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U.S. Support for More Government Inches Up, but Not for Socialism

U.S. Support for More Government Inches Up, but Not for Socialism

Story Highlights

  • Positive opinions of socialism steady at 39%; capitalism at 60%
  • 47% desire government to do more to solve country's problems
  • Fewer, 25%, favor more government services if paired with higher taxes

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' reaction to the term "socialism" remains more negative than positive in new Gallup polling, as solid majorities continue to view capitalism and free enterprise positively. At the same time, Americans are expressing slightly greater support for activist government across a range of measures, suggesting a more conducive climate for socialist-style policies taking root than has been the case in recent years.

The year 2010 serves as one reference point for evaluating recent shifts in U.S. adults' views on government. Gallup conducted an in-depth survey of U.S. attitudes toward government that year at the peak of the Tea Party movement and as Republicans made major gains in Congress.

Americans Expect More From Government Now Than in 2010

Since 2010, the percentage of Americans saying government should do more to solve the country's problems has increased 11 percentage points, to 47%, and the percentage wanting government to take active steps to improve people's lives is up eight points, to 42%. Gallup also finds a nine-point increase -- to 25% -- in the percentage who would prefer to have more government services and higher taxes rather than the alternatives of less government services and less taxes, or no change to the current balance.

These trends offer a mixed picture on perceptions of government regulation of business, one of the core tenets of socialism. On the one hand, a scant 28% say there is too little government regulation, unchanged from 2010. On the other, 53% now agree with the statement that business will harm society if it is not regulated, up from 45% saying this in 2010.

As noted, since 2010 there has been no meaningful change in the percentage holding positive views of socialism per se, holding steady at just under 40%.

Line graph, 2010-2019. The percentage of Americans who hold each of six pro-government or pro-socialism positions.

The 2019 findings come from two recent surveys, including Gallup's annual Governance poll conducted Sept. 3-15 and an Oct. 1-13 survey.

One cautionary note is that Americans' support for government playing an active role in solving problems was as high or higher at points in the past, such as after the 1991-1992 recession and after 9/11 -- suggesting that increases in pro-government views can be episodic rather than permanent.

Here are more details on these key public opinion trends as Congress debates enhanced roles for the government in healthcare, the environment and income redistribution, and as the Democratic Party chooses its standard-bearer for 2020.

Socialism Still Not Popular

Americans' reaction to the term "socialism" remains more negative than positive in new Gallup polling, while solid majorities continue to view capitalism and free enterprise positively.

In the October poll, 39% of Americans said they have a positive opinion of socialism, while 57% view it negatively. Gallup first asked this question in 2010, and since then positive responses about socialism have been fairly steady, between 35% and 39%. The current percentage viewing socialism positively is similar to the 43% who earlier this year told Gallup that "some form of socialism" would be good for the U.S.

Americans' ratings of capitalism have not changed and are about the inverse of socialism's ratings, with roughly six in 10 viewing capitalism positively. Americans are even more positive toward "free enterprise," with 87% evaluating that term positively.

Three line graphs, 2010-2019. Americans’ overall views of capitalism, socialism and free-enterprise.

In addition to these three economic systems, the poll finds majorities of Americans holding positive views of three aspects of capitalism: small business (97%), entrepreneurs (90%) and big business (52%). (See full trends by selecting "View complete question responses and trends" at the end of the article.)

Democrats' Support for Socialism Rises Further

Although not favored by the public at large, socialism has been getting a warmer reception from Democrats, with its positive rating reaching 60% in 2016. That may have reflected the influence of avowed Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign -- but since then, Democrats' positive views of socialism have remained elevated, with this year's uptick to 65% the highest yet.

Over the same period, Republicans have become less charitable toward socialism, with today's 9% viewing it positively down from the high point of 24% in 2012.

Line graph, 2010-2019. The percentage of Americans who have a positive view of socialism, by political party.

A slight majority of Democrats have continued to view capitalism positively. However, as more have become comfortable with socialism, the lines have crossed -- and since 2016, Democrats have held a modestly more positive opinion of socialism than of capitalism.

Republicans' opinion of capitalism has consistently been positive, but has grown more so since President Donald Trump took office. Both Republicans and independents continue to evaluate capitalism more positively than socialism.

Line graph, 2010-2019. The percentage of Americans who have a positive view of capitalism, by political party.

