November 10, 2020
By Jennifer Tiedemann
As political analysts begin their autopsy on the 2020 election, there already seems to be a lack of consensus on what message voters were trying to send. But the results do show that the “blue wave” that many poll-watching prognosticators predicted didn’t materialize: There emerged no mandate for a hard shift toward progressive policy in America.
But that lack of mandate isn’t really surprising, given what we know about Americans’ beliefs on what they want government to do. While some progressive politicians—led by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—seek to move the country toward socialism, a new survey is just the latest to show that Americans’ love of freedom remains deeply held.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation produces a yearly report on American attitudes toward socialism, Communism, and collectivism, and the most recent edition—released in late October—reveals that while more Americans—particularly younger ones—are feeling more favorably toward “socialism” than they did a year ago, they continue to show that they don’t understand what socialism really is. And even further, they continue to embrace views that are largely anathema to the socialist philosophy.
According to the survey, four in 10 Americans view “socialism” favorably—and it’s worth noting that there’s no age cohort in which a majority views it favorably. But what does “socialism” actually mean to them? The answer to that is pretty revealing. 46% define socialism as a free market economy with private property and some form of government intervention (either “ample social welfare benefits, as in many Scandinavian and Western European countries” or “when necessary to create an even playing field for all citizens and businesses”). Just 32% define socialism as “when the government owns all property and controls nearly 100% of the national economy and makes all important decisions about prices, wages, and job placements, as in the Soviet Union.” So it’s no wonder that socialism is A-OK for many Americans—their idea of “socialism” is one allows for a robust free market. (Someone should tell them about the actual socialist countries of Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea…)
Even though a sizable chunk of Americans say they’re favorable toward socialism, the survey data indicates that Americans are not looking to see socialist policies and practices take hold on our soil. Americans still find the hallmarks of the American system essential: Nearly 8 in 10 Americans support free speech, and 6 in 10 believe in a free and uncensored press. No age group even comes close to wanting private property to be abolished.
And interestingly, Americans seem less trusting of government than ever. The percentage who say they most trust themselves to take care of their interests—not the government—is up 7 points from 2019. Surprisingly, this shift is driven by the youngest age cohorts—Gen Z, Millennials, and Gen X—even though younger Americans profess more favorability toward socialism that older ones.
More favorability toward socialism AND less trusting of government’s ability to solve problems? It simply doesn’t compute—but it does show that socialism isn’t winning American hearts and minds. Rather, Americans desire the freedom to set their own course. That’s why the Goldwater Institute works to pass legislation that gives people more freedom—like our Breaking Down Barriers to Work law, which makes it easier for a person who has already gone through the time and training they need to earn a license in one state to keep working in their new home state without going through more costly and time-consuming efforts just to do the same job. Versions of this reforms have gotten bipartisan support in several states because it’s a sensible reform that recognizes the efforts of hardworking Americans.
And even though Americans may not be very inclined toward socialism, the movement to shift America leftward remains strong in our schools and in our state and local governments. As new leaders and lawmakers come to power, we will continue to stand guard against that movement—one that contradicts the message sent by millions of Americans just last week at the polls. Through our Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy, Goldwater will work to defend constitutional rights and promote an understanding and appreciation for America’s founding principles and the importance of putting freedom in people’s hands rather than taking it away.
The 2020 election results prove that America is a very closely divided country—as it was four years ago, and as it has been for quite some time. But it’s clear that the American hunger for freedom remains strong. This new poll shows that the meaning of the term “socialism” has morphed in many Americans’ minds into something that’s more like “socialism lite”—a democratic socialism that involves some, though not complete, government intervention in people’s lives. But the American people—even many who might feel favorably toward “socialism”—still want to keep the cornerstones of the free market in place. If you’re worried about socialism taking hold on our shores, this survey, coupled with the results of last week’s election, should provide a sigh of relief.
Jennifer Tiedemann is the Deputy Communications Director at the Goldwater Institute.