Stark partisan divisions in American’ views of the terms socialism and capitalism have been examined by Pew Research Center. 

“Most Republicans strongly reject ‘socialism’; Democrats are much more positive, but less vehement,” according to a 2019 pew study based on a survey. 

Mary Berge, a licensed clinical psychologist with an office on Johnstown’s Goucher Street and more than 25 years of experience, said people’s political stances begin in childhood.

“All of our political beliefs are shaped by what psychologists call our core beliefs,” she said. “So even how you lean economically – social democracy or capitalism – would certainly be part of our core beliefs. Typically they stem from our upbringing.” 

Parents, teachers, friends and loved ones, and religious experiences shape values and perceptions, Berge said.

“When it comes to core beliefs, we are basically born a blank slate, but over time our parents begin to shape our environments and life experiences and then those begin to shape our beliefs,” she said.

Overall, more Americans have a positive impression of capitalism (65%) than socialism (42%), according to the 2019 survey by Pew Research Center.

Pew asked people about their impressions of the terms, leaving definitions up to interpretation.

“As far as emotions are concerned, people are very afraid of giving up control,” Berge said. “So they might hear the word ‘socialism’ and feel someone is going to tell them what to think, someone is going to have their thumb down on them, envisioning an authoritarian socialism where your rights are squashed. But in the Nordic countries that’s not what’s happening, it’s a collective consciousness of the greater good for all, and it works in those countries.” 

‘Belief system’

Speaking in general, not in terms of socialism or capitalism, Reece Rahman, professor at Pitt-Johnstown and clinical psychologist, said when people deal with complex, nuanced subjects, they tend to consolidate ideas.

Humans develop mental structures, efficiencies in judgment making, he said, to make understanding easier.

“We have these beliefs, stereotypes – we have ideas of what x, y, and z are,” he said. “There is so much information out there, we can’t evaluate everything from a fresh perspective. You’ll see it with kids. If they see a truck first, then every vehicle they see on the road is a truck. It doesn’t matter if it’s a car or motorcycle – it’s a truck.”

It’s a hands-on method of learning, Rahman said.

“We assimilate all these things into our view, the way the child assimilates all things into ‘truck,’ ” he said. “There are differences – but that takes effort to modify my viewpoint. We have this established belief system on how I think the world should be run.

“And we accept information to support that. It’s tedious to objectively weigh things out. It’s exhausting. For most people, what’s the motivation to do that?” 

‘Proof to validate’

When new information is presented, people tend to look to their group associations for guidance, Berge said. 

“Psychologically, we look for proof to validate and bolster our beliefs, hence the reason we as humans gravitate toward group-think,” she said, “toward affiliations, again those being found in politics.”

There were large partisan differences in views of capitalism, the Pew study found.

“Nearly eight in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents express somewhat or very positive reactions to the term, while just over half of Democrats and Democratic leaners (55%) say they have a positive impression,” the Pew center said.

“But these differences are dwarfed by the partisan gap in opinions about socialism. More than eight in 10 Republicans (84%) have a negative impression of socialism; a 63% majority has a very negative view. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats (65%) have a positive view of socialism, but only 14% have a very positive view.”

Russ O'Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.


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