By Jennifer Tiedemann
March 7, 2019

Headline-grabbing politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez make the case for “socialism” in this country by espousing proposals like universal healthcare, a higher national minimum wage, and the “Green New Deal.” But do the Americans who claim that socialism would be a good move for this country understand what it really is?

A new poll out this week from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal reveals that around one in five Americans has a favorable view of socialism. That’s not exactly proof of widespread support for socialism, but a look at an age breakdown of support for socialism is a bit more concerning. An August 2018 Gallup poll showed that a slight majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have a positive view of socialism. That’s about the level of support that existed in 2010, but in that same time period, the percentage of young Americans who hold a positive view of capitalism fell by more than 20 points—from 68 to 45 percent.

Even if socialism isn’t becoming more popular among young people, it’s not losing ground, and it’s clear that millennials’ disillusionment with the capitalist system is growing. And if fewer young people think that capitalism is the best system for America, then it follows that perhaps a move in the socialist direction might work better for more people, right?

Human rights activist and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov grew up under the Soviet system, and so he’s well-acquainted with socialism in practice. A couple of years back, he took to Facebook to take on American boosters of socialism:

“I’m enjoying the irony of American [Bernie] Sanders supporters lecturing me, a former Soviet citizen, on the glories of Socialism and what it really means! Socialism sounds great in speech soundbites and on Facebook, but please keep it there. In practice, it corrodes not only the economy but the human spirit itself, and the ambition and achievement that made modern capitalism possible and brought billions of people out of poverty…Income inequality is a huge problem, absolutely. But the idea that the solution is more government, more regulation, more debt, and less risk is dangerously absurd.”

Kasparov, who was honored by the Goldwater Institute with its Freedom Award in 2017, believes that support for socialism among Americans springs from a lack of understanding about what socialism truly means.

For those with experience of what it’s really like to live under socialism—people like Kasparov—the fact that Americans would entertain steps toward socialism is evidence of how the free-market system is actually working. “Talking about socialism in America is a luxury paid for by the successes of capitalism,” Kasparov said upon accepting the Freedom Award. “[Barry] Goldwater was right in 1960 and it became even clearer with the collapse of the USSR that the historical record leaves no doubt: Free markets and free people create prosperity while government control of resources and citizens creates poverty.”

Those who urge a shift to more socialist-style policies tend to point to places like Denmark or Norway—which are actually market economies rather than true bastions of socialism. But in the places adhering to a purer form of socialism—the Cubas and Venezuelas of the world—suffering and poverty abound. These countries, like the Soviet Union before them, are “economic disasters and brutally repressive states,” as the New York Post put it earlier this week.

It’s easy to speak positively of socialism—even recommend it—and decry the evils of capitalism from places where the basic necessities of life are within easy reach for most people. “Socialism will always be an alluring dream, even in the freest and richest countries in the world,” Kasparov said. “In fact, especially in such places, where what Goldwater called ‘welfarism’ has slowly and steadily replaced political socialism with calls for free everything.” So when Americans think about socialism, the definition may have evolved—from one of politics to economics—but “socialism is a powerful drug, and…vigilance must always be maintained.”

While recent polling show a dip in popularity for the free-market system among young Americans, that’s not exactly surprising. It’s easy to be swayed by a philosophy that promises so much in theory (if you’re, say, a college student facing large student loan payments, you might find the assurance of a free college education to be pretty appealing). But people like Garry Kasparov, those who have lived under such socialist systems, understand the true costs: “If you want to tell me about the glories of socialism, go say it from a food line in Venezuela, not from Hollywood, not from Vermont.”

Jennifer Tiedemann is the Deputy Communications Director at the Goldwater Institute.

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