The American left is at a crossroads, with some leading activists defiantly refusing to support Biden. McElwee thinks that’s a huge strategic mistake, and he doesn’t expect many progressives to make it in November; this week, Sanders and fellow liberal icon Elizabeth Warren endorsed Biden, and AOC also called for a united front against Trump. McElwee may be an ideologue, but he’s a pragmatic big-tent ideologue who believes the left can best advance its agenda from inside the Democratic Party—and can eventually come to control it.
First, though, McElwee believes the left needs to stop making other huge strategic mistakes. He’s a millennial with some surprisingly old-school ideas about politics, and he worries that his fellow young lefties will marginalize their movement if they think they can change the world without realistic compromise, serious policy work, transactional coalition-building and the kind of public opinion research that by one measure made Data for Progress the most accurate pollster of the 2020 primary.
He obviously grasps the allure of a slogan like Abolish ICE, but he also grasps the dangers of purism; he quips that he always advises politicians, like the patients in prescription drug ads, to ask their campaign managers if Abolish ICE is right for their districts. McElwee is big on metrics and policy details, and he wishes the rest of the left was, too.
In this conversation with POLITICO Magazine’s Michael Grunwald, McElwee shared his critical thoughts about the future of the left, its recent defeats at the polls, its reliance on mobilization rather than persuasion, its relationship with Biden and the Democratic Party, and why its politicians need to care about cheese as well as health care. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
GRUNWALD: Establishment sellout Joe Biden is the nominee! Is the left vanquished?
MCELWEE: Oh, I wouldn’t put it that way. The next generation of Democrats is much closer to the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth-Warren-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez view of the world than the Joe Biden view, and over time they’ll age into higher voting rates. Remember, Sanders became a senator at the height of the neoliberal-Third Way backlash to the New Deal-Great Society era, when it seemed like that centrist consensus had an eternal stranglehold over the party. AOC is entering politics at a very different time where progressives are winning more and more battles. Just a decade ago, 64 Democrats in the House wanted to attach a ban on abortion funding to Obamacare! Today that would never happen. Today we’re fighting about how ambitious the public option should be. Even with Biden as the nominee, the Democratic agenda is more progressive than ever.
But yeah, we lost a battle, and there were severe strategic missteps that people on the left are still underestimating. The media narrative was that Sanders was poised to win, but the early states were disproportionately caucus states and disproportionately white, which papered over some worrying political weaknesses for progressives. If Iowa and Nevada had been primaries, we would have seen those weaknesses earlier.
GRUNWALD: But Sanders seemed to do great for a socialist; he raised so much money and generated so much excitement. What do you mean by “severe strategic missteps”?
MCELWEE: If you had to boil it down to one problem, it was the belief the Sanders people articulated early on that in a big field, they could win the nomination with 30 percent of the vote. You know, elections tend to be won with 50 percent of the vote. If you’re not even trying to attract 50 percent to your vision, it leads to this view that you don’t need to persuade anyone, you just need to lock in the base and mobilize new voters. That’s setting yourself up for failure. And it’s inspired some very pernicious thinking in the progressive world: Those people who don’t believe what we believe, we can’t win them, so fuck them. You saw this most aggressively on Twitter, where you saw people say: “We need to crush these people, they’re forever lost to us.”
GRUNWALD: Bend the knee!
MCELWEE: Some people are like oh, Twitter, that’s not real. But the campaign articulated the same strategy! When we shut ourselves off from conversations about how to persuade voters, we’re making it a lot harder for progressives to win elections and deliver on progressive policy goals. Talking about which policies could work politically in Trump districts is not a fun conversation to have, but we need to have those conversations.
Look, one problem with running a campaign as a movement is that movements exist outside public opinion. It’s notable to me that Sanders and Warren both chose not to rely too much on pollsters. They got a lot of praise for that, but politics is about creating a nervous system for public opinion. You need constant feedback on your issues. I think one reason South Carolina and Super Tuesday came as such massive surprises was the campaigns focused on what moves small-dollar donors on Facebook and Twitter and so forth. Yeah, a viral ad with heated rhetoric can raise millions of dollars, but you don’t see the Americans who get turned off by it. There’s no emoji for that. They just go about their daily lives and don’t vote for you; you’re not even trying to reach them.
GRUNWALD: Right, a lot of progressives made fun of Biden’s boring message that America is a good country full of good people, kind of “Make America Decent Again.” But it worked.
