Socialism, American-Style

By Allen and Richard Auxier

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.

By the same token, the latest poll finds that a 54-percent majority now thinks it a good idea for the government to exert more control over the economy than it has in recent years. Even among Republicans, nearly a third (32 percent) endorses the idea of the government exerting greater control over the economy.*

What's more, while Americans are loyal defenders of the free market, it just better be their free market. Approval of free trade fell in several Western countries from 2002 to 2007, but the largest decline among the 35 countries for which comparative data are available took place in the United States. In fact, the country with the world's largest economy is the least likely among the 47 nations surveyed in 2007 to embrace global trade. (So no surprise that despite the warnings of economists about the dangers of inserting "Buy American" provisions into the stimulus package, two-thirds of Americans thought it was a good idea.)

America retained its title as the most anti-trade country in the 2008 survey. Only 53 percent (down six points from 2007) of Americans thought trade was good for their country. Compare that with the 87 percent of Germans and 82 percent of the French who have a positive view of free trade.

How about international corporations? That's not our kind of capitalism either. Just as many Americans say that multinationals are having a bad influence on the country as say they're having a good one (45 percent in each case). In fact, in the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey, you had to be a member of the former Eastern Bloc -- Poland (60 percent), Czech Republic (63 percent) and Slovakia (72 percent) -- to think international companies had a good impact on your country.

Many in the punditocracy have picked up the line that Obama is "more popular than his policies." Well, the reverse might now be said about government. Yes, the public may believe that government is inefficient, controlling and downright scary. But some of its programs and policies are nonetheless pretty popular.

Take, for example, government-guaranteed health insurance, a classic big-government remedy. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now favor such a program, even if paid for by increasing taxes. And while polls in recent years found the public split, usually along partisan lines, as to whether workers should be allowed to invest some of their Social Security taxes in private accounts (at least before the recent market crash), in a November Democracy Corps poll, 63 percent rated reforming Social Security to ensure that it's a safety net as more important than reforming it to allow personal savings accounts. And a tiny 6 percent in a December Kaiser/Harvard poll opted for decreasing spending on Medicare. Pew's latest  poll also finds 52 percent of the public opposed to requiring even higher income people to pay more for Medicare coverage and opposing cuts in agricultural subsidies by 47 percent to 40 percent.*

Americans do overwhelmingly believe the strength of this country is mostly based on the success of American business. But most also see a sturdy role for government both in curbing the excesses of the marketplace and in providing public goods and services throughout good times and bad.

Jodie Allen and Richard Auxier are, respectively, a senior editor and researcher at the Pew Research Center.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/03/socialism-american-style/1471/