Gallup Vault: Americans' Views of Socialism, 1949-1965

Written by Lydia Saad via Gallup on 8/10/18 

From 1937 to 1948, Gallup routinely included "socialist" as an option alongside "Republican" and "Democrat" when measuring Americans' party ID, typically finding about 1% identifying as socialists. This wasn't the heyday of U.S. socialism, which arguably occurred earlier in the century when socialist candidates for president won between 3% and 6% of the vote. Rather, it was the era of socialist icon Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times from 1928 to 1948 but never garnered more than 2% of the vote -- roughly consistent with Gallup's party ID measure for socialists.

In 1949, Gallup probed Americans' knowledge of socialism, asking people to explain what they thought it was and whether socialism existed in the U.S. The most common description involved government ownership of business and utilities, mentioned by 34%. Another 12% of Americans said socialism stood for equality, including equal rights and equal distribution of wealth. More broadly, a combined 50% associated socialism with progressive policies while another 7% said it was "modified communism" or a "restriction of freedom." A little over a third couldn't answer.

[Table titled "How Americans Defined Socialism in 1949" -- available at the link to Gallup Poll]

Many Perceived Socialism in the U.S. Last Century

The same 1949 poll found 43% saying yes when asked if they thought "we have socialism in the United States today." But in a follow-up question that defined socialism as a system in which the government "owns and runs many industries and businesses," just 15% wanted the country to go more in the direction of socialism while 64% wanted less movement in that direction.

Americans' Preference for Adopting Socialism in 1949

Under socialism, the government owns and runs many industries and businesses like steel, coal, railroads and banks -- and offers services like medical and dental care, with the people still having the right to elect their government officials. Would you like to see the United States go more in the direction of socialism or less in the direction of socialism?

[table with data available at the link to the Gallup Poll] 

Fifteen years later, in 1964, 48% of Americans agreed that "there is a definite trend toward socialism in this country." About a quarter disagreed (23%), while the remaining 29% weren't sure.

The following year, Gallup asked Americans to say which of several different economic systems most closely described the U.S. and found nearly as many choosing "moderate socialism" or "pure socialism" as choosing "capitalism" (34% vs. 37%, respectively).

Americans' Perceptions of Nation's Economic System in 1965

[Survey titled "Which one of these terms do you think most closely describes our economic system -- capitalism, moderate socialism, pure socialism or communism?" -- available at the link to the Gallup Poll]

In recent years, Gallup has measured public opinion of socialism directly by asking Americans whether they have a positive or negative view of it and several other economic systems and concepts. Socialism has consistently been viewed more negatively than positively, with its positive ratings far below those of capitalism and free enterprise.

Matthew Wisner