A New Popularity for Socialism (Thanks To The GOP)

On Thursday Rasmussen came out with a poll showing that “Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.” It is difficult to say much about this poll as it does not define the terms. Confusing matters even more, last December a survey showed that 70% of Americans prefer a free-market economy.

I see these surveys as largely being a test of reaction to words such as capitalism and socialism as opposed to having much meaning with regards to what type of economic system Americans really prefer. There may be some meaning to the fact that there is not a more negative view of socialism.

While Obama is no socialist the right has repeatedly been making such claims. This was a common attack during the presidential campaign. The right received further fuel for such bogus attacks from the bail out plans (putting aside the fact that this began during Bush’s term).

I’ve often mocked the attacks on Obama for being a socialist because the attacks are so blatantly untrue. This turned out even worse than expected for the right. With the policies of the right being so unpopular and with Obama’s tremendous popularity, many Americans see any label attacked to Obama as favorable. Claiming that Obama is a socialist wound up making socialism a more favorable-sounding word as opposed to tarnishing Obama’s reputation.

As an opponent of socialism I have mixed feelings on this poll. Socialism, like Republican economic policies, is based upon placing ideology over reality and leads to disaster. Socialism is a word which deserves a low popularity, and should not be competitive with capitalism in such polls. On the other hand, after seeing the McCarthyist tactics of the right there is a certain satisfaction in seeing false attacks on Obama as being a socialist backfire so badly against them. Perhaps this will dissuade conservatives from making such untrue claims.

Update: The New York Times front page at present has an item from The Opininator which summarizes blog reaction on this poll in a prominent position. I note that some bloggers interpreted the poll in a similar manner. For example, Steve Benen wrote:

In terms of interpreting these results, the numbers certainly aren’t what I expected, and it’s hard to know why respondents answered as they did. Perhaps “capitalism” lost some of its appeal when our economy collapsed. Maybe a lot of people heard the media connect Obama and “socialism,” and since they like the president, they figure socialism can’t be that bad. In a similar vein, if right-wing blowhards like Limbaugh keep screaming that socialism is manifestly evil, there may be some who assume the economic model must have merit.

Mark Thompson wrote:

When you falsely complain that every single thing your opponents try to do is socialism and absurdly hold your bloviating, unpopular selves up as bastions of capitalism, you probably shouldn’t be surprised when people start thinking socialism doesn’t look so bad, and capitalism doesn’t look so good.  So suggests, in part, Chris Good.  Let the record reflect that I predicted this, in full, on November 5, 2008.   Heckuva job guys, heckuva job.

Mark is correct that connecting capitalism with Republican polices doesn’t do it any favors. As I’ve previously quoted libertarian Will Wilkinson as writing, “the great success of the GOP over the last eight years has been to destroy the reputation of free markets and limited government by deploying its rhetoric and then doing the opposite.”

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14 Comments

  1. 1
    Glau Montgomery says:

    Also, the memory of the Soviet Union is fading, and with it the American view of socialism.

    As a socialist, I have mixed feelings about this as well. It appears that it’s a “cool kids hipster” move, as opposed to actually believing in the theory. But who knows? Perhaps the GOP’s constant attacks will de-stigmatize socialism and communism.

  2. 2
    Eclectic Radical says:

    ‘Socialism’ can mean quite a few things. I am an economic capitalist, though I believe that government regulation and sometimes intervention) is necessary to serve as a check and balance on corporate action just as we have checks and balances in our government. I do believe that certain forms of temporary ‘socialism’ are acceptable in an emergency, I tend to lean toward Paul Krugman’s opinion that temporary nationalization of the banks would be more cost effective and allow a more thorough settling of affairs. I am not willing to say it is the only alternative, I believe that the bail-out could settle the banks’ affairs as well, it will simply be more expensive and less efficient. Indeed, it appears to be working so far, though judgment is far from in.

    However, while I believe in a capitalist and democratic system, I consider myself a democratic socialist and consider the original core philosophical principle of the individual’s responsibility to society, business’s responsibility to the community, and the society’s responsibility to the individuals that make it up regardless of their economic station to be key to a just and moral society.

    I suppose I am one of Rand’s evil altruists.

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    Rand would have been so much more tolerable if she defended capitalism and an individual’s right to look after their own self-interest without branding altruism as an outright evil. Of course if she had taken a more nuanced approach and recognized the rights of others to have values different from hers she would not be the same Ayn Rand who has developed such a following.

  4. 4
    Christopher Skyi says:

    Here’s Rand’s original (and unique?) definition of Altruism.

    So — question: how do these definitions and positions square with those of today’s self-described altruists/socialists?

    “What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.
    Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.
    Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”
    Her definition seems to inherit from Thomas Paine’s:
    “Human rights originate in Nature, thus, rights cannot be granted via political charter, because that implies that rights are legally revocable, hence, would be privileges:
    It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few . . . They . . . consequently are instruments of injustice.
    The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
    Government’s sole purpose is safeguarding the individual and his/her inherent, inalienable rights; each societal institution that does not benefit the nation is illegitimate — especially the Monarchy, the Nobility, and the Military. The book’s acumen derives from the Age of Enlightenment, especially from the Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke.”
     

