As a Gen Z-er (sort of) who is online (extremely), it’s common in my circles — both online and off — to hear casual “eat the rich’’ comments used as a go-to punchline. It’s a shorthand that captures what feels like an entire generation’s disillusionment or rage towards the system. If you’re younger, progressive, and live on social media, there’s enough of the sentiment that you might assume virtually everyone hates capitalism. But how do our views stack up compared to the general population? Am I in an echo chamber, one that operates all too similarly to those who, say, worship at the altar of trickle-down economics?
Look, I want to survive a conversation with my dad without compromising my views on the perils of capitalism. At the same time, I don’t want to make an arse of myself by coming across as an out-of-touch internet leftist. So I dug into recent polling about public opinions around capitalism, not to change my beliefs, but to prepare myself to defend them.
But before we get into the numbers, let’s take a glance into the perspective of a politically-minded, young, online person.
What it’s like being extremely online
If you’re tapped into TV and social media, you might have watched “eat the rich” evolve from a radical battlecry into a casual refrain, often used for comedic purposes by Gen Z. This evolution of radical-to-casual is a powerful indication of shifting opinions about capitalism, at least in certain populations.
Take last winter’s “eat the rich” trend on TikTok, or the more recent memes about AOC’s Met Gala statement dress. You could also take a look at some of the most popular TV shows of the past few years, from Squid Game, Succession, and White Lotus, or even documentaries like WeWork and LuLaRich. In a recent episode of NPR’s It’s Been a Minute, host Sam Sanders points out how all these programs have one thing in common: They all critique capitalism.
From those making memes for free, to those making multi-million-dollar television shows, there’s an increasingly common message surrounding the ultra-wealthy: That they’re the Other. That we, the average viewers and users, live in an entirely different world than Them. That we don’t get to play by the same rules as Them. That we should not glamorize Them.
With social media in particular, there’s value in considering what our memes say about our beliefs. When a meme or punchline achieves “low hanging fruit” status, which I’d argue “eat the rich” has, it’s a sign that something about the sentiment is, in some way, an obvious conclusion. As in, duh, “eat the rich,” everyone believes that. It means enough people think that eating the rich is, well, a given. But outside of these younger online communities, how much is such a “given” belief actually the case?
Overall, the majority of people in the U.S. support capitalism
According to an Axios/Momentive survey conducted in June 2021, a majority of Americans have a more positive than negative view of capitalism. The split–57% saying they have a positive view, 36% saying they have a negative view–is a slight narrowing from the 61-36 split from January 2019.
Across the board, polling shows that majority of the country supports capitalism–or, at least, they do not support socialism. The Cato Institute–a libertarian think tank founded by Charles G. Koch and funded by the Koch brothers–found in 2019 that 59% of Americans had favourable views of the word “capitalism,” while 39% had an unfavourable view of it. In reverse, 39% of Americans had a favourable view of the word “socialism,” while 59% viewed socialism negatively.
This brings us to a notable aspect of all these poll results–even those that don’t come from libertarian think tanks: In order to find Americans’ shifting views on capitalism, you’ll simultaneously find their views of socialism.
Pew Research’s most recent survey showed 55% with a negative opinion of socialism, and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed a 19% positive and 53% negative split. A Monmouth poll found that 57% of Americans believe socialism is not compatible with American values. In a 2020 poll, Gallup found that 39% of Americans have a positive opinion of socialism, compared with 57% who have a negative opinion.
Capitalism and socialism are nearly tied among younger generations
While most Americans still think positively of capitalism, polling suggests that change is burgeoning amongst younger generations. According to that June 2021 Axios/Momentive survey, adults ages 18 to 34 “are almost evenly split between those who view capitalism positively and those who view it negatively.” If you look at the younger end of that grouping, a majority (54%) of adults aged 18 to 24 reported they did not have a positive view of capitalism, with 42% saying they did have a positive view of it.
This even split is a significant change from just two years ago, when 20 whole percentage points separated those who viewed capitalism positively from those who did not. Going back further, since 2010, young adults’ overall opinion of capitalism has deteriorated to the point that capitalism and socialism are tied in popularity among this age group, as reported in Gallup’s 2019 report on attitudes toward socialism and government power. When it comes to Gen Z and younger millennials, the gap between positive and negative views on capitalism is shrinking.
In the bigger picture, 41% of respondents said they had a positive view of socialism and 54% said they had a negative view. 51% of young Americans said they had a positive view of socialism, down from 55% in 2019. At the same time, Sarah Jones points out for Intelligencer that 66% said the federal government “should pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between the wealthy and the less well-off in America,” which tracks with earlier, similar polls.
What about the rest of the world?
In a 2019 global survey, capitalism was seen doing “more harm than good.” The sentiment was shared by 56% of the over 34,000 people polled in 28 countries, from Western liberal democracies like the United States and France to those based on a different model such as China and Russia. The only nations where the majority of respondents disagreed with the assertion that capitalism currently did more harm than good were Australia, Canada, the United States, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan.
What to keep in mind when you’re talking outside your bubble
While capitalism is still more popular than socialism nationally, “there’s not much evidence that Americans categorically despise the anti-capitalist ideology any more,” according Sarah Jones in Intelligencer. No matter what, anti-capitalist sentiments amongst teens in particular shouldn’t be dismissed as mere memes. The TeenVogue of yesteryear might have published articles on what not to wear, but the TeenVogue of today reports on how the pandemic demonstrates the failures of capitalism. Gallup’s 2019 report draws the following conclusion about what may be driving the younger generation’s views on capitalism:
…their different reactions to the terms suggest that young adults favour Americans’ basic economic freedoms but have heightened concerns about the power that accrues as companies grow, and that younger generations are more comfortable with using government to check that power.
The role of capitalism in America has shifted throughout history, and we may be poised for another such shift. The question is whether the future of capitalism in America will involve minor modifications, or whether the rich will ever be on the menu.