The Times They Are A'Changin?

Public opinion polling can be a notoriously unreliable "science," so we shouldn't necessarily put too much stock in the results of every poll we read. But today I stumbled across some poll results that underline the tremendous opportunities that the economic crisis has opened up for democratic socialists. According to Rasmussen Reports, only 53% of Americans, a bare majority, think capitalism is better than socialism, while 20% think socialism is better and 27% unsure. Even more striking are the results among people under 30, i.e. the people we should be organizing. Only 37% in this age group prefer capitalism and 33% prefer socialism, with 30% undecided.

 

Hendrick Hertzberg's take on the poll likely contains significant truth: "What I do conclude is that all the conservative shouting about how Obama is a socialist has had the unexpected effect of educating a sizable portion of the public to think of socialism as synonymous with "European socialism" (i.e., democracy plus private industry plus nice, soft, 400-thread safety nets) instead of Soviet-style "socialism" (i.e., totalitarianism plus gigantism plus poverty). If only Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington were around to see this happy day". But before we get ready to storm the barricades, a measure of realism is in order. The poll questions did not define either capitalism or socialism, so we can't be sure how people are conceiving such abstratctions in their minds. And the idea of a "free market economy" apparently attracts 70% support in polls, much more than the amount of respondents that say they support "capitalism." As the poll report notes, this may demonstrate that many people who would otherwise support capitalism think that the system has abandoned "free market" values, but it also likely demonstrates the ways in which the wording of a question conditions results. How many Americans are going to say they oppose something with the word "free" in its name, even if they might do so in their actual political activity and consciousness?

Whether or not Western European social market economies represent some form of socialism is a matter for debate, but it does seem to me that the introduction of the concept of "European socialism" into political discussion has led many people to actually investigate the merits of such a model and to draw positive conclusions about it. Couple this with a growing chorus of economists and commentators praising the "Swedish model" of recapitalization and temporary nationalization of insolvent banks, and it's entirely possible that something of an ideological shift may be occuring, however small and ephemeral it may ultimately prove to be. But considering the fact that no broad-based social movement for a progressive restructuring of the economy and society can come into being without a prior shift in the ideological/cultural realm, we have reason to be excited. Let's not let this once in a generation opportunity go to waste.


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