democratic national convention

At the DNC, Democrats Put Social Liberalism Above Political Caution

Photo: DNCC via Getty Images

Democrats had two hours to speak with the American people about anything they wished to on Wednesday night. And the party chose to spotlight, among many other things, the moral right of undocumented immigrants to access health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Early in the evening’s proceedings, the Democratic National Convention told the story of the Sanchez family — mother Silvia and older daughter Jessica, who are undocumented, and younger daughter Lucy, who is an American citizen. Jessica was born with spina bifida, and the doctors in the town where she lived lacked the ability or will to preserve her life. So, Silvia did “what any mother would do to save her daughter’s life”: She traveled for days to the border and crossed into the United States to secure the best possible medical care for her baby. Now, because of Donald Trump, Jessica is unable to apply for DACA, and Lucy lives in fear of her family members being detained and deported. Meanwhile, Jessica’s life is shadowed by a less hypothetical oppression. “I don’t have the right ID, so I can’t get health insurance on the exchange,” Jessica explains in the video. “I need health insurance. I deserve it, right?” Silvia replies, “Of course you do. We all deserve hope, a good life, and health.”

I’m not the median voter. Unlike the typical, politically independent Wisconsinite, I’m the son of a Polish immigrant whose mother brought her to the United States to protect her from the anti-Semitism that had already pared most of the branches off of our family tree. But, to my eyes, the video is remarkably effective in humanizing one of the most stigmatized and disempowered groups within our country. It seems quite plausible to me that — by using this large platform to tell the Sanchez family’s story — Democrats nudged public opinion on the rights of the undocumented in a more progressive direction.

And yet, if spotlighting this issue was good for popularizing progressive views on immigration in the long run, doing so had little electoral upside for the Democratic Party in 2020.

Both the Electoral College and Senate overrepresent white voters who lean right on immigration. White Americans with conservative views on immigration policy — but liberal views on economics — played a pivotal role in Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. As of 2019, the idea of extending health-care coverage “to all people living in the U.S., regardless of citizenship status” boasted only 30 percent support in one national poll. The primary beneficiaries of such a policy, Americans like Silvia and Jessica Sanchez, cannot vote in federal elections.

In light of these facts, the Biden campaign has refused to endorse providing subsidized health-care benefits to the undocumented, advocating instead for them to merely be allowed to pay out of pocket for plans sold on the ACA exchanges (Biden does support a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, which, if implemented, would ostensibly provide those already here with full eligibility for welfare programs). But the DNC video draws no such distinctions. To the contrary, it suggests that health care is a right that extends to all people, no matter how much they earn or where they live.

This privileging of progressive universalism over political caution defined much of Wednesday night’s program. Before the evening was over, Democrats had celebrated the Black Lives Matter movement; explained that the feminized, (often uncompensated) work of caring for children is a kind of national “infrastructure” that’s in sore need of investment; decried “structural racism”; and demanded sweeping restrictions on firearm sales.

On some of these so-called “culture war” issues, Democrats may now boast a partisan advantage. But given what the median voter in a battleground Senate race tends to look like — and the dearth of evidence that parties can significantly increase turnout by appealing to their most ideologically committed voters — a ruthlessly data-driven political calculus would likely compel the party to keep hammering away at its most popular policy stances, rather than using national television time to build public support for aiding the marginalized. The fact that Democrats now flout such a calculus testifies to the ideological potency of social progressivism within the contemporary party’s activist, professional, and donor classes.

At the time of its founding, the Democratic Party helped solidify the link between popular democracy and white supremacy in the United States. Under Andrew Jackson’s leadership, the Democrats oversaw the lifting of property restrictions on the voting rights of white men — along with the genocidal expropriation of Native Americans’ land and the entrenchment of chattel slavery. That a party founded on an exclusivist conception of democratic citizenship now embraces one capacious enough to center the rights of the most marginalized social groups in our society — even at a potential political cost — is an extraordinary development. And unlike most extraordinary developments nowadays, it makes one feel a bit of hope for this sorrowful republic.

Democrats Put Social Liberalism Above Political Caution