Person

Sean McElwee

Occupation:

Political Commentator

Policy Analyst, Demos

Founder, Data for Progress

Co-Founder, AbolishIce

Sean McElwee is an activist and political consultant who advocates for the Democratic Party to endorse more left-progressive policy platforms. He is the co-founder and executive director of Data for Progress, a left-of-center public research group and a project of Tides Advocacy. McElwee is also the director of polling at Take Back the Courts and sits on the board of Secure Elections for America Now. He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. [1]

McElwee has identified as a socialist who seeks a radical realignment of the domestic and global economy. He has traditionally supported candidates on the left-wing of the Democratic Party, particularly Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a one-time client of Data for Progress. However, during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, McElwee sat on a climate change advisory committee for former Vice President Joe Biden (D), and has since pursued a more pragmatic political strategy of reconciling the socialist and conventionally liberal wings of the Democratic Party.

McElwee is best known as the popularizer of Abolish ICE, a movement to eliminate U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Early Career

While earning a bachelor’s degree in arts, politics, philosophy, and economics from The King’s College in New York City, Sean McElwee interned at CBS News and the Comeback America Initiative, a budget watchdog group run by former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker. [2]

After graduating in 2013, McElwee interned for the libertarian Reason Foundation and later for the Fox Business Network. He has said the experience disillusioned him with right-leaning politics. [3]

Later in the year, McElwee became an intern at Demos, a major left-wing public policy think tank. In 2014, McElwee was promoted to policy analyst, where he led research into “racial equity” and “democracy reforms.” [4] [5]

Data for Progress

In 2017, McElwee co-founded Data for Progress, a fiscally sponsored project of Tides Advocacy, alongside data scientist Colin McAuliffe and political scientist Jon Green. The group aims to push the Democratic Party toward more left-progressive policy platforms by publishing polling data and electoral reports, mostly on left-wing policies like the Green New Deal, universal basic income, and Abolish ICE. [6] [7]

Its clients have included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the Sunrise Movement, and the Sierra Club. [8] [9] McElwee has said that Data for Progress gave advice to every Democratic presidential candidate during the 2020 election except for then-Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). [10]

Abolish ICE

On February 23, 2017, Sean McElwee tweeted “Abolish ICE,” referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. McElwee, who was then a relatively unknown progressive writer, repeated the tweet over the following weeks and months, engaged in online discussions, and triggered the viral spread of the hashtag #AbolishICE. [11]

McElwee gained considerable public recognition as Abolish ICE gained traction. Politico named McElwee one of its Top 50 Most Influential thinkers of 2017. In a March 2018 piece in The Nation, he wrote, “the call to abolish ICE is, above all, a demand that white supremacy can no longer be the center of the immigration debate.” His piece continues, “It’s time to rein in the greatest threat we face: an unaccountable strike force executing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.” [12]

In 2017, when McElwee first sent his tweet, abolishing the federal agency was regarded as a fringe position. The Financial Times, Buzzfeed, and other major media outlets have credited McElwee for making Abolish ICE a mainstream (if liberal) political position. Abolish ICE was a major policy discussion among Democratic candidates in 2018 and 2020, especially as immigration became a focal point during the campaign and administration of President Donald Trump (R). In 2018, high-profile U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) endorsed Abolish ICE. [13] [14] During the 2020 presidential election, then-candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) endorsed Abolish ICE and defunding U.S. Customs and Border Protection. [15]

AbolishICE.org was created to organize the movement but has since gone defunct. [16]

Political Views

Sean McElwee has long been considered a socialist and progressive who supports the left wing of the Democratic Party. He hosts a weekly “socialist happy hour” in the East Village in New York City which is attended by “New York’s young socialist power elite,” and was once visited by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). [17]

In a 2018 interview, McElwee advocated for socialism as a means of running the economy “democratically.” Comparing the value of democracy in the economy to its value in politics, he said, “We would never accept decisions about our government being made exclusively by old rich white men, and we shouldn’t accept decisions about our economy being made that way…. [They] have not been the best stewards of the common interests of humanity.” [18]

McElwee also criticized U.S. foreign policy and the global economic order, stating that “[U.S.] wealth is built on violence tantamount to murder on a global scale. It is the wages of empire,” and called for “a radical flattening of the global income distribution.” [19]