Notably, young adults (those aged 18 to 34) have mixed views of both socialism (52% positive, 47% negative) and capitalism (47% positive, 50% negative). (See demographic breaks by selecting "View complete question responses and trends" at the end of the article.)

Support Gaining for Expanded Government Role in Solving Problems

Even as Americans' opinions of capitalism and socialism have held steady, there has been an increase in the percentage of those who want to see an expanded government role in society.

When asked to rate their own views on a five-point scale where "5" indicates they favor government taking active steps in every area it can to improve people's lives and "1" indicates they favor government providing only the most basic functions, a new high of 42% place themselves on the activist side of the scale (rating themselves a "4" or "5"). By contrast, 29% put themselves on the limited government side ("1" or "2") and 29% are in the middle ("3").

The current data show a clear shift toward a more active government role. Each time this question was asked from 2010 to 2016, Americans divided evenly, with no more than 35% favoring active government.

Line graph, 2010-2019. Americans’ preferred level of activity for government in providing services and improving lives of its citizens.

Support for activist government has increased among all major party groups, although there is still a wide partisan gulf -- with 62% of Democrats, 40% of independents and 22% of Republicans today favoring a more active government.

Scant Desire for More Government When Tied to Higher Taxes

A more active government would almost certainly result in higher taxes. However, relatively few Americans favor that approach when given the choice among 1) more government services and more taxes to pay for them, 2) fewer government services and lower taxes, or 3) keeping services and taxes as they are now.

In the latest poll, 25% would opt for increased taxes and services, 32% want no change and 42% prefer smaller government. While increased taxes and services is the least popular option, slightly more choose it now than did so in Gallup's readings between 1993 and 2013, when no more than 20% favored it.

Line graph, 1993-2019. Americans’ preference for having more government services and higher taxes, fewer services and taxes, or no change.

Self-identified liberals (58%) and Democrats (45%) are among the subgroups most likely to prefer higher taxes and more government services. Also, 35% of younger adults favor that approach, compared with about one in five among those older than 35.

Trends Suggest Rise in Pro-Government Views May Be Episodic

As previously mentioned, the September poll finds the public closely split on a different question about the role of government, with 49% saying the government is doing too much that should be left to individuals and businesses and 47% wanting it to do more to solve the country's problems.

The 47% in favor of more government is significantly higher than the 36% recorded in 2010. It is also among the highest Gallup has recorded for this position in its trends on this question since the early 1990s.

However, demand for more government has been higher in the past, including shortly after the 9/11 attacks when 50% preferred a greater role for government. Gallup also found high percentages (47% and 49%) favoring more government in 1992 and 1993 as the nation was emerging from an economic recession.

These high-profile challenges arguably prompted more Americans to see a need for increased government action -- although the change in attitudes was short-lived and Americans reverted to wanting government to do less.

Line graph, 1992-2019. Americans preference for government to do more or do less to solve the country’s problems.

Desire for More Government Higher When President Is Republican

Another factor appearing to influence how active Americans want the government to be is the party of the incumbent president. Americans have tended to favor less government regardless of the president's party affiliation, but the preference for more government is typically stronger when a Republican is in office.

In the past three Republican presidencies, including Trump's, an average of 44% thought the government should do more. By contrast, in the past two Democratic presidencies, 38% said it should do more.

Preference for Government Activity: Average During Presidential Administrations
Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
Doing too much Should do more
% %
Republican presidents
George H.W. Bush (1989-1992) 48 45
George W. Bush (2001-2008) 50 42
Donald Trump (2017-present) 50 45
Democratic presidents
Bill Clinton (1993-2000) 54 38
Barack Obama (2009-2016) 55 39
Average, Republican presidents 49 44
Average, Democratic presidents 54 38

Thus, it is unclear how much of the recent increase in desire for more government is related to an embracing of socialist ideals versus a reaction to a Republican president in the White House. The historical pattern suggests that Americans may shift toward believing the government is doing too much the next time a Democrat takes office, as it did under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Americans Not Clamoring for More Regulation of Business

Regulation of business, possibly extending to government ownership of the means of production, is a core tenet of socialism. But public demand for such regulation is relatively low, with barely a quarter of Americans saying there is currently "too little" government regulation of business in the U.S.

