Viewed from Different Engels? Differences in Reactions to “Socialism” as a Policy Label

Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2022 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211037402
We want to talk about funding social services, and ensuring
good engagement in community policing, let’s talk about
what we are for. And we need to not ever use the words
“socialist” or “socialism” ever again. Because while people
think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good
[congress]members because of it.
—Representative Abigail Spanberger, Democrat, VA-7.
In the 2020 election cycle, much had been made about
the rise in the popularity of socialism among young vot-
ers, typified by eye-catching headlines like “The
Resurgent Left—Millennial Socialism” (The Economist
2019). This narrative has been bolstered by the success
and popularity of several Democratic Party politicians
that have defended socialism and socialist policies,
including Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
and Senator Bernie Sanders. Yet, evidence from public
opinion polls regarding the veracity of claims touting or
decrying the rising tide of socialism in America is rather
mixed. A 2018 poll found that 43 percent of Americans
have a positive view of socialism; an 18 percent increase
from 1942 (Younis 2019). A 2019 poll found 55 percent of
women prefer socialism to capitalism (Harris 2019).
However, other polls reveal a decrease in the popularity
of socialism among U.S. citizens, with few changes
among Democrats and Republicans since 2010 (Newport
2018). Americans also disagree over the degree of social-
ism in America. A 2016 poll indicates that 54 percent of
Republicans see America as becoming more socialist,
while only 16 percent of Democrats agree (Investor’s
Business Daily/TIPP 2016). Moreover, only 28 percent
of Americans report even giving much thought to social-
ism at all, casting further doubt over the new found role
of socialism in America’s political thinking (Yokley
2019). Irrespective of whether America has truly become
more socialist, the term “socialism” itself has made a sig-
nificant impact on American politics, with Donald
Trump’s reelection campaign building its strategy on por-
traying Democrats as radical socialists (Blake 2019).
President Trump demonstrated this in his 2019 State of
the Union Address, where he asserted “Here, in the
1037402PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211037402Political Research QuarterlyOzer et al.
1Electoral Psychology Observatory, The London School of Economics
and Political Science, UK
2University of Houston, TX, USA
3University of California, Berkeley, USA
Corresponding Author:
Adam L. Ozer, Electoral Psychology Observatory, The London School
of Economics and Political Science, London WC2A 2AE, UK.
Viewed from Different Engels?
Differences in Reactions to
“Socialism” as a Policy Label
Adam L. Ozer1, Brian W. Sullivan2, and Douglas S. Van3
The supposed popularity of socialism among young Americans has been a trending topic in American political media
and campaigns. While evidence from public opinion polls disagrees as to whether socialism is truly gaining in popularity,
the use of the term “socialism” has had a profound impact on policy discussions in the media and has featured as
a prominent Republican Party strategy in the 2020 election cycle. This gives rise to important questions: How do
individuals react to the socialist label? Does the socialist label serve as an ideological or affective signal? Are attacks
that frame policies as socialist effective in decreasing policy support? Using original observational and experimental
survey data, we find that individuals have strong polarized affective reactions to the socialist label. However, framing
popular social welfare policies as socialist is ineffective in undermining popular support. Implications suggest that
while framing political policies as socialist may trigger affective polarization, it is likely an ineffective means of political
persuasion. As a result, oversaturation of the term in the media may lead to misleading conclusions about both
political ideology and individual political behavior.