In a 2020 interview, McElwee spoke favorably of the “Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth-Warren-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez view” over the “Joe Biden view,” representing the more conventionally liberal wing of the Democrats. In the same interview, McElwee endorsed government-financed family leave and childcare, “ambitious climate action,” and Medicare-for-all or a public healthcare option. [20]

2020 Election

In March 2020, McElwee accepted an invitation to serve as an advisor on a climate change panel hosted by former Vice President Joe Biden. McElwee recommended that Biden accept a platform that included a moderated version of the far-left Green New Deal, which included a promise for the United States to reach net-zero emissions by the mid-21st century. McElwee later claimed that President Biden’s infrastructure plan, which included designs to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, closely resembled his original proposal. [21]

When his acceptance to Biden’s committee became public, McElwee faced online backlash from leftist allies who considered him a “sellout” for working with Biden and the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, especially while the left-wing Sanders was still officially running for the presidential nomination. Matt Bruenig, the head of the People’s Policy Project and a former co-worker at Demos, openly suggested McElwee shifted his policy priorities to curry favor from Democratic donors. [22]

According to a September 2020 article by The Atlantic, McElwee shifted his priorities from left-wing advocacy to pragmatic coalition building and became more critical of his left-wing allies. McElwee maintains his commitment to shifting the Democratic Party to the left, but now believes this can be better accomplished by working with mainstream Democrats than on the party fringes. [23]

Ritchie Torres Primary

Twenty days before the Democratic primary election in New York’s 15th Congressional District, Data for Progress released a poll conducted by McElwee and an employee which showed then-city council Member Ruben Diaz, Sr. (D) with a slight lead over then-city council member Ritchie Torres (D). Diaz was considered a highly conservative Democrat who once described himself as the “opposite of [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez],” while Torres was considered a centrist Democrat. The poll also showed Samelys Lopez, a far-left candidate endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, in sixth place with 2 percent of the vote. [24]

According to the socialist magazine Jacobin, McElwee tailored the poll in a deliberate attempt to sway left-wing supporters of Lopez to back Torres so that Diaz would not win. McElwee, despite his politics, opposed Lopez because she was supposedly splitting the left-wing vote, and therefore he supported Torres as a compromise candidate over the relatively right-leaning Diaz. McElwee published the poll on Twitter with the warning, “Progressives have three weeks to prevent an anti-choice homophobe from being elected in the most Democratic district in the country by consolidating behind @RitchieTorres.” Though McElwee has well-known far-left political beliefs, mainstream press outlets described the poll as “independent” and published its results without commentary. [25]

Jacobin criticized the poll’s methodology, claiming it surveyed too few voters and relied too heavily on online questionnaires in a poor district with a low rate of internet access. While Jacobin did not outright accuse McElwee of manufacturing data, it argued that he built a badly designed poll to achieve a specific desired outcome. [26]

Diaz would eventually finish third, behind New York State Assemblyman Michael Blake (D), who had polled at 6 percent to Diaz’s 22 percent. Lopez would finish with 14 percent of the vote, seven times higher than the McElwee’s poll suggested, compared to Diaz’s 14.4 percent. According to Lopez and her campaign, McElwee’s poll destroyed her chances at being elected. Torres won the primary and then went on to win the general election. [27] Baker, Charlie. “How Sean McElwee’s “Normie-Progressive Theory of Change: Doomed Samelys Lopez.” Jacobin. September 24, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/09/sean-mcelwee-samelys-lopez-data-progress-dfp-poll

