by Jodie T. Allen and Richard C. Auxier, Pew Research Center
Special to the Atlantic

Our Socialist Future,” reads the cover line on the March 23, 2009, issue of the National Review. Echoing a flurry of warnings from other conservatives, author Mark Steyn says that those who liken President Obama’s program to FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, or Jimmy Carter’s unnamed nationalizations are making “nickel ‘n’dime comparisons. It’s all those multiplied a gazillion-fold and nuclearized — or Europeanized, which is less dramatic but ultimately more lethal.”

Will this alarm resonate with the American public? Are Americans, the majority of whom still appear to support the Obama program, likely to quail at the prospect of a “Europeanization” of the land of the free that transforms it into a clone of, say, France? That depends upon which side of the American psyche you examine. For within the American soul lurks a constant tension between distaste for the government sector and suspicions about the motives and practices of the business sector, between appreciation for the benefits of free markets and desire for basic societal protections and services.

America does love the free market. In a 2007 survey, 70% of Americans agreed that “most people are better off in a free-market economy, even though some people are rich and some poor.” In an October 2008 survey, the belief that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient commanded 57% support. Moreover, although fully 80% of Americans attribute at least some of the blame for the current financial crisis to weak government regulation of financial institutions, public support for regulation more generally has not shifted upward.

So if the public remains dubious about government, how does it feel about the private sector these days? Does it agree with CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow that Obama “is declaring war on investors, entrepreneurs, small businesses, large corporations, and private-equity and venture-capital funds.” Well, Kudlow may find many Americans less than raring to enlist in the forces of resistance, and some government programs and policies are actually pretty popular.

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