Even Right-Wing Think Tanks Are Finding High Support for Socialism

Poll after poll after poll keeps showing high levels of support for socialism in the United States and Canada — even when it’s conservatives doing the polling.

A left-wing demonstration on the November 5, 2022, in Central London. (Kristian Buus / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Canada’s most prominent right-wing think tank has published quite a few howlers over the years, from a blog that denounced Mary Poppins as communist propaganda to an annual report that uses various kinds of methodological hokum to wildly exaggerate the taxes people pay. For this reason, there was initially good cause to take the headlines about new Fraser Institute (FI) polling on the question of support for socialism with a grain of salt. But the data — commissioned by FI though actually conducted by the mainstream firm Leger — is actually quite interesting, even if the framing offered by the institute is typically reactionary.

Conducted among a total of just over four thousand respondents in Canada, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom last year, the survey’s top-line finding is that the idea of socialism finds a surprisingly warm reception in all four countries, particularly among the young.

“One major objective of this study is to better understand perceptions of and support for capitalism and more importantly socialism, as well as how attitudes towards capitalism and socialism differ across age groups,” the authors write, adding of their findings: “Perhaps most indicative of broad support for socialism among respondents is the fact that all age groups across all four countries agreed, to varying extents, that a transition to socialism would improve the economy and well-being of their citizens.”

Of younger respondents, the results are especially notable:

Support for capitalism amongst those aged 18–34 is at best tepid outside of the United States. . . . Support for socialism as the ideal economic system is strongest amongst those aged 18–34 regardless of country. The total agreement (strongly agree and agree) that socialism is the ideal economic system amongst the 18–34 age cohort ranged from 43 percent in the United States to 53 percent in the United Kingdom.

A critical question is what those surveyed actually understand “socialism” to be. To this end, Leger usefully offered respondents three separate definitions: 1) “the government taking control of companies and industries so that the state rather than individuals control the economy”; 2) “the government providing more services to people”; 3) “the government provides a minimum level of guaranteed income to its citizens.”

The first of these, which the Fraser Institute deems the traditional definition of socialism, scored less than 50 percent in every age group, with only minorities of respondents agreeing, while definitions two and three were much more widely shared by those surveyed. Majorities in every age group and in all four countries, in fact, saw both as synonymous with socialism (the sole exception being those over fifty-five in the United States when it came to the third definition). Elsewhere, the polling also detected strong majority support for a wealth tax across every age category.

So what does any of it mean? The FI’s report is relatively light on analysis, though an op-ed published in conjunction with the survey speculates that younger respondents’ “support for ‘socialism’ presumably is due in part to their lack of real-world experience with genuine socialism and the misery it imposed.” A more accurate (and less ideologically torqued) reading might be that younger people have been poorly served by capitalism and are therefore disproportionately interested in alternatives to it — a trend that’s become particularly evident throughout the last decade.

In any case, perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from the polling is that the word “socialism” still maintains a positive connotation with big pluralities in major English-speaking countries and remains strongly associated with both social services and economic redistribution. Decades of anti-socialist propaganda, it seems, have had only limited success in undermining the democratic state or selling majorities on the inherent evil of encroaching upon the market. Quality social programs, the redistribution of wealth, and public services provided by the state and financed through progressive taxation all remain popular propositions. (Nationalization and public ownership — two pillars of traditional socialism — were less strongly associated with socialism, but a less negative framing might have yielded different numbers.)

Demographics, of course, cannot be treated as destiny, and public opinion by itself means very little without political organization. What these numbers do suggest, however, is that fertile ground exists for a strategy sharply to the left of the centrist triangulation championed by the likes of mainstream liberals in parties like the Democrats and Australian Labor. As inequality continues to increase and governments continue to embrace austerity, a party or movement able to make an effective populist case for democratic socialist policies, and mobilize those under forty in sufficient numbers, will find a powerful coalition assembling behind it.