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Democrats' policy laundry list isn't leftist but may still provoke a voter backlash

Democratic National Committee platform drafting member Paul Booth holds up a document during his speech on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.
Democratic National Committee platform drafting member Paul Booth holds up a document during his speech on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In her nomination acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton took ownership of the Democratic Party's "progressive platform," saying she "wrote it together" with Bernie Sanders supporters. Sanders also argued that it was the "most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party." Most pundits agreed.

Republicans pounced, saying the platform "completes the avowed socialist Sanders' quest to push his party far to the left, endorsing the most serious attack on the American free enterprise system."

Just what did this allegedly left-wing document contain? How many new federal regulatory agencies did the Democrats propose? None. Did they promise new universal entitlement programs paid for with higher across-the-board taxes? Hardly. Did they seek a return to traditional cash welfare benefits and 70 percent top marginal tax rates? Not at all. Did they commit to employment as a right, with a 3 percent unemployment rate created via "national economic planning?" That was 1976. Did they propose to nationalize any industries? Of course not.

The new platform is mostly dedicated to endorsing President Obama's policies, promising to enact those blocked by Republicans in Congress and expand those already enacted (as should be expected of the incumbent party). There is more talk of inequality, but none of the unconditional transfer programs to the poor that directly reduce it in most rich countries.

As in prior years, the platform does stand out internationally — not for its typically center-left stances but for the large number of social groups that are discussed in particular sections, producing a very long laundry list of targeted policies. Where the party faced conflicts among its constituents (on Israel, trade, charter schools, and defense), it just used vague language.

There are certainly new proposals for the middle class, especially targeted at college students, environmentalists, and mothers. But the structure of Democrats' proposals fits within the typical bounds of conservative-influenced American policymaking: The proposals rely heavily on state and local government, deliver benefits through employers, structure private markets, and use the tax code to incentivize behavior. Nearly all of the new proposals also enjoy overwhelming support in the American public.

That does not mean Democrats have nothing to fear. But the sin here is the typical one for their party: a complete lack of prioritization or integration of their myriad policy ideas. They have addressed each group demand with its own policy but have not ordered the fights they will take on or coalesced their proposals into an omnibus agenda.

Chris Usher/CBS via Getty Images Chris Usher/CBS via Getty Images

(Chris Usher/CBS via Getty Images)

Combined, their moves face a significant threat of voter backlash. Because the American public has long held mostly liberal views on specific policy positions (with recent moves further in that direction on social issues), the Democrats often have many proposals with majority public support. Their problem comes in the overall direction they seek to take government policy and American society.

The country still leans to the right when it comes to general political sentiments. Even voters with mostly liberal specific policy positions often characterize themselves as conservatives and say they want a smaller government that takes on fewer roles and operates closer to home.

The public is also generally averse to quickening social change that might undermine American traditions and any sense that the nation's unique role as an example to the world is threatened. On economic, social, and international dimensions, the conservative advantage is in general symbolic ideas rather than policy positions.

This conservative strand of opinion manifests itself when Democrats try to implement their long list of policy ideas. Public opinion is thermostatic: It grows more conservative as liberal ideas are advanced and vice versa; the more liberal policies, the more the public says, "Too hot." Rather than rewarding a victorious party for their achievements, Americans tend to react against the direction of policy change.

Especially with new Democratic presidents, Republicans characterize the Democratic agenda as part of an ideological effort to expand centralized government power and remake America in a socialist image. During the initial years of the Obama administration, Democrats complained that even after polls showed support for the stimulus package, financial reform, and the elements of health care reform, Republicans still successfully depicted their efforts as big government overreach.

This achievement has a long tradition. The immediate backlash against Lyndon Johnson's Great Society led to a permanent shift away from liberal self-identification. Jimmy Carter's first midterm election (1978) began a steady rightward move in the congressional Republican Party that continues today. Bill Clinton's first midterm election (following his own, less successful stimulus and health care efforts) led to Republican control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Obama, of course, immediately lost control of Congress and saw the rise of the intransigent Tea Party.

These backlashes come not from any particular proposed policy but from the overreach associated with trying to do everything at once. By expanding the role of government in all arenas and seeming to speed up social change or make America more like other nations, Democrats unhappily tap into the underlying conservative sentiments in the electorate. Government still expands its role over time, and social traditions still fade; the direction of policymaking is liberal. But voters prefer their liberalism slow and steady.

This year's Democratic platform is not a socialist document, but the administration that tries to pursue the long agenda it contains is likely to seem far too liberal to voters, especially after Republican messaging against the associated bills in Congress. The reckoning for the Democrats' platform, along with their inability to prioritize, will wait for the midterm elections in 2018.

Matt Grossmann is the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. He is co-author of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.