More think government regulation should be increased today than said so during the Obama administration; from 2009 to 2016, close to half said there was too much regulation. Since the avowedly pro-business Trump administration took office, that view has eased, but more Americans still perceive there is too much regulation (38%) rather than too little (28%), with 33% saying the amount of regulation is about right.

Line graph 1993-2019. Americans view on whether there is too much, too little or the right amount of government regulation of business and industry.

Among the major party groups, Democrats are most likely to say there is too little regulation, although the percentage is still less than half (46%). A majority of Republicans (59%) say there is too much regulation, while independents are divided.

Views of Government Regulation of Business, by Political Party
In general, do you think there is too much, too little or about the right amount of government regulation of business and industry?
Too much Too little Right amount
% % %
Democrats 23 46 30
Independents 34 30 36
Republicans 59 7 34
Gallup, Sept. 3-15, 2019

Checks and Balances Favored for Both Government and Business

In September, Gallup also updated a series of questions asking about the strengths and weaknesses of government and business, finding a mixture of pro-business and pro-government attitudes.

Americans widely agree that business can do things more efficiently than government can, with seven in 10 endorsing that view. Also, less than half (41%) agree that the way government does things is fairer and more just to everyone involved than the way business does things.

But a slim majority of 53%, up from 45% in 2010, now agree that business will harm society if it is not regulated by government. And more than eight in 10 agree there are some functions, such as building roads, that government needs to pay for because there are no incentives for private institutions to do so.

Line graph, 2010-2019. Americans agreement with four pro-government or anti-business statements.

A majority of Democrats, 60%, agree that business can do things more efficiently than government, but independents (70%) and Republicans (80%) are even more likely to believe this.

Democrats divide evenly as to whether government can do things more fairly than business -- 47% agree and 53% disagree. Republicans (34% agree/66% disagree) and independents (40% agree/58% disagree) mostly reject that view.

Democrats and Republicans diverge the most on whether business will harm society if it is not regulated by government -- 68% of Democrats versus 37% of Republicans say it will.

Americans Are Selective About Situations When Big Government Is Better

While questions about the proper role for government often divide Americans along partisan lines, there are certain aspects of government's role that Republicans and Democrats largely agree on, evidenced by broad overall public support. Chief among these are valuing government's essential role in protecting Americans from foreign threats (92% say the government should have total responsibility or high responsibility), protecting consumers from unsafe products (79%), preventing discrimination (71%), and developing and maintaining the nation's transportation systems (70%). Americans also widely agree government should not protect U.S. major corporations that are in danger of going out of business.

In light of policy debates occurring in the country over healthcare and environmental protection, it is also notable that more than two-thirds of Americans believe government should have a high degree of responsibility in these areas. And a slim majority say the same for ensuring that all Americans who want jobs have them.

Americans are divided on whether the government has high responsibility for ensuring a minimum standard of living for all (50%), while slightly less than half say it is highly responsible for upholding moral standards among its citizens (45%) and reducing income differences (42%). Republicans and Democrats differ sharply on government's responsibility for the two income equality items, but largely agree on the government's role in upholding moral standards.

Since 2010, public support for government playing a major role has increased with respect to ensuring all Americans have adequate healthcare (from 57% to 68%) and reducing income differences (from 34% to 42%). At the same time, a higher percentage than in 2010 also want the government to have a significant role in protecting corporations from going out of business, a decidedly anti-socialist view.

Line graph, 2010-2019. The percentage of Americans who want government to have high responsibility for each of 11 societal goals.

Earlier this year, Gallup asked Americans to choose whether the "free market" or "government" should be responsible for each of eight areas of society. Majorities preferred the free market in six of the areas, particularly for technological innovation, the distribution of wealth, the economy and wages. Government was preferred for protecting consumers' privacy online and protecting the environment. Americans were somewhat divided on whether the free market or government should be more responsible for higher education and healthcare, though slim majorities favored the free market.

Bottom Line

Taken together, these results suggest public opinion is a bit more favorable today than a decade ago toward policies that may expand government and in that sense push the country more in the direction of socialism.

But despite recent growth in public support for more government involvement in such areas as healthcare, environmental protection and income equality, support for big government generally falls short of a majority and the climate is still a challenging one for avowed socialists. The term has gained favor with Democrats but remains broadly unpopular among independents and Republicans.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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