  5. 5
    Christopher Skyi says:

    Sorry — my formatting was awful.  I’m not use to this blog’s comment editor. Let me try again.
    ———————–

    Here’s Rand’s original (and unique?) definition of Altruism. Below I’ve included Thomas Paine’s.
    So — question: how do these definitions and positions square with those of today’s self-described altruists/socialists?
    RAND:
    What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.
    Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.
    Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”
    Thomas Paine’s:

    Human rights originate in Nature, thus, rights cannot be granted via political charter, because that implies that rights are legally revocable, hence, would be privileges:

    It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few . . . They . . . consequently are instruments of injustice.

    The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.

    Government’s sole purpose is safeguarding the individual and his/her inherent, inalienable rights; each societal institution that does not benefit the nation is illegitimate — especially the Monarchy, the Nobility, and the Military. The book’s acumen derives from the Age of Enlightenment, especially from the Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke.”

  6. 6
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Paine was a socialist, by modern definition, whose economic ideas were entirely incompatible with those of Rand. In many ways he set a tone that foreshadows much of Durkheim, Engels, and Marx. I am always amused to see conservatives and libertarians quote liberally from ‘Common Sense’ and ‘The Rights of Man’ while ignoring ‘Agrarian Justice.’

    Paine believed that every individual naturally deserved an entirely full and equal political and social status, and advocated leveling social welfare policies designed to restrict wealth and eliminate poverty. ‘The compact with each other’ of which Paine spoke is the ‘society’ of which I speak when I call myself a socialist.

    My definition of government is based on Paine’s, and my view of the dangers posed to individual political and social rights by an unbalanced concentration of economic rights is likewise based on Paine. We break company in that Paine was a utopian and I am a realist.

    I agree with Paine’s arguments about the nature of rights, for precisely the reason he foresaw: strict constructionist conservatives are determined to firmly limit human rights to those clearly elucidated by government.

  7. 8
    Eclectic Radical says:

    That does look as if it would be an interesting read. Currently, I am enmeshed in reading John Taylor Gatto’s ‘Undergound History of American Education.’ I am enjoying the mixture of truly adept critique of the way American schooling with religious wing-nuttery and paranoid fantasies about the Illuminati.

  8. 9
    Fritz says:

    Eclectic — do you think Paine’s vision of leveling policies would scale up far past the model of an agrarian village?   

    I’m not sure Paine is completely incompatible with Rand — it’s just that Rand saw the Russian Revolution.  Of course, Paine saw the French Revolution, but the Russian version was much more thorough in targeting small farmers.

  9. 10
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Rand’s fundamental vision was complete individualism, without responsibility to one’s fellow man. Personal freedom to do as one pleased is more important than social responsibility and, indeed, the very idea of social responsibility is immoral and self-destructive. Paine believed in the essential responsibility of society to all its individual members, and in the basic right to full equality… not just political or social, but also economic.

    In Rand’s utopia everyone just works hard and they are all rich without anyone’s help. In Paine’s utopia, poverty is eliminated and wealth greatly restricted because of society’s active policy of supporting its members.

    Yes. I would say that is incompatible.

  10. 11
    Fritz says:

    And yet, Rand’s heroes kept showing responsibility both for each other and for non-heroes.  They just did not do so out of a sense that they must sacrifice themselves for others.  In some ways, this is oddly parallel to the ways that evolution is reconciled to apparent altruism.

  11. 12
    Eclectic Radical says:

    That’s one of the basic flaws in Rand’s thinking… responsibility is a social evil but an individual good. Requiring people to be responsible or building a government on responsibility is evil, but good people are responsible.

    Responsibility is not a choice, one is responsible. The choice is whether to face or evade responsibility. Conservatives seek to evade social responsibility by reducing it to a matter of personal choice in a self-centered universe. Yet they preach personal responsibility.

    One cannot be personally responsible without fulfilling one’s social responsibilities. The conservative theory of ‘personal responsibility’ is a high-minded way of saying ‘it’s not my fault, so it’s not my problem.’

    That is not responsibility of any kind.

  12. 13
    Fritz says:

    Eclectic — as you might imagine, I don’t see that as a flaw.  It makes perfect sense to me that a trait that is good in individual life becomes destructive when built into an institution.  Especially a nation-wide institution.

    Scale matters.  That’s what is so infuriating about “It takes a village”.  The village is not the family writ large, and the nation is definitely not the village write gigantic.

  13. 14
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Certainly, scale matters. However, if the family is beating the crap out of the child, the village needs to do something. By the same notion, if the village were beating the crap out of the child, the nation would need to do something. Power works both ways, local government is equally capable of authoritarian abuses and national government is equally capable of protecting citizens from such abuses.

    The problem with utopian concepts of absolute freedom from all constraint is that volia gives the power to abuse others to those who wish to use their freedom to abuse others. A truly free society includes each member’s responsibilities to respect his neighbor’s freedoms, which necessarily imposes some constraints. Utopian views of democracy and anarchy are every bit as destructive, in the end, as utopian views of socialism.

    We have had such periods in human history. Most people do not wish to live in them.

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