Democrats and Millenials Prefer “Socialism” over “Capitalism.” Why?

Hint: They’re not exactly sprinting to the left.

Source: Michael Fleshman/Flickr

A recent Gallup poll has been turning the Internet into a tizzy: not only to a majority of 18–29 year olds have a more positive view about socialism than capitalism (51 vs 45%) but so too do (57 vs 47%). Cue the reactions from the left and right, which I’m sure were perfectly level-headed and reasonable.

But while we wait for the inevitable reactions to the reactions to come out, academics and social scientists have been pondering over why this ten-point gap has emerged.

A Reason Why(?): Talking Past Each Other

One of the leading theories, endorsed by Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman and notable political data scientist G. Elliot Morris, is that views of socialism are on the rise among Democrats because their definition of socialism is something far less radical and benign compared to the one Republicans use.

This suggestion can find support in, of all things, a survey partially commissioned by the right-leaning Reason Foundation. Fielded in 2014, the poll uncovered that many millennials’ definition of socialism did not cohere with the “correct” one, characterized by the state centralizing and controlling the means of production. Their definitions, anticipating the rise of popular “socialist” candidates like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were centered around increased federal services and a more robust safety-net. The fact that these goals are considered “socialist” come, in large part, from the willingness of conservative pundits to be so liberal (pun partially intended) with the term. Everything from Gay marriage to Obamacare has been slapped with the label. Liberals and Democrats may be thinking “if that’s socialism, then I can get behind this!”

I’m sympathetic to this argument. I think the insight that left and right have different conceptions of the term is probably spot on and, subsequently, believe the theory has some legs regarding why Democrats are more comfortable endorsing self-described socialists today than they were a few years ago. But as an explanation for this sudden enthusiasm gap, I’m not quite sure.

Many people reading the headlines may be inclined to believe that support for socialism has ramped up on the left. But if you look at Gallup’s data, that’s not what the trend actually is. Socialism may be trending upwards over the last decade but not by all that much. Most year-to-year changes are within 1 point with the largest spike being a five point hop between 2012–2016 — probably because of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Capitalism, however, has been trending with it’s largest drop coming between 2016–2018 at nine points.

To me, this seems like the most significant driver. If views of capitalism had stayed constant over the last two years this would be a non-story. It’s not that Democrats are substantially more sympathetic to socialism (that line is basically flat); they’re sympathetic to capitalism.

Why the Decline?

To be fair, I’m not alone in this interpretation of the data. Indeed, Gallup’s write-up on the topic held a pretty similar position going as far as to even suggest a mechanism for the decline: President Trump.

Considering that President Trump is the most polarizing presidents in modern history, I don’t doubt for a second that animus towards him is partially responsible. But I think there’s more to it. Just as Republicans and Democrats are talking past each other on what constitutes socialism, I think that a similar thing may be happening with capitalism.

Gallup has actually been asking this question since 2010 in the form of a top-down opinion on six economic terms: Big business, small business, capitalism, entrepreneurs, the federal government, free enterprise, and socialism. And, with the exception of 2018 (), they have publicly released partisan break downs of the public’s sentiments. Democrats have always been lukewarm towards capitalism but they’ve been much more supportive of its functional equivalent: Free Enterprise. Indeed, Democrats are quite favorable of small business and entrepreneurship — much more so than Capitalism. And although the data aren’t available for 2018 (again ), I would bet my bottom dollar that this enthusiasm gap remains. Or, perhaps, has grown.

Why the Disconnect?

It’s not uncommon for the media consumed by Democrats to paint our current economic regime in a critical light. About a third of all GoFundMe campaigns are for medical expenses. The Huffington Post claims that “Capitalism is the Reason Your Employer is Screwing You Over.” Left-leaning outlets decry the “horrors” of “late-stage capitalism” And, thanks to viral memes, knowledge of how the United States deviates from other industrial Western countries on matters like vacation time, maternity leave, a “living wage,” and wage growth has never been more widespread. Add in the fact that they’re not too terribly shy about speculating on the President’s possible violation of the emoluments clause or reporting on the flagrant financial corruption of Republicans/Trump allies like Paul Manafort, Scott Pruit, and Chris Collins and one could definitely see why the term “capitalism” has left a sour taste in the mouth of the American Democrat — and why that bitterness has only ramped up during the tenure of President Trump.

But that bitterness does not extend to the elements of a capitalist system once they’ve been stripped of the damaging connotations of the term. Just as Democrats may be thinking “if this is what Republicans see as socialism, I like it” they may very well also be thinking “if this is what Republicans see as capitalism, I dislike it.” Part of that may be due to affective polarization, but also because of the kinds of information that their news and entertainment outlets are providing.

In short, I don’t think the story here is that the left is beginning to embrace socialism as the right sees it — or even as see it. This emerging gap in popularity between capitalism and socialism has more to do with an increasingly cynical view of what constitutes the former. This isn’t a simple story of “love one, hate the other.” Especially since there appears to be an increasing partisan divide in what they even mean.


I’m a data scientist and social scientist specializing in political behavior. I’m also a runner, writer, gamer, YouTuber, and dinosaur enthusiast.