Sean McElwee and the Art of Left Pontification

The 27-year-old, who has drawn the ire of democratic socialists, has a knack for getting attention.

On Wednesday, another profile of Sean McElwee appeared, this time in the prestigious pages of the Atlantic. Largely sympathetic, it portrayed McElwee, the 27-year-old activist and founder of the polling firm Data for Progress, as something of a savvy, democratic socialist apostate, the guy who got famous for popularizing the Abolish Ice hashtag on Twitter and now reprimands leftists for their naivete.

“Over the past year or so, McElwee seems to have reassessed his position in the left-wing firmament,” the Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey writes. “He no longer talks about eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Instead, he’s become an evangelist of political persuasion and coalition-building. He’s become much more openly critical of his progressive compatriots. And most shocking to some of those compatriots, he’s advised the Biden campaign.”

McElwee, with nearly 100,000 Twitter followers, is a well-known online presence within political circles. Pre-pandemic, he hosted a weekly happy hour in Manhattan for journalists, operatives, candidates, and the occasional elected official. Kirsten Gillibrand once showed up at his bar. I’ve attended two or three happy hours, once to ask, out of curiosity, McElwee’s position on open borders (supports?), only to receive a muddled, if energetic, answer. McElwee, in his first itineration in the late 2010s—let’s say 2017 to 2018—was something of a progressive man-about-town, a vivid side character for a panoramic Tom Wolfe novel about New York internet leftists, if such a project could ever exist, Wolfe exhumed from the Great Beyond and granted, with some occult magic, another lavish book contract.

McElwee is proof that reinvention is possible in a world where everything lives online forever. Originally a conservative of some sort—he interned for the Reason Foundation and Fox Business Network, though this part is usually hurried through in profiles—he shot to a level of prominence helping to found a reputable polling firm, Data for Progress, that polls policies and races, including the 2020 presidential primaries. It’s never clear if McElwee himself is a data scientist or statistician, like Nate Silver who for all the internet agita he causes is a legitimate leader in his field. The Atlantic isn’t here to clear that up. We don’t learn if McElwee is conducting polls himself or farming out the work to others, serving instead as the greatest hype man any upstart progressive polling firm has ever retained. McElwee is very good at getting the ear of elected officials and advocating for progressive policies. I am not going to dog him for meeting with Joe Biden and pitching the Green New Deal. It can’t hurt, as they say.

The Atlantic piece sets up a conflict that, at its heart, seems strawman-laden, but one McElwee is happy to elevate to the level of a soul search: leftists should run on more “popular” policies to appeal to everyone, not just other leftists. They should be less factional and inward-facing. They should coalition-build. Godfrey sums it up this way:

McElwee is still adamant that movements should be idealistic. But he has a blueprint for progressive up-and-comers that focuses only on what’s achievable. In short: Left-wing candidates—especially those in tough districts—should run on popular ideas.

In February, Data for Progress distributed a survey to 78,000 Americans of all political persuasions, laying out a series of arguments for and against a set of 50 progressive policies and asking them to rank their support for each. The agenda items that were supported by more than half of respondents included clean water, paid family leave, generic drug licensing, and free two-year college. (Abolishing ICE, meanwhile, ranked among the 10 least popular ideas.)

That polling offers clear lessons, McElwee argues: Instead of a carbon tax, candidates should talk about investing in 100 percent clean energy, an idea that 51 percent of respondents favored. They would do well to campaign heavily on paid family leave, which received 60 percent support. And instead of championing Medicare for All (40 percent support), leftist candidates who need to win over Republicans and moderates should push to expand Medicaid and “motherfuck the pharmaceutical industry.”

All of this, in some sense, is intended as a rebuke of Bernie Sanders and the Squad successors, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. McElwee, in this formulation, is doing politics and getting things done—in the self-satisfied tradition of self-described pragmatists—while the keyboard warriors on the left stew in their Brooklyn apartments and tweet all day. McElwee smugly intimates he is an electoralist who wants to win while the self-righteous socialists would rather feel great and lose. “The battle between the idealistic, doctrinarian wing of the progressive movement and the more electorally minded one may still be raging, but recent elections have supported McElwee’s theory of the case,” Godfrey declares, citing victories by conventional Democrats, not hardline leftists, in the 2018 Democratic takeover of the House.

Yet many of the leftists McElwee now dismisses are, quite literally, electoralists, engaged in the unglamorous slog of knocking on doors and phone-banking to build neighborhood coalitions across America. The Democratic Socialists of America aren’t, by definition, just tweeting—you don’t win every New York legislative primary you run in by posting memes all day. DSA boasts more than 70,000 members nationwide and competes aggressively in many locales beyond the gentrifying belts of the five boroughs, including Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Sanders himself, the original democratic socialist, would likely agree with some of McElwee’s sentiments, broadly speaking. Sanders, after all, was the candidate willing to court dissident Democrats and nonvoters, appear on Fox News, and try, in two national campaigns, to rally disaffected working class voters. By the cool calculus of victory, Sanders was not successful. But he became one of America’s most popular and famous politicians on the strength of an uncompromising vision of democratic socialism that nevertheless attempted to erect as big a tent as possible and rejected the strident identitarianism that has, of late, infected a number of Democrats and driven many affluent and guilt-ridden liberals to the works of a noxious and very wealthy corporate consultant, seeking absolution. It was the very presidential candidates McElwee subtly valorized—or not so subtly, depending on the view of some on the left—like Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro who retreated from a broad, class-based analysis of politics that rests on coalition-building, instead embracing credos popular among internet activists and academics.

