Sean McElwee’s media influence

Courtesy photo.

Sean McElwee is, first and foremost, an expert yeller. He yells on Twitter, he yells at politicians, he yells in spirited debate with friends at a weekly happy hour he hosts in downtown Manhattan. And people listen—from pollsters to members of Congress to local politicians to presidential candidates.

McElwee, 26, wears clear-framed glasses and, at 6’2”, is a towering figure. A co-founder of Data for Progress, a non-profit leftist think tank, his work is that of an activist, a political operative, and a pollster; to promote his agenda, he also writes opinion pieces for news outlets based on his findings. His standout talent is in the way he deftly combines the technical work of a statistician with incisive eloquence that bends Twitter to his will—#AbolishICE, the Green New Deal, and automatic voter registration are among his talking points. He has a large social media audience—with more than 92,000 followers on Twitter—and his reach extends offline, too, which allows him to plant his ideas in the campaign strategies of major political contenders.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously adopted the mandate that Immigration and Customs Enforcement be abolished after McElwee helped popularize that view on Twitter with a hashtag. Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted a Data for Progress memo on rising housing costs and the associated legacy of racial discrimination, citing the research of McElwee’s team, informally endorsing their policy suggestions in her presidential campaign platform. Washington Governor Jay Inslee, also a candidate for president, produced what was hailed in the press as the most comprehensive climate crisis policy proposal to date, borrowing from a statewide plan that he had signed into law earlier this year; both closely follow the recommendations of a Data for Progress memo published last September.

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It might be a stretch to say that average voters (and news consumers) look to McElwee as an alternative to traditional press institutions. But it’s apparent that politicians, as they hunt for clues about what their constituents believe in—and are open to—are increasingly likely to seek answers not from national opinion pages but from people like him. Where a candidate once may have heavily courted editorial boards, or followed political reporters in touch with constituents, the same candidate now turns more and more to activists and organizers, and McElwee—whose job allows him control over the types of questions that appear on polls, and whose argumentative smarts earn him tremendous sway—has proven his ability to loan candidates credibility with progressive voters. Data for Progress, launched last March, is, in McElwee’s words, “really fucking accurate.” McElwee has made himself into a sort of intermediary—a political insider with the ear of powerful people who argues on behalf of a historically elided Left.

I met McElwee for the first time at Mud Coffee, in the East Village, a few hours after Joe Biden, long rumored to be courting a 2020 run, officially announced that he would seek the presidency. McElwee wore a blue button-down shirt and ordered a sandwich with bacon, avocado, and tomato. As he ate, I asked what he thought about Biden. “I don’t like him very much,” he said, and laughed. Within the Democratic Party, Biden has often been discussed as the most electable candidate in the crowded field, of 24, and Biden himself has embraced this characterization. The sheer amount of press attention offered to Biden (compared to, for example, Kristen Gillibrand and Julian Castro, candidates that McElwee wishes received more coverage), cements the importance of electability in voters’ minds.

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But the centrism that Biden represents—a safe pick who can appeal to Republicans and Obama-turned-Trump voters, too—bores McElwee, who is not interested in bipartisanship. “I hate Republicans a lot and don’t talk to them,” he said. “At some point, the Democratic party is going to have to make the pivot to young-people-of-color-voters as a core part of their strategy,” he went on. “If we continue to get stuck in the ‘Can we win back Trump voters?’” his voice trailed off. A waiter dropped off coffee. “Joe is just another Band-Aid on the problem,” McElwee said. “It’s weird to me that, given that the field is full of people with credible claims to electability, that Biden emerges.”

McElwee believes that the party needs more AOCs and Ayanna Pressleys and fewer Bernies. “The path to leftist electoral power is through racial justice and economic justice,” he told me. “Our gains on the left have exclusively come from more diverse candidates.” It’s ironic, then, that, as a white, educated man, he has assumed such a visible role in advocating for a shift in representation. McElwee seems self-aware—when asked about this, he talked about the benefits that come from his axis of privilege: “I can get in the room, I am taken seriously,” he said, despite having received no formal training in statistics or polling until recently; he’s pursuing a Masters in quantitative methods in the social sciences at Columbia.

McElwee tries to use his status to push politicians to pay attention to things that matter to traditionally neglected demographics—in particular, young people of color. He demands action now—he speaks with urgency—and promises retribution to those who fail to rise to the challenge: “We wrote a Green New Deal report, polled it, and we will fuck you up if you don’t support it,” he told me. So far, his track record indicates that his approach works.