MCELWEE: Again, Warren and Sanders chose not to invest heavily in polling or focus groups. They crafted powerful messages, and they executed well, but those messages didn’t hit the Democratic electorate. That’s why we do message testing and survey research! I’m a college-educated 18-to-34-year-old urban professional, so I’m a tiny percentage of the electorate. I’d be pretty surprised if what appealed to me appealed to the modal American voter. The modal American voter is non-college and over 50. People like me have to stop trusting our instincts. We should make ads that non-political voters want to see, not ads that we want to see. Go look at the ads by [Alabama Democratic senator] Doug Jones or [Michigan Democratic governor] Gretchen Whitmer; they might not seem appealing on social media but they move votes.
GRUNWALD: People always trash poll-tested, focused-grouped finger-in-the-wind politicians, but you’re suggesting it wouldn’t hurt the left to at least check which way the wind is blowing. Can you give an example of how refusing to do that hurt Sanders?
MCELWEE: Sanders did well with more independent non-traditional Democrats in 2016, and that convinced a lot of progressive leaders that his white working-class voters were supporting a progressive agenda, not just voting against Hillary Clinton. That led to some huge missteps in 2018, when the left was focused on knocking on doors in rural Wisconsin, while the center of the party targeted the so-called professional managerial class in the suburbs and turned a lot of districts from red to blue.
It turns out that non-college whites are pretty conservative, while the much-derided “suburban wine moms” are much more supportive of a progressive agenda. The Republican agenda of tax cuts doesn’t really benefit them anymore, while Republican cuts to services like childcare and public higher education really hurt them. Jesse Ferguson told us in your magazine that the suburbs would be fertile ground, but we said fuck you, and we saw again in 2020 that the left is way behind in engaging with those voters.
GRUNWALD: But was it really just bad targeting? I mean, it’s hard to win a Democratic primary when you’re not a Democrat, and you’re expressing contempt for Democrats.
MCELWEE: It was smart of AOC to identify as a Democrat, because most Democrats do believe the things that progressives believe. And most Democrats have quite intense party loyalty. One of the biggest misunderstandings on the left is the idea that the Democratic brand is bad. In fact, the Democratic Party brand is one of the strongest brands in the country. It’s something millions of Americans trust. That includes the African-American and Latino voters who are sympathetic to progressive ideas, and are voters we need to persuade to support our candidates. Running as an independent outsider would have helped Sanders in a general election, but it was definitely a problem in the primary.
Look, the Democratic party is a coalition party with five partners: African-American groups, Latino groups, women’s groups, unions and progressive groups. If you’re only one of five factions, maybe one fourth of the party, you should only expect to win about one fourth or one fifth of the victories. You need to work with other groups in the coalition to achieve political success. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose, that’s how life works. Ocasio-Cortez has figured that out, but not all progressives have.
GRUNWALD: Bernie is arguing that progressives won the ideas primary. Is that even true?
MCELWEE: It’s certainly true that most Democrats believe in very progressive ideas. It’s hard to find a progressive policy that doesn’t have strong support among Democrats. But this primary was about electability, and progressives weren’t able to persuade a majority of Democrats that their ideas are shared by a majority of the country. And that’s partly because Sanders and Warren didn’t emphasize the most popular progressive policies.
I mean, look at the Blue Dog Democrats. They don’t campaign on how Wall Street and pharma should be free to do whatever the fuck they want. They run on giving small business loans to the troops, and protecting people with pre-existing conditions, and then after they win they vote to deregulate Wall Street and protect pharma. We should be talking about the parts of our agenda that are winners with voters, because there are progressive ideas that can fire up the base and persuade general election voters.
GRUNWALD: Like what?
MCELWEE: I’d propose a focus on paid family leave and childcare; ambitious climate action and clean energy; and lowering drug prices. You’ve got to narrow your agenda, because it’s hard to get voters to focus on too much. They have a lot going on their lives, from the Vanderpump Rules to getting their kids to school. With just those three priorities, you can show voters an agenda that will make their lives better, weaken major industries that are harming them, and put more money in their pockets. Why not focus on things that are popular?
GRUNWALD: It’s funny to hear you say that, because you came up with the idea of “Abolish ICE.” I remember it was your Twitter handle for a while. And that seems like a classic example of a lefty position that might be worthy to do but is terribly unpopular politically.
MCELWEE: We always saw it as left of the left spectrum, and that’s fine in some districts. One of the goals of activism and politics is to stretch the political imagination to understand the fundamental inhumanity of many of our institutions. “Abolish ICE” did that. Candidates like AOC who ran on it were representing their constituents. I don’t think we should be afraid to say that some Democrats in some districts are going to represent much more progressive interests than country as a whole. Nobody said “Abolish ICE” was a winning persuasion message. Not everything has to be a winning persuasion message. I’m just saying we need some winning persuasion messages to win nationwide.
