May 6, 2010 -- Calling President Obama a "socialist" may not carry the punch some of his opponents had hoped for, given a new poll that found Americans are "not so negative" about the word and young people have essentially the same feelings about "socialism" as they do the word "capitalism."
Americans generally view the word "capitalism" more favorably than the word "socialism," according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, but respondents were "not so negative" about "socialism" and "not so positive" about "capitalism" as one might expect.
"'Socialism' is a negative for most Americans but certainly not all Americans. 'Capitalism' is regarded positively by a majority of the public, though it is a thin majority," read the Pew study, which found Democrats and young people rated the terms "about equally."
Young people, the survey found, "are more positive about 'socialism' -- and more negative about 'capitalism' -- than are older Americans."
The survey asked people to respond to the words themselves not the policies they inspire, leading some experts to wonder whether most Americans even know what the words mean.
Respondents younger than 30 were tied on their feelings about "socialism" and "capitalism," with identically positive reactions -- 43 percent -– to both words.
The survey conducted among 1,546 adults in April measured reactions to nine political words and phrases.
"Overall, 29 percent [of respondents] say they have a positive reaction to the word 'socialism,' while 59 percent react negatively," according to Pew. "The public's impressions of 'capitalism,' though far more positive, are somewhat mixed. Slightly more than half (52 percent) react positively to the word 'capitalism,' compared with 37 percent who say they have a negative reaction."
The word "socialism" re-entered the political discourse as a smear against then-Sen. Barack Obama in the final weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign. It has again become a popular watchword among members of the Tea Party movement, who have blasted Obama administration policies, particularly health care overhaul, as socialist.
Conservatives Aim to Rally the Base
When conservative groups label the president or his policies "socialist," they are not trying to make a nuanced political argument but rather rallying the base with charged language, said Larry Sabato Jr., director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The poll's scientific findings, he said, will not likely alter the way pundits and politicians pick their words, because they've chosen a "a word like 'socialist' to feed red meat to their base.
"It's red meat for the ideological base, which either understand what the term means, or thinks they do, and they understand it to be a bad thing," he said.
"This is not language to change anyone's mind. This is preaching to the choir."
In October 2008, in the final days of the campaign, Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., said Obama's economic platform smacked of the "tenets of socialism."
In July 2009, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said "yes" to a question about whether the president was a socialist. And Tea Party activists have used the word in recent weeks to protest health care and immigration overhaul on Capitol Hill and in front of the White House.
"'Socialism' has been used as an attack from the right on the left in the health care debate and in the last two weeks of election," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the use of language in politics.
She conducted a study at the end of the campaign "but didn't find any impact on voters from the use of the word 'socialism as smear," she said.
While still generally bullish on "capitalism," Sabato said, respondents may be "not so positive" about it because of the financial crisis and Wall Street bailout.
"To the extent that people understand what 'capitalism' means, they might have a dimmer view because of the news surrounding Wall Street," he said.
Hall said the poll's conclusion should not be interpreted to mean any shift in the country's thinking about these terms because many of the respondents may not have known what the words really meant.
What Would Karl Marx Think?
"Do they know what either of these words mean?" Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania asked rhetorically. "'Socialism' is not a word used in ordinary political debate nowadays. When people hear the word, what do they actually they think. Do they think of a political philosophy advanced by Karl Marx or do they think of someone being highly sociable. When they hear 'capital' do they think they big white building in Washington, or uppercase letters?"
The poll also asked participants to respond to other loaded political terms.
"Reactions to the word 'libertarian' are evenly divided -– 38 percent positive, 37 percent negative," according to the poll. "On balance, Republicans view 'libertarian' negatively, Democrats are divided, while independents have a positive impression of the term.
"'Militia' elicits the most negative reaction of the nine terms tested: Just 21 percent have a positive reaction compared with 65 percent who have a negative response."