References

  1. “Who We Are.” Data for Progress. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.dataforprogress.org/who-we-are. ^
  2. “Sean McElwee.” LinkedIn. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/sean-mcelwee-70701736/. ^
  3. Godfrey, Elaine. “The Progressive Activist Begging the Left to Stop Owning Itself.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/joe-biden-sean-mcelwee-and-future-progressive-power/616213/. ^
  4. Sean McElwee.” LinkedIn. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/sean-mcelwee-70701736/. ^
  5. Godfrey, Elaine. “The Progressive Activist Begging the Left to Stop Owning Itself.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/joe-biden-sean-mcelwee-and-future-progressive-power/616213/. ^
  6. Godfrey, Elaine. “The Progressive Activist Begging the Left to Stop Owning Itself.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/joe-biden-sean-mcelwee-and-future-progressive-power/616213/. ^
  7. Godfrey, Elaine. “The Progressive Activist Begging the Left to Stop Owning Itself.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/joe-biden-sean-mcelwee-and-future-progressive-power/616213/. ^
  8. Godfrey, Elaine. “The Progressive Activist Begging the Left to Stop Owning Itself.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/joe-biden-sean-mcelwee-and-future-progressive-power/616213/. ^
  9. Godfrey, Elaine. “The Progressive Activist Begging the Left to Stop Owning Itself.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/joe-biden-sean-mcelwee-and-future-progressive-power/616213/. ^
  10. Grunwald, Michael. “What AOC Gets that Bernie Didn’t.” Politico. April 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/04/16/sean-mcelwee-interview-aoc-sanders-191702. ^
  11. McElwee, Sean. “It’s Time to Abolish Ice.” The Nation. April 9, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/its-time-to-abolish-ice/. ^
  12. McElwee, Sean. “It’s Time to Abolish Ice.” The Nation. April 9, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/its-time-to-abolish-ice/. ^
  13. Foldy, Ben. “How ‘Abolish ICE’ went from tweet to 2020 litmus test.” Financial Times. July 5, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/c1e1397a-7bb6-11e8-bc55-50daf11b720d. ^
  14. Perlberg, Steven. “How “Abolish ICE” Went from Twitter Slogan to Winning Over Progressives and Dividing Politics.” Buzzfeed News. July 28, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/stevenperlberg/abolish-ice-sean-mcelwee. ^
  15. Chavez, Aida. “With Bold Immigration Plan, Bernie Sanders Becomes The Only Candidate To Call For Break Up OF ICE and CBP.” The Intercept. November 7, 2019. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://theintercept.com/2019/11/07/sanders-immigration-plan-ice-cbp/. ^
  16. “Abolish ICE.” Abolish ICE. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.abolishice.org/. ^
  17. Baker, Charlie. “How Sean McElwee’s “Normie-Progressive Theory of Change: Doomed Samelys Lopez.” Jacobin. September 24, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/09/sean-mcelwee-samelys-lopez-data-progress-dfp-poll. ^
  18. “What Would A Socialist America Look Like?” POLITICO. September 3, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/09/03/what-would-a-socialist-america-look-like-219626/. ^
  19. “What Would A Socialist America Look Like?” POLITICO. September 3, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/09/03/what-would-a-socialist-america-look-like-219626/. ^
  20. Grunwald, Michael. “What AOC Gets that Bernie Didn’t.” Politico. April 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/04/16/sean-mcelwee-interview-aoc-sanders-191702. ^
  21. Godfrey, Elaine. “The Progressive Activist Begging the Left to Stop Owning Itself.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/joe-biden-sean-mcelwee-and-future-progressive-power/616213/. ^
  22. Godfrey, Elaine. “The Progressive Activist Begging the Left to Stop Owning Itself.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/joe-biden-sean-mcelwee-and-future-progressive-power/616213/. ^
  23. Godfrey, Elaine. “The Progressive Activist Begging the Left to Stop Owning Itself.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/joe-biden-sean-mcelwee-and-future-progressive-power/616213/ ^
  24. Baker, Charlie. “How Sean McElwee’s “Normie-Progressive Theory of Change: Doomed Samelys Lopez.” Jacobin. September 24, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/09/sean-mcelwee-samelys-lopez-data-progress-dfp-poll. ^
  25. Baker, Charlie. “How Sean McElwee’s “Normie-Progressive Theory of Change: Doomed Samelys Lopez.” Jacobin. September 24, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/09/sean-mcelwee-samelys-lopez-data-progress-dfp-poll. ^
  26. Baker, Charlie. “How Sean McElwee’s “Normie-Progressive Theory of Change: Doomed Samelys Lopez.” Jacobin. September 24, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2021. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/09/sean-mcelwee-samelys-lopez-data-progress-dfp-poll. ^
  27. ^

Connected Organizations

  1. Abolish ICE (Non-profit)
    Co-Founder
  2. Data for Progress (Non-profit)
    Founder, Executive Director
  3. Demos (Non-profit)
    Policy Analyst
  4. Take Back the Court (Non-profit)
    Director of Research and Polling
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