percent say they’re fond of entrepreneurship. It’s possible that voters have started to associate capitalism with big business, which gets a similarly middling 50 percent approval rating.

So what does this all amount to? For one, it’s another bit of evidence that Democratic leaders need to rethink some of their economic messaging, at least if they want to speak their base’s language. Last year, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appeared at a CNN town hall where a young capitalism skeptic asked if the party might consider other economic systems. “I have to say, we’re capitalists,” she responded. It seemed a bit off-key at the time and only appears more so now.

With that said, it mostly seems like there’s a bit of a rhetorical vacuum within the Democratic party. The word socialism has been magnificently useful for young (and old) leftists who want to set themselves off from the party’s more corporate-friendly establishment. But it hasn’t become an ideological flagpole for the Democrats the way “capitalism” remains for Republicans and conservatives. In other words: The Dems aren’t in disarray, but they’re in a bit of a philosophical flux, still figuring out their language while they also figure out their ideas.