affective polarization, socialism, policy support, framing, survey experiment
2022, Vol. 75(4) 1297–1312
1298 Political Research Quarterly 75(4)
United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt
socialism in our country . . . Tonight, we renew our
resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Ultimately, this is not dissimilar to campaign tactics that
the GOP has used in the past, taking advantage of
Democratic squeamishness surrounding the term “lib-
eral” in an attempt to turn the phrase into a broad damag-
ing label to be applied to Democratic candidates
(Neiheisel 2016). In response, many Democratic candi-
dates have rebuked the socialist label, decrying socialism
as the cause of underwhelming 2020 electoral perfor-
mances in the House of Representatives (see quote from
Rep. Spanberger above). In one particularly famous
example, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin
even went as far as to compare the “crazy socialist
agenda” to his rear end.1
We leverage original observational and experimental
survey data to answer these questions. We posit that indi-
viduals use the term socialism as an affective rather than
ideological label. Rather than holding a consensus ideo-
logical meaning, individuals with positive predispositions
toward socialism describe policies and entities they sup-
port as “socialist” and describe those they oppose or dislike
as “capitalist.” Individuals with negative dispositions
toward socialism exhibit the inverse pattern. Thus, citizens
with opposing views on socialism may share (un)favorable
opinions of a given policy. Yet, they will not agree whether
its (failures) successes are “socialist” or “capitalist” in
nature. As a result, we find that framing policies as socialist
or capitalist has little effect on popular support for those
policies. While we remain agnostic as to the true objective
ideological definition of socialism, we conclude that fail-
ure to distinguish between ideological and affective con-
siderations when discussing socialism can lead to highly
misleading conclusions about its (un)popularity and effec-
tiveness as a negative campaign strategy.
Processing through an Affective Lens
The use of motivated reasoning in the interpretation of
political information is ubiquitous, as individuals are
driven by two competing motives: the need to acquire
accurate, detailed information and the need to leverage
motivated reasoning to defend one’s own predispositions
and identities from cognitive dissonance (Kunda 1990).
Incoming information is interpreted through a dual-pro-
cessing cognitive system that satisfies both motives.
While factual information is processed consciously
through deliberate systemic processing, that information
is also subjected to a much quicker peripheral affective
lens (Chaiken et al. 1996). This leads to what is known
as hot cognition, in which information is put through an
emotional or affective filter which in turn impacts how
it is systemically processed prior to use in updating
one’s opinion. Evidence shows that individuals are much
quicker to accept and process information that confirms
their predispositions and previously held beliefs, incorpo-
rating new information into their beliefs (more) less criti-
cally when it (dis)confirms their predispositions (Lodge
and Taber 2005; Redlawsk 2002). Thus, upon hearing a
term such as “socialism,” individuals will view that infor-
mation through an affective lens that is colored by their
prior experiences and predispositions. This process is
wholly unconscious, as external stimuli trigger affective
considerations that activate associations linking feelings,
thoughts, perceptions, and subsequent behavior in a man-
ner consistent with motivated biases (Taber and Lodge
These motivated biases lead individuals toward selec-
tive exposure to information that is congruent with their
own political beliefs. This can lead to higher levels of
affective partisan polarization, as individuals avoid
sources of information that may provide dissonant infor-
mation while becoming more uncritical of sources that
provide information congruent with ones own beliefs and
identities (Iyengar and Hahn 2009; Knobloch-Westerwick
2012; Stroud 2011; Taber and Lodge 2006). This process
is further exacerbated by elite discourse. As media enti-
ties and politicians exhibit higher levels of partisan polar-
ization, individuals follow clear partisan signals that
influence their information-seeking behavior, their inter-
pretation of political facts, and their ultimate policy opin-
ions (Druckman et al. 2013).2 Given socialism’s
aforementioned high level of salience in both the media
and elite discourse, one may expect that previously held
beliefs would color their perceptions of the term. This
would serve to entrench their already deeply held stereo-
types of socialism.
In this research, we narrow our focus specifically to
how individuals respond to identical terms and informa-
tion based on their affective biases in cognitive process-
ing. While citizens tend to forget detailed information
rather quickly, they are often able to remember the posi-
tive or negative affect triggered by that information
(Lodge et al. 1995; Lodge and Taber 2013). The affective
impression often colors the interpretation in a manner
that is favorable to their previously held beliefs, leading
individuals to disagree on the nature of the facts at
hand. Due to this, there does not need to be widespread
agreement on the facts of what constitutes socialist pol-
icy in order for individuals to hold strong, affect-based
opinions. Indeed, Edelman (1964) discusses how vague
or affect-laden information can be, and often times is,
interpreted to however the perceiver feels best suits their
personal and in-group interests. Although dated, recent
research in political science has confirmed this as hap-
pening in two stages: (1) political elites, who do under-
stand these political events through direct involvement,

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