Ramesh notes below that, according to some good survey data, the issue isn’t so much that socialism is becoming more popular, but that capitalism is becoming less popular. I think he’s right. I wrote about this at some length over at Commentary last summer:
This is because socialism has never been a particularly stable or coherent program, a point I made in these pages in 2010. It has always been best defined as whatever socialists want it to be at any given moment. That is because its chief utility is as a romantic indictment of the capitalist status quo. As many of the defenders of the new socialist craze admit, socialism is the off-the-shelf alternative to capitalism, which has been in bad odor since at least the financial crisis of 2008. “For millennials,” writes the Huffington Post’s Zach Carter, “‘capitalism’ means ‘unaccountable rich people ripping off the world,’ while ‘socialism’ simply means ‘not that.’”
Put more bluntly, we seem to have the same problem with economic philosophy that we do with political parties. If you’re not pro-Republican, you must be pro-Democrat. Similarly, we increasingly have a kind of two-party system when it comes to capitalists and socialists. When one is unpopular the other becomes popular by default. It doesn’t seem to matter that very, very, very few people can define socialism — and capitalism doesn’t fare much better.
I guess one way to improve things would be to have some kind of rectification of the names in political economy. But I don’t hold out much hope, given that the really hot system these days is corporatism, but nobody ever uses that word.