 

A common criticism lobbed at journalists is that they took too long to take Trump and his supporters seriously. Pollsters have had their own reckoning since the 2016 elections, which overwhelmingly predicted that Hillary Clinton would win. The trouble, McElwee says, has been that major polling companies like Gallup and Pew have been asking the same questions in the same way about the same topics for years. There’s a clear advantage to this: it allows them to track shifts in public opinion over long stretches of time. But McElwee believes that adherence to precedent means that politicians have few good ways to gauge what policy positions are bubbling to the surface. Data for Progress aims to plug the holes by polling Americans on questions you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere: a survey conducted in partnership with YouGov Blue asked “Would you support or oppose policies designed to reduce racial wealth gaps caused by slavery and Jim Crow, such as offering compensation or tax benefits to the descendants of slaves?” and “Would you support or oppose defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and enforcing immigration violations like other civil infractions?”

“In our research, a major reason why we are seeing asymmetric polarization is because Democrats are afraid of taking up leftist positions, because they don’t understand how popular they are,” says Chris Skovron, the director of data science at the online polling and analytics company Civiqs, which partners with Data for Progress. “Data for Progress is doing a service by putting out reliable data. They have an agenda, but what they are doing is methodologically sound.”

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McElwee uses the findings to galvanize support around progressive policies in the Democratic establishment. “He’s invested in understanding good ideas are that are out there—that’s different from the mission of other organizations that report things we already know to be of great public interest,” John Ray, a senior political analyst at YouGov Blue and a consultant to Data For Progress, tells me. “We know people want to know who will win the Democratic primary, that people want to know how many people there are of this or that religion, and what are their attitudes.” What we don’t know is how popular new progressive policy ideas are, he adds. “There are not a lot of people in organizations that have their finger on the pulse of what is new and exciting.”

McElwee grew up in Groton, Connecticut, in a military family, of six. His dad served in the Navy, his mom in the Coast Guard. “I was a chubby, unathletic kid, but I was really good at debate,” he says. “Now I do it for a job.” McElwee worshipped in an Evangelical church, where a traveling group hosted annual camps teaching kids to memorize Bible verses. The verses were organized into levels of increasing difficulty. “I was the only one to hit level five,” he recalls.

McElwee was always interested in politics. While a student at The King’s College, a Christian liberal arts school in lower Manhattan, he drifted toward the Left, but not before dabbling in libertarianism—he held internships at the Reason Foundation and Fox Business Network. After graduating, in 2012, he got a job at the Comeback America Initiative, a now-defunct research group founded by David M. Walker, a Republican who worked for presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In 2014, McElwee became a researcher at Demos, a progressive think tank focused on racial equity. There, he began to carve out space for himself in the media, with bylines in publications such as Salon, HuffPost, The Atlantic, and Al Jazeera America, where he wrote about abolishing the GDP and how to tap into conservative support for climate change policy.

As his writing career has continued—he appears regularly in The Nation—he’s never come to identify as a journalist. (“I haven’t fucked enough people over, I don’t think,” he says.) But he has learned about the symbiotic relationship between reporters and pollsters, and believes that transparency can be mutually beneficial. McElwee maintains a Rolodex of dozens of journalists, offering them backend access to his team’s survey data. Sometimes this means willfully releasing “bad data”—polls showing that policies he supports personally are, in fact, wildly unpopular. That includes #AbolishICE. “Data For Progress numbers on abolishing ICE are abysmal,” Ray tells me.

That hasn’t stopped McElwee from driving for what he wants, often by adopting the tactics of the religious Right. “The NRA made gun ownership an ideological litmus test,” he says. “Being a gun owner equals being a Republican.” McElwee’s goal has been to position support for leftist policies like the Green New Deal as fundamentally a part of what it means to be a Democrat. “For the left,” he explains, “the tools are very cheap. This is primarily about bringing the Democratic party in line with its own values.”

 

Before the internet, “media figures” were knighted on television or in prominent print publications. By the time McElwee got into political wonkery, the methods by which people became media figures were democratizing; social platforms like Twitter had stripped away some of the control that traditional outlets held. McElwee needed only the blessing of the people (his people, including like-minded activists and journalists, whom he aggressively courted) to propel him to prominence. Building such a following doesn’t just earn someone like McElwee access to previously restricted arenas; social networks are their own spaces, complete with hierarchies, rules, and company culture: Lefty Twitter, Media Twitter, Black Twitter, Elections Twitter, Librarian Twitter. Behavior is monitored and commented on; figures are cancelled as quickly as they are coronated. What’s more, editors at establishment publications watch what goes on, and feel pressure to fall in line.

