A new Pew Research poll finds that “a much larger share of Americans have a positive impression of capitalism (65%) than socialism (42%).” The partisan gap is significant, though: “Nearly eight-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaning independents (78%) 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 intensity of anti-socialism sentiment (63% of Republicans have a very negative view) dwarfs that of pro-socialism sentiment (only 14% of Democrats have a very positive view).

Other data points:

• Some Americans don’t consider socialism and capitalism mutually exclusive. (“39% of Americans have both a positive view of capitalism and a negative view of socialism, a quarter have positive views of both terms and 17% express negative opinions about both. Another 16% have a positive opinion of socialism and a negative opinion of capitalism.”)

• Women, nonwhites and younger Americans have more positive views of socialism. (“Similar shares of adults younger than 30 express positive views of capitalism (52%) and socialism (50%).”)

• Americans are more favorably disposed to a range of ideologies, although there are stark partisan differences. “Americans have generally positive views of other political terms, though these views also differ along partisan lines. Majorities have positive impressions of ‘progressive’ (66%), ‘conservative’ (60%), ‘liberal’ (55%) and ‘libertarian’ (also 55%).”

There are a few takeaways from this.

First, "socialism" is a red flag for Republicans and Republican-leaners to a degree that "progressive" (which 40% of Republicans view favorably) is not. There's not even all that much payoff among Democrats, since 33% of Democrats have a negative view of that term, while only 12% have a very positive view of socialism. If you want a Democratic nominee to have the broadest ideological appeal, the most unifying descriptor among Democrats is "progressive" (88%), not socialism (65%).

Second, it’s fair to say that “socialism” doesn’t have a uniform meaning. The number of people who view both socialism and capitalism positively (25%) suggests that they might view “socialist” as akin to “capitalism with social welfare components” (e.g. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security). Meanwhile, the largest chunk of the electorate (39%) rejects socialism — perhaps imagining this term applies to Scandinavia, or worse, Cuba — and favors capitalism. These pro-capitalist/anti-socialist Americans likely don’t see Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as antithetical to capitalism.

Third, arguing about "socialism," which Republicans have turned into a slur and Democrats have mixed views about, misses the point. The fundamental issue is the role of government in the lives of Americans. Even the Republican Party is in favor of big government these days, as evidenced by the growth of the federal budget, especially entitlement spending, and the GOP's willingness to subsidize carbon production (e.g. coal mining). The GOP has also learned the hard way that Americans do not take kindly to efforts to take benefits away (e.g. the Affordable Care Act) in the name of "personal freedom."

Rather than debate the term “socialism” or the size of government, we should focus on what we want government to do: Promote carbon reduction or carbon production? Spend more on teachers’ pay, or devolve education spending to the states? Use the tax code to increase or decrease inequality? Forcing Republicans to debate the substance of policies that most voters like (e.g. Medicare, the ACA, infrastructure, R&D) rather than painting every constructive use of government resources as “socialism” should be the Democrats’ goal. In fact, an awful lot of Americans, as we saw in the ACA debate, like what Democrats offer, whatever it’s called.

Jennifer Rubin | The Washington Post

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.