Americans Split On Capitalism?

That's what a new Rasmussen poll seems to suggest. According to an automated telephone survey of 1,000 U.S. adults taken Monday and Tuesday, 53 percent of Americans prefer capitalism, 20 percent prefer socialism, and 27 percent say they're not sure. The exact question was: "Which is a better system--capitalism or socialism?"

Compare that to a Dec. 29 poll on similar concepts, cast in different terms, in which 70 percent said a "free market economy" is better than "an economy managed by the government" (which collected 15 percent--the same as "unsure").

Rasmussen points out that "free market" may simply elicit more favorable responses than "capitalism." That could be, but it's also worth noting that a lot has happened between Dec. 29 and now. Most importantly, the nation has experienced a political dispute over whether President Obama's economic fixes amount to "socialism"--a dispute played out routinely on cable news and Sunday talk shows, on which experts argue whether Geithner's designs amount to "nationalization," and in the talking points of conservatives who accuse the president of the term in question--"socialism."

Perhaps that dispute has led "socialism" through a liminal process; perhaps "socialism" now signifies "that which is hated by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the most vocal of Obama's critics." The debate over Obama's economic rollouts has, at least, turned "socialism" and "capitalism" into political terms, and thus put them up for consideration by America's conscious mind, whereas once they were largely unconscious givens--the scenery behind political drama, but not part of it.

Or perhaps the nation's firm belief in capitalism has simply been eroded by the economic crisis, along with all other once-firm beliefs about the economy. If we equivocate, for a moment, this poll with the one from December, free-market/capitalistic ethos has mostly slid into the "unsure" category (which has jumped up from 15 percent to 27 percent, while "socialism" only picked up five percentage points). So it's not that Americans like socialism more, it's that they aren't as sure about capitalism--which the vast majority still support, when compared to the other options.

And, after all, who is sure of anything these days? When it comes to the economy, certainty isn't exactly the spirit of the age.

After learning that we're on the brink of "nationalization" anyway, perhaps the respondents to this poll, when they got automated calls from Rasmussen, just felt more inclined to say "Well, my 401k is worthless, so who the hell knows?"

Or perhaps the poll was an outlier.

Presented by

Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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