McElwee himself doesn’t do politics. He polls, consults, and talks to reporters. And that’s fine. But he is not managing a campaign, running in a race, or working for a candidate in the field. He is not performing the drudgery that makes democracy happen. He is, however, a lodestar for political journalists who seek answers that are quotable and confrontational, that make the magic of narratives happen. If McElwee says it, it must be so. Godfrey is led astray when she affirms the Data for Progress guru’s odd analysis of a congressional race in the Bronx that was won by a sitting city council member, Ritchie Torres.

The Torres race, in New York’s 15th district, was the one McElwee was most enthusiastic about, arguing that it would demonstrate the effectiveness of a “normie progressive” approach to politics. Torres, a gay, Afro-Latino member of the New York City Council, had local establishment support and had been endorsed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He called himself an “independent progressive” and focused his campaign on housing. Leftist activists and lawmakers didn’t care much for him; Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez had endorsed Torres’s opponent, Samelys López, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who advocated for establishing Medicare for All, abolishing ICE, and canceling student debt.

When I called McElwee the morning after, he was in expectedly high spirits: Bowman and Jones looked poised to win their primaries—both ultimately did—and Torres was on track to defeat López by double digits. After a long ballot count, López earned just 14 percent of the vote. “This is a point for the normie-progressive theory of change,” McElwee told me.

Nowhere does Godfrey note that McElwee’s analysis of the race, largely, was wrong. Almost no one paying attention doubted Torres had a strong chance of winning the South Bronx-based seat in the open June primary. A second-term council member who has been adept at attracting prestige press, Torres quickly raised more than $1 million, outpacing a crowded field. What McElwee actually intimated throughout 2019 and 2020 was that the other candidates, particularly a leftist backed by DSA, should leave the race and support Torres against noted homophobe Ruben Diaz Sr., a fellow city councilmember and pastor who has been in elected office since 2002. McElwee was certain DSA’s candidate, Samelys Lopez, would draw a minimal amount of support, but just enough to cost the more centrist Torres victory. A June 3rd Data for Progress poll and memo, authored by McElwee, found NY-15 was a “two-way race” between Diaz, who polled at 22 percent, and Torres, who was at 20 percent. Lopez netted just 2 percent. “It is vital that progressives understand the importance of ensuring that Díaz Sr. is not elected to Congress, and consider supporting the most viable alternative,” McElwee wrote. In a message to me on June 12, McElwee predicted Lopez would finish with 5 percent of the vote. My own view, made public at the time and to McElwee, was that leftists had a right to back Lopez against Torres, an Israel hawk and ally of the real estate industry, because Diaz was not as grave a threat as he was portrayed in the media. I never believed the elderly evangelical pastor could mount a formidable 21st century campaign.

The Atlantic never notes how off-base the Data for Progress poll ultimately was; not all polls are right, but not all pollsters are so swaggering and readily profiled in national magazines. When the votes were tallied, Torres won convincingly with 32 percent of the vote. Michael Blake, a state assemblyman and Obama aide who was perplexingly shown by Data for Progress to only be polling at 6 percent in early June, finished in second with 18 percent. Lopez, a local activist who had never ran for elected office before and raised far less money than Torres, finished with almost the exact same number of votes as Diaz: each of their percentages rounded to 14, with Diaz winning 8,559 votes to Lopez’s 8,272. Portrayed as a failure in the media, Lopez’s campaign was actually proof DSA could organize effectively in a poor, immigrant community, powering a first-time candidate into a virtual tie with a longtime, well-known politician. The Data for Progress poll, however, could have helped dissuade some volunteers and even voters from backing Lopez, since it was the lone public poll produced on the congressional race. Once McElwee’s poll arrived like a tablet from the mount, Lopez was left to complain, to little avail, that the campaign was not a two-way race between Diaz and Torres. The Blake miss was arguably even stranger. Blake was a sitting elected official and a formidable fundraiser who had won the backing of several large labor unions. In 2019, he ran for public advocate, losing the race but winning the entire borough of the Bronx. Either most of Blake’s supporters were ducking Data for Progress’ poll or McElwee’s methods simply weren’t good enough.

There is plenty of self-reflection the left needs to do following the second Sanders loss if it hopes, one day, to conquer an establishment Democrat in a presidential primary. Triumphalism, in this moment, would be misplaced. Biden should be engaged with, particularly if he’s as hollow a man as we all suspect, a vessel waiting to be seized upon by the right people to lay the foundations for a second New Deal. He’s the best, on top, we’ve currently got. What’s less clear, however, is what McElwee hopes leftist Democrats and socialists ultimately should do. Stop supporting Medicare for All and single-payer healthcare? Rebrand it as something else? Start blogging with Data for Progress? Ideas that are not well known or simply unpopular, if introduced in the right way, can eventually gain widespread support. Social security was radical socialism in the early 20th century until it wasn’t. Universal healthcare for the very poor and old—Medicaid and Medicare—was communist subterfuge until it wasn’t. Any large-scale, redistributive program that enters the realm of reality will attract consistent support once dollars start entering bank accounts. Conservatives, of all people, understand this too well.

For all the focus on analytics and for all the elite media’s fascination with the 2018 House midterms—suburban moms and moderates of the world, unite!—the most simple explanation, for whatever reason, is always left out of view: it was a wave election year against an unpopular president of the opposite party, and most people were just voting for whatever candidate ran on the Democratic ballot line. American politics is deeply polarized, nationalized, and cyclical. Most candidates, if in control of the Democratic ballot line in a genuine swing district in a wave year, can win, regardless of their centrism or leftism. The somewhat scandal-scarred Iron Stache lost the Paul Ryan district because no Democrat had held it since the 1990s, not because he got too woke. If the left controls more ballot lines in the next wave year, you will see more gauzy profiles in the Atlantic. At the same juncture, leftists must continue to be militantly confrontational in primaries, particularly in deep Democratic districts. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and all the rest don’t need McElwee’s polls to tell them that.