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Americans' Views of Socialism, Capitalism Are Little Changed

Americans' Views of Socialism, Capitalism Are Little Changed

Story Highlights

  • Americans' negative image of socialism is little changed since 2010
  • Small business has an almost universally positive image
  • 60% are positive about capitalism; 85% about free enterprise

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Even though Bernie Sanders, a self-described "Democratic socialist," has generated strong support for his presidential campaign, Americans' image of socialism is no better now than it was six years ago. Thirty-five percent of Americans have a positive view of the term socialism, similar to what was found in 2012 and 2010. The 60% who have a positive view of capitalism is also unchanged from six years ago.

Just off the top of your head, would you say you have a positive or negative image of each of the following?
% Positive
May 2-4, 2016% Nov. 18-19, 2012% Jan. 26-27, 2010%
Small business 96 95 95
Entrepreneurs 87 86 84
Free enterprise 85 89 86
Capitalism 60 61 61
Big business 53 58 49
The federal government 44 51 46
Socialism 35 39 36
Gallup Daily tracking

Americans retain very positive images of small business, entrepreneurs and free enterprise. A little more than half have a positive view of big business, and less than half have a positive view of the federal government.

These seven terms were measured May 2-4 using Gallup Daily tracking, updating previous measurements taken in November 2012, just after that year's presidential election, and in January 2010.

The rank order of positive reactions has been the same at each of the three time periods, with only minor fluctuations in the percentage of Americans holding a positive image of each concept. Positive views of big business, for example, are down a little from 2012 but remain higher than in 2010. Views of the federal government are also slightly less positive than three-and-a-half years ago but are now about where they were in 2010.

Democratic presidential candidate Sanders focused his campaign on criticism of big business and promoted the value of a bigger role for the federal government in economic and social life, including his proposals for a "Medicare for all" federally funded healthcare system. At the same time, the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, is himself a businessman who has, along with many of the other Republican challengers, focused on criticizing the government while saying that he would run it more like a business. However, none of this has apparently made a major difference in the ways in which Americans think about these economic terms.

As would be expected, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are somewhat more positive about big business, free enterprise and capitalism than are Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

Democrats, on the other hand, are much more positive than Republicans about the federal government and socialism. Notably, Democrats have a more positive image of socialism than they do of big business, and their images of socialism and capitalism are essentially the same. These broad patterns are similar to what was found in 2012.

Just off the top of your head, would you say you have a positive or negative image of each of the following?
% Positive, by party ID (including leaners)
Republicans/Republican leaners% Democrats/Democratic leaners%
Small business 97 96
Entrepreneurs 91 86
Free enterprise 92 83
Capitalism 68 56
Big business 57 48
The federal government 30 59
Socialism 13 58
May 2-4, 2016
Gallup Daily tracking

Younger Adults More Positive Than Older Adults About Socialism

Young Americans, aged 18-29, have more positive views of both the federal government and socialism than older Americans do. Young adults' ratings of the federal government, capitalism, big business and socialism are similar -- between 55% and 58% positive for each.

Older Americans' views of capitalism are more positive than those of Americans under 50 years of age, and older Americans' views of socialism are more negative than those who are younger. Overall, Americans across most age groups see capitalism more positively than socialism. The exception is among those aged 18-29, who are equally positive about both.

Just off the top of your head, would you say you have a positive or negative image of each of the following?
% Positive, by age
18-29 years% 30-49 years% 50-64 years% 65+ years%
Small business 98 94 96 93
Entrepreneurs 90 87 87 83
Free enterprise 78 84 89 91
Capitalism 57 54 69 63
Big business 57 49 52 53
The federal government 58 43 38 40
Socialism 55 37 27 24
May 2-4, 2016
Gallup Daily tracking

Implications

These results show the presidential campaign has not changed Americans' images of a number of commonly used political and economic terms. Americans react almost universally positively to the term small business and also have very positive reactions to free enterprise and entrepreneurs. Overall reactions to capitalism are also positive and significantly more so than views of socialism, which is the least-liked term of any tested.

Americans are mixed in their reactions to big business and the federal government, with slightly more positive views of the former than the latter. Notably, Americans are less positive about capitalism and big business than they are about free enterprise and small business, highlighting the different ways in which these terms resonate with the public.

The results show that several of these terms are politically charged. Republicans and Democrats diverge in their reactions to capitalism, big business, socialism and the federal government, with the biggest differences seen on the latter two terms. Sanders' strong challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination is a testament to the fact that his self-labeling as a "Democratic socialist" is not a strong negative among Democrats. His and Clinton's more positive views of the federal government and its role in society as espoused on the campaign trail also seem to fit with those of rank-and-file Democrats, the majority of whom are positive about the government.

It is notable that young Americans constitute the only age group that does not view the term socialism more negatively than capitalism. Older Americans' much more negative reactions to socialism could be based on different historical or conceptual references than is the case for young people. Americans being much more positive about the term free enterprise than capitalism also suggests that labels used to describe an economic system carry different connotations.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 2-4, 2016, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 1,544 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 60% cellphone respondents and 40% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup U.S. Daily works.


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