GRUNWALD: Medicare For All was also seen as a far-left position that hurt Warren, and maybe Bernie too. And then Biden said, that’s a bit much, how about a public option? We’ll do more, just not everything. Apparently Democratic voters thought that was more realistic.
MCELWEE: It’s clear there’s significant Democratic support for a single-payer system. And the polling data didn’t show that Medicare For All was a wildly unpopular albatross. But voters were voting based on who was perceived as electable, and Medicare For All received significant amounts of negative earned media that made it seem like a problem. I think a candidate who embraced Medicare For All could defeat Trump, because Medicare is popular, and people understand the intuitive goal of expanding it to all Americans. But there was never much effort to explain what exactly it was. Was it an ideal? Was it a plan? What was the theory of the case for how would it be passed and implemented? This was an electability election, defined by competence and the ability to move an agenda, and voters didn’t believe progressives could do that.
GRUNWALD: Well, today Bernie endorsed Biden, so of course he’s a neoliberal sellout, too, at least on Twitter. A lot of lefties say they’re Never Biden, he’s just as bad as Trump.
MCELWEE: I think there are 50,000 Bernie-to-Trump voters, and they all have Twitter accounts. They’re an incredibly small portion of the electorate.
GRUNWALD: Fair enough, but it’s important for Biden to make sure the left comes out to support him. Are there policies he can adopt that would help?
MCELWEE: Again, I think the first thing the left and Biden need to understand is that the progressive agenda isn’t just a mobilization agenda; it can be a persuasion agenda. There are core groups with progressive voters but also persuadable voters, and I think those policies I mentioned can really help.
Take young people, A lot of young independents and Republicans who pulled the lever for Trump in 2016 are worried about core elements of Trump’s agenda, especially climate change. I think a strong climate agenda that emphasizes job creation as well as equity issues can be a central element of a persuasion agenda. And remember, not all African-Americans and Latinos are Democrats. We need to hit those voters with compelling messages that fit with their lived experiences, and a focus on environmental justice and clean water and clean air can be very persuasive.
The next group I’d look at are suburban women. They’re not all Democrats, either, and plenty of the ones who voted for Trump are now persuadable. A paid leave and childcare agenda could really speak to the rising economic costs they’re facing. And then you’ve got older persuadables. Trump has absolutely failed to deliver pharmaceutical reform or reduce drug prices, and Democrats could make inroads on those issues. So I’ve named you a bunch of progressive policies that poll at 70 to 80 percent. Those would be some great issues where Biden could be looking to embrace the left.
GRUNWALD: You’re talking about policies that can persuade less progressive voters. But what about the hardcore left? I always saw Bernie as a cool and fun cause for young rebels; supporting Biden obviously isn’t cool or fun. But I saw Cornel West said he’s not going to vote third-party this year because the left needs to join an anti-fascist coalition against Trump – that makes it sound kind of cool and fun! Could that mobilize the left?
MCELWEE: I think the vast majority of progressives will come out for Biden. Right now, we’re still in a period of mourning, and frankly, Biden will never drive a lot of enthusiasm. But at the end of the day, we have Donald Trump on the ballot, and every day he does something worse. There are some media personalities who would benefit from Biden losing, but no one who cares about progressive values would see Trump’s reelection as a victory. You also have far less compelling third-party candidates than you had in 2016. Jill Stein and Gary Johnson were both effective politicians, whether or not you liked them. This time, you’re not seeing that kind of third-party candidate, and I think you’ll see a pretty dramatic decline in third-party voters. Candidate quality matters!
Still, as I said, there are a lot of progressive policies Biden could adopt that would make him more attractive to progressives while also helping to persuade the unpersuaded.
GRUNWALD: He just endorsed Medicare for 60-year-olds. He’s come out for student loan relief, some of Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy reforms. Will the left meet him halfway?
MCELWEE: Sure. Remember, Biden is viewed a bit more favorably with the left than Hillary Clinton was. We can have a long conversation about why, but it’s a fact. And Bernie Sanders has a closer relationship with Biden than he had with Clinton in 2016. Also, Clinton was deep in the weeds on policy, which made it harder for her to make concessions to the left. With Biden you see a real interest in finding areas where there could be unity, and I think there’s more interest from all the wings of the party in having unity in 2020. I remain optimistic about a united front.
GRUNWALD: You may be a wacko radical, but you’re a pretty pragmatic dude.
MCELWEE: My view is that politics is the slow boring of hard boards. Really, that view almost overstates how quickly political change happens. Look, in 2020, mistakes were made, but the basic problem was that the progressive movement wasn’t yet powerful enough to win a Democratic primary. We’ll be back at it in four or eight years. Eventually, we will be powerful enough, and we’ll have the opportunity to pass a lot of laws.
