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Contrasting Understandings of Socialism and Capitalism
David Tigabu,

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has experienced a wave of electoral success recently, winning the popular vote in the first three contests of the Democratic Party presidential primary, the only major nominee in a competitive primary to ever do so. The rise of Sanders has caused many to question the appeal of a self-described democratic socialist, particularly among young people, voters of color, and the Democratic electorate as a whole. A closer look at the data, however, shows that for many of these constituents, socialism may not be a bug, but a major feature of Sanders’ draw.

PRRI’s 2019 American Values Survey asked respondents to choose between two statements describing socialism: the first describes socialism as “a system in which a government provides citizens with health insurance, retirement support, and access to free higher education,” and the second describes it as a “system where a government controls key parts of the economy, such as utilities, transportation, and communication.” The poll discovered that 57% of younger Americans ages 18-29 agree that socialism is a system that provides a stronger social safety net for everyday Americans (52% of the general public agree).

These attitudes also align with how voters of color approach these issues. Hispanic Americans (59%) and Black Americans (57%) are more likely to identify socialism as a system in which the government provides key social services than their white counterparts (49%).

The survey also asked Americans to choose between two statements describing capitalism: the first describes capitalism as “a system in which a government stays out of the way and allows private businesses to succeed and make a profit,” and the second, which describes it as “a system where the interests of businesses and company shareholders are placed above the interests of workers and the middle class.” PRRI found that younger Americans (60%) are significantly more likely than American seniors ages 65 and over (37%) to say that capitalism is a system that places the interests of businesses over the middle class. And similar to younger voters, majorities of Hispanic (61%) and black (56%) Americans agree that capitalism offers more benefits to businesses than to workers and the middle class, compared to only 42% of white Americans who agree with this statement.

These beliefs are even more pronounced among Democratic voters. Democrats are more likely to view socialism as a system that provides a stronger social safety net for everyday Americans (65%) than to see it as a form of government control (32%). Democrats (57%) are also about twice as likely as Republicans (29%) to view capitalism as a system that prioritizes businesses over workers and the middle class.

According to a 2019 PRRI/The Atlantic poll, while a majority (56%) of Americans agree that believing that capitalism is the best economic system is somewhat or very important for being truly American, including 79% of Republicans, only 46% of Democrats agreed. Only 41% of black Americans agreed with this statement as well.

Whether this dynamic can push Sanders to the finish line in the Democratic nomination contest or a potential general election matchup against Donald Trump remains to be seen. An analysis of Sanders’ rise must contend with key segments of the Democratic Party base as well as the party more broadly, many of whom may find socialism appealing.