Socialism, American-Style

This post was updated with new polling data 3/16/09 (new material denoted by an asterisk, "*").

"Our Socialist Future," reads the cover line on the March 23, 2009, issue of the National Review. Echoing a flurry of warnings from other conservatives, author Mark Steyn says that those who liken President Obama's program to FDR's New Deal, LBJ's Great Society, or Jimmy Carter's unnamed nationalizations are making "nickel 'n'dime comparisons. It's all those multiplied a gazillion-fold and nuclearized -- or Europeanized, which is less dramatic but ultimately more lethal."

Will this alarm -- and other expressions of concern by prominent Republicans including John Boehner, Jim DeMint, Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee and Michelle Bachmann -- resonate with the American public? Are Americans, the majority of whom still appear to support the Obama program, likely to quail at the prospect of a "Europeanization" of the land of the free that transforms it into a clone of, say, France? That depends upon which side of the American psyche you examine. For within the American soul lurks a constant tension between distaste for the government sector and suspicions about the motives and practices of the business sector, between appreciation for the benefits of free markets and desire for basic societal protections and services.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is right that we're not "European socialists" at heart. For example, the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that while 70 percent of Americans agree that it is the responsibility of the state to take care of the very poor who cannot take care of themselves, only 28 percent "completely agree." In contrast, majorities in Spain, Germany, Britain and Sweden "completely agree" with this statement, and around nine-in-ten completely or mostly agree. And while a 51 percent-majority agreed in a Pew Research poll last fall that "the government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt," 69 percent of Americans also worry that "poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs."

In the 2007 survey, 65 percent of Americans also said they believe the government has too much control of our daily lives. However, on this question, our European counterparts agree. Similar majorities of the Germans (74 percent), French (65 percent) and British (64 percent) also believe the government has too much control.

Nor is there any question that America still loves the free market. In the 2007 survey, 70 percent of Americans agreed that "most people are better off in a free-market economy, even though some people are rich and some poor." Most recently, in Pew Research Center's latest poll, released this week, fully 70 percent of the U.S. public agrees that people are better off in a country with a free market economy even if it suffers "severe ups and downs."*

So if the public remains dubious about government, how does it feel about the private sector these days? Does it agree with CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow that Obama "is declaring war on investors, entrepreneurs, small businesses, large corporations, and private-equity and venture-capital funds."  Well, Kudlow may find many Americans less than raring to enlist in the forces of resistance.
Even before this fall's deluge of catastrophic collapses , from the implosions of AIG and Lehman Bros. to exposure of Bernard Madoff's $50-billion Ponzi scheme,  polls found Americans increasingly restrained in their enthusiasm for business in general. In an April 2008 survey, roughly half (47  percent) viewed corporations favorably, while nearly as many had a negative opinion (45 percent).  Although support for government regulation of business hasn't risen, 50 percent of Americans think it is necessary to protect the public interest, compared with 38 percent who say that regulation usually does more harm than good. In fact, not only do more Americans worry that businesses are snooping into their personal lives (74 percent), than think government is doing so (58 percent), fully six-in-ten think that business makes too much profit, and an overwhelming 78 percent think there is too much power in the hands of large companies.

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