What do Americans think socialism looks like?

Matthew SmithLead data journalist
October 04, 2020, 11:00 PM UTC

YouGov asks Americans what countries and policies they think are socialist 

One of President Donald Trump’s current attack lines on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is to brand him as a socialist. It was a label he deployed at the presidential debates on Tuesday, and it was reportedly one of the most commonly used words at the RNC in August. 

Americans are divided on whether Joe Biden is indeed a socialist – 35% think he is while 37% think he isn’t. Republicans overwhelmingly say that he is (71% vs 11%), while Democrats tend not to think so (56% vs 18%). 

Do Americans like socialism? 

In a list of ten ideologies YouGov put to Americans, socialism ranked fifth in terms of favorability. Three in ten Americans (31%) have a favorable view of socialism, while 47% do not. Another 13% aren’t sure, and 10% don’t know what the term means in the first place. 

By contrast, ‘capitalism’ is favored by 55%, ‘social democracy’ – the term often used outside America to describe the systems in place in Scandinavia – is favored by 45%, and ‘conservatism’ by 43%. 

Least favorable are ‘totalitarianism’ (6%), ‘fascism’ (7%) and ‘authoritarianism’ (8%). 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the popularity of self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, Democrats take a more favorable view of socialism, and Republicans less so. Half of Democrats (49%) have a favorable view, while just over a quarter (28%) have an unfavorable one. Among Republicans, 11% have a favorable view and 75% an unfavorable one. 

What policies are socialist? 

So what do Americans think socialism is? Does it bear much resemblance to the dictionary definition, or is it more of a label to be attached to things opponents dislike (and indeed, that fans approve of)? 

One of the most common contexts in which socialism comes up in political discourse is ‘socialized medicine’. 

We took the four healthcare funding models described by T.R. Reid in his book The Healing of America and described each to people to see whether or not they thought they sound like socialism. 

In all four cases Americans generally agree in their assessment of each model. 

The most socialist-sounding is the ‘Beveridge Model’ used in Britain, Spain and Denmark among others, and which YouGov described to respondents as “a healthcare system that generally uses public-sector doctors and hospitals, where payment for treatment comes from general taxation”. Most Americans (58%) consider this a socialist system, including 57% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans. 

Next is the ‘National Health Insurance Model’, used in Canada. This was described as “a healthcare system that generally uses private-sector doctors and hospitals, where payment for treatment comes from a government-run insurance program that every citizen pays into”. This too generally sounds like socialism to half of Americans (50%), including 48% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans. 

Then there is the ‘Bismarck Model’, used in Germany. This is “a healthcare system that generally uses private-sector doctors and hospitals, where payment for treatment comes from non-profit insurance funds that legally have to cover everyone, and are paid for jointly by employers and employees through payroll deductions”. Few Americans see this as socialism – only a quarter of the general population (26%) and Democrats (25%), and a third of Republicans (32%). 

Finally is an approximation of the healthcare system used in the US for non-seniors, which was described as “a healthcare system that generally uses private-sector doctors and hospitals, where payment for treatment comes from private or workplace insurance policies, or from out-of-pocket expenses”. This is the system least likely to be seen as socialist, at just 10-13% of the three groups. 

Aside from healthcare we also asked about a clutch of 10 other policy areas. Most likely to be seen as socialist are government ownership of utility providers like gas and electricity companies (55%), free government provision of childcare for all (53%), government ownership of railway transport (49%) and the government running all or most schools (49%). 

Government restriction of firearms is also seen as a socialist policy, by 41% to 34%. Although Republicans were more likely to brand almost all of these policies as socialist, gun control was the one where their views differed from Democrats most drastically. Fully 64% of Republicans consider restricting access to weapons socialism, whereas a mere 28% of Democrats say the same. 

Least likely to be seen as socialist are separation of church and state (52%) and income tax (46%). The government taking a portion of people’s income in tax was the only policy that Republicans (21%) are less likely than Democrats (27%) to see as being socialist. 

Looking specifically at the views of people who have favorable and unfavorable views of socialism also highlights big divides over some of the policies. The biggest difference is again on gun control, which sounds a lot more like socialism to those who don’t like the ideology (63%) than those who do (31%). 

People with an unfavorable view of socialism are also more to think government ownership of power utility companies is socialism (71% vs 59%). 

Those who dislike socialism are less likely to think that income tax (20% vs 37%) and separation of church and state (11% vs 28%) constitute socialism. 

Which countries are socialist? 

The study also asked Americans to say whether they thought each of 21 different countries were more of a capitalist country or more of a socialist country. 

The results show that Republicans and Democrats seem to have very different conceptions of what a socialist country is. 

Topping the list of countries Americans consider to be more socialist than capitalist are China (46%), Venezuela (44%) and Russia (41%). 

In all three of these cases, Republicans are substantially more likely to say they are socialist than Democrats, by 22-26 percentage points. 

The next four countries most likely to be seen as more socialist are the four Scandinavian countries: Sweden (37% of Americans), Denmark (36%), Norway (35%) and Finland (35%). In these cases, it is the Democrats who are noticeably more likely to think of them as socialist, by 8-10 points. 

Opinion also noticeably differs regarding France, Brazil, Mexico and India (which Republicans are more likely to see as socialist) and Australia (Democrats are more likely to see as socialist). 

This survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,347 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between December 3 – 4, 2019. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status and geographic region. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 2.7% for the overall sample.