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Sean McElwee Is Begging the Left to Grow Up

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16.09.2020

When word got out in early March that Joe Biden’s campaign had invited the progressive pollster Sean McElwee to a meeting on climate policy, some on the far left were outraged. Sure, Bernie Sanders’s presidential prospects weren’t looking great, but the senator had not yet suspended his campaign. So why, McElwee’s critics demanded to know, would he agree to advise the former vice president? Hundreds of leftists spent more than a month dragging him on Twitter, flooding his mentions with insults: One user with a Homer Simpson avatar accused him of being a sellout. Another, who went by the handle “party rocking LLC,” called him a “rat.” One night at a bar in New York City, a stranger confronted McElwee about it: “Man,” the person said, “I thought you were a leftist.”

By most definitions, McElwee is a leftist. The 27-year-old had launched his firm, Data for Progress, explicitly to advance progressive causes, and his client list includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement, perhaps the country’s most prominent climate-activist organization. He came onto the progressive scene in early 2018, when he helped popularize the slogan “Abolish ICE,” and became a reliable fount of cocky, expletive-laden quotes for reporters covering the left. He once half-jokingly threatened to cancel me at a party.

But over the past year or so, McElwee seems to have reassessed his position in the left-wing firmament. 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.

“I’ve come to the realization that the Democratic Party is actually ripe for a transformation into a progressive vehicle,” McElwee told me. Progressives should be working to build power and influence within the party, district by district and voter by voter—not to overthrow it. “We have lost this muscle of persuasion,” he said.

This conflict over progressive purity is the newest iteration of the one leftists waged during the Democratic primary—a fight that started between the Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wings of the left and lives on in progressive-activist circles and on Twitter. As progressives attempt to chart their path forward, how they resolve these tensions will determine whether and how they will be able to exert influence in a possible Biden administration. Who will hold actual power, and who will be on the outside looking in?

Read: Sanders supporters realize their party is bigger than they are

McElwee’s critics see him as a hypocrite, a grifter, a “professional progressive” who has abandoned the left—in its moment of weakness, no less—to cozy up with centrists. To them, his approach smacks of incrementalism—the scourge of compromise for compromise’s sake, and the opposite of the swift, systemic change that they believe is so urgent. Why work to persuade existing voters, they ask, when you can employ bold, ambitious ideas to awaken a legion of brand-new ones? Why attempt to reform the Democratic Party when you can conquer it?

“It is notable that [McElwee didn’t] really start talking like this until after the [primary],” says Matt Bruenig, who once worked with McElwee at the liberal think tank Demos and now runs the People’s Policy Project, a small left-wing policy institute. McElwee could be positioning himself to maintain his influence and his donor base, Bruenig speculated. Data for Progress does good work, he told me, but “just because you do some polling doesn’t mean you know how to win elections.”

In their March meeting, McElwee and a colleague attempted to persuade the Biden team to endorse a kind of quasi–Green New Deal. Their hope: If the presumptive Democratic nominee took a stronger stance on climate change in particular, he could get more young people and progressives excited about his campaign. They urged the campaign to endorse a commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, and to invest in low-income communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution. The Biden team was worried that moving left on climate would be all risk and no reward. But McElwee assured them that it would be both popular and good policy. They didn’t extract much in the way of immediate commitments, McElwee told me after the meeting. But he had—he has—a longer-term plan.

McElwee is tall—6 foot 2—with pale skin and the wardrobe of your typical hipster Millennial, including trendy glasses and snapback hats. Over the past six months, he’s sent me dozens of texts and emails airily predicting the outcomes of primary races, touting the accuracy of his polling, and dropping f-bombs and movie references like a good-natured, if somewhat self-satisfied, frat bro. “Weak tea,” he texted me simply, when I asked him to respond to some criticism. “Yeah, I’m good at politics,” he replied when I mentioned his accurate prediction in 2018 that Representative Eliot Engel of New York would be unseated in 2020. With this tendency toward smug irreverence, McElwee might seem like a good fit for the so-called Dirtbag Left, the contingent of pundits who have attracted fans by advocating for........

© The Atlantic


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