I’d like to see progressives focus on building the infrastructure and policy support for our priorities. I do worry about the lack of dedication to learning the nitty-gritty details of how the process works. I’ve worked on legislation in New York state, and I’ve seen how the simplest thing, like changing voter registration from opt-in to opt-out at the DMV, can require an incredible amount of bureaucratic competence, technical capacity, things like that. Progressives need to dedicate ourselves to learning how those bureaucracies function, or we’re going to be woefully unprepared to implement our agenda.
I also think progressives need to focus on building power down ballot. We always complain that Obama failed to do this, but we seem to forget it the second we start thinking about our own movement: This year, a progressive came within four points of beating [conservative Democratic congressman] Henry Cuellar. Every progressive who’s doing an autopsy of the presidential primary should be doing an autopsy of why we didn’t invest more in that race. There’s been an utter neglect of down-ballot work.
GRUNWALD: You mentioned ways that Biden can reach out to the left, and also the need for progressives to get deeper into the weeds. The Green New Deal seems to be right in the intersection of those two concepts, where Biden seems open to real climate action, and progressive groups like yours have done a lot of work on a real agenda that’s helped change the conversation in America. But not always in a good way; Republicans have started trashing all climate action as Green New Deal radicalism, banning cows and airplanes. What have you learned from the Green New Deal process?
MCELWEE: I think we’ve learned to understand how our agendas are going to be attacked, and how we can prepare for those attacks. For example, there needs to be a cost estimate, because otherwise the right will make up its own. We came up with a cost estimate for AOC’s Green New Deal for Public Housing, and even when Republicans would attack it, they would use our estimates for costs and jobs. That’s better than letting them fill in blanks. We also did polling ahead of time, so we could show it was a popular idea. Otherwise, if an idea becomes tarred as unpopular, it actually becomes unpopular. Our internal research found that merely showing people evidence that an idea was popular increased support for that idea.
Again, these are procedural matters. They’re not big ideas. This is the blocking and tackling that we need to get down tighter. Look, we’ve found that you can’t get voters, particularly black and Latino voters, to care about climate change if you don’t connect it to their communities, issues like toxic mold and clean water. But it turns out that’s a very popular approach with the entire public.
GRUNWALD: But the Green New Deal itself has become kind of toxic itself. Now it’s seen as cow farts and the eleventy-trillion-dollar Republican cost estimate and banning airplanes, which I guess ended up happening anyway. Is that reversible?
MCELWEE: Again, the things at the edge of public consciousness are always going to be unpopular. If they were popular, they wouldn’t be at the edge of public consciousness and political reality. But the Green New Deal has pretty dramatically expanded what Democrats want to do on climate without impacting our partisan advantage on climate.
GRUNWALD: The slow boring of hard boards, right? You want the left to do less of the sexy stuff and more of the unglamorous stuff.
MCELWEE: A lot of leftists don’t think of Data For Progress as a leftist organization—not because they don’t think we’re leftists, but because we started an organization! We’re engaging in politics! And yeah, we’re engaging with Democrats; we gave advice to every primary candidate except Tulsi Gabbard. I always say we love all Democrats, just in different amounts. Working and pushing inside the Democratic Party is the way that progressive gains will happen. They’ll never be exactly what we want, but that’s life.
GRUNWALD: You’re kind of saying: Trust the process.
MCELWEE: Well, a lot of progressives were upset about the Affordable Care Act. And yeah, we wish there was a public option. But look what happened: The Medicaid expansion has been a big success, while the private exchanges have struggled, and that’s helped make our case that delivering concrete benefits through the public sector works, and it’s undermined the neoliberal policy strategy. My view is that the Democratic Party is moving every day towards a place where young progressives should feel comfortable. AOC is going to be the moral center of the party in a decade, and it’s not just her.
It’s going to take some time. You saw how long it took movement conservatism to take over the Republican Party. And we’re going to have to do the hard work of reaching out to non-ideological Democrats who don’t see the world our way. I mean, look at [conservative Democratic congressman] Dan Lipinski, we finally beat him, and that’s great, but he still got nearly 50 percent of Democratic voters—not because he’s pro-life, but because he sits on the transportation committee and works with local unions to represent their interests. We can’t forget about that kind of basic politics. Bernie Sanders always made sure to deliver for Vermont. [Wisconsin Senator] Tammy Baldwin is a great progressive, and she’s got a big interest in single-payer health care, but she also has a big interest in cheese. It’s OK for progressives to care about cheese.