The politics of giving credit for ideas that circulate on social media get complicated quickly. McElwee follows a long line of prominent white people valorized for championing policies that render invisible the people of color—and especially women of color—who have done the meaningful, offline work of developing the ideas behind those policies. McElwee has been criticized for his willing participation in what some view as misattribution: Brendan James, a former producer on the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, told BuzzFeed News that he saw a classic case of a white guy “showing up at the 11th hour, tweeting, and taking credit for other people’s work.” (James and most of his colleagues are white.)

The Left is not exclusively white, of course, but some of its factions are perceived as lacking diversity. Placing McElwee at the center of press coverage (as opposed to, say, leaders of Juntos, a Philadelphia-based Latinx immigrant rights organization, or any number of groups run by immigrants and people of color) amplifies that feeling among a broad readership. Not everyone sees things as they’re reflected in journalistic coverage, of course; when I ask Miguel Andrade, the communications manager for Juntos, what he makes of McElwee, he replies, “This is the first time I’m hearing about this person.” The reaction reminded me: the habit of reporters to describe initiatives like Abolish ICE as though they began online reflects the trouble with a press corps that lives on the internet. “I think you can have a hashtag go viral on Twitter but it doesn’t equate to a movement,” Andrade tells me. “A movement is when the people most affected put their lives on the line to dismantle a system of oppression.” When reporting relies too heavily on social media, he goes on, “It dismisses a lot of that work.”

Sean McElwee with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The problem of who becomes the “face” of a movement, online or off, can’t be divorced from the role that news coverage plays in determining whose names and faces we come to associate with stories. All activists have relationships with journalists, to be sure—they design media strategies, write op-eds—and sometimes outlets decline to report on unknowns. McElwee is a prominent activist who moves fluidly within media and political spheres, and that power has granted him a level of newsworthiness—a distinction that gets reinforced each time reporters pick up the phone to call him. They do so with the best intentions, but still at the expense of other organizers doing similar work. McElwee has become a media story because he participates in media, because he maintains relationships with journalists, because his efforts to seek change through polling have an impact on the press.

McElwee presents a paradox: he is a middle class white man who demands that power be ceded to those whose concerns have been historically drowned out or suppressed by the interests of middle class white people. Allyship can get awkward easily, even if it’s crucial. “We are lacking in terms of people able to use their privilege to elevate the voices of the people doing the work,” Andrade tells me. Many seem to trust McElwee in that respect. Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to requests for comment, but she has told other outlets that McElwee’s ability to make himself heard is useful: “The idea of abolishing ICE was borne out of activist and immigrant communities that have been on the forefront of fighting abusive and tyrannical law enforcement,” Ocasio-Cortez told BuzzFeed News, in a statement. “In order to turn this idea into a government policy, we need change agents like Sean McElwee who will continue to lift the voices of the wider community for this cause.”

McElwee tells me that lately he has been thinking more carefully about what he says on the record and where. There are many people with more expertise than he on various policy questions, he says, and more firsthand experience with the inequities his movement seeks to correct. Recently, when a reporter called, he passed questions about #AbolishICE on to someone else.

 

Still, I could not help but notice, when I arrived last month at one of McElwee’s happy hours, that, as far as I could tell, I was the only person of color there. On a television mounted in the corner, a hockey game was on. Near the back of the bar—cash-only, dimly lit, divey—was a pool table. Pool tables should be banned from bars, McElwee joked; they take up too much space.

As everyone ordered second and third rounds of beer, David Shor, the head of political data science at Civis Analytics, told me what journalists did wrong in 2016. “They relied too much on the fundamentals of how they thought politics works,” he said. “Polling and political science painted a compelling picture that Trump had a considerable chance of winning in a way that largely wasn’t presented to the public.” McElwee wandered over to brag about Shor’s chops, telling me that he’d predicted the Cambridge Analytica scandal six months before the news broke. Later, he got into an intense debate over ideology and political party affiliation with a guy named Josh.

As I observed McElwee with his friends, it struck me that the intense way he has with journalists (dramatic invocations of obscure statistics, threats to quit doing the work if he’s ever proven wrong about something) is at once savvy PR and a sincere effort to be as open as he can be. There is no political operative hat that he takes on and off. He’s really that emphatic, he’s really that nerdy, he’s really that invested in his agenda.

Journalists should consider McElwee—and the questions his polls pose—a repository of story ideas for the 2020 campaigns. Rather than relying on handouts and candidate appearances, reporters and editors would be wise to instead look at what McElwee is asking voters. And then, bring those questions to candidates and their staff, to get ahead of the news cycle—as opposed to waiting for candidates to show up at his happy hour, ready to be influenced by a single loud voice.

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at The Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.