A few months ago a friend wrote me an email with the subject line, “What is Sean McElwee.”
This is the kind of question that occurs to a person who spends a lot of time on Twitter. In 2018, McElwee’s tweets seemed to abound in liberal cyberspace. He was best known for his jeremiads about abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement — for much of the past year, McElwee’s handle read as “we’re going to abolish ICE.” The online racket attracted attention. MSNBC host Chris Hayes interviewed him, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand showed up to the weekly happy hour he throws, and he was named to the Politico 50 along with the likes of Mick Mulvaney, Alan Dershowitz and one Donald J. Trump. Quite a lot for a 26-year-old whose main gig is at a fledgling think tank he co-founded, Data For Progress.
But still, what is he? McElwee calls himself a “jackass of all trades” but admits that trying to explain his value to those not enmeshed in the online world of politics — potential donors to his think tank, say — is difficult.
“I’m like Radiohead for donors — you can’t really explain why I’m good but everyone knows that I’m good at it,” McElwee shouted over the din of bar talk at one of his happy hours on a recent evening in New York City. “The thing I try to say is, ‘Look, I don’t know what to tell you, I wrote a report on the Green New Deal three months before the Green New Deal was a thing. I tweeted about abolish ICE before abolish ICE was a thing. I fucking raised $850,000 for down-ballot candidates from small dollar contributions.’ I’m not sitting around telling you how the fuck I do it, I don’t have time to do that.” (McElwee, it should be noted, says “fuck” an awful lot.)
McElwee is one of a cadre of young left activists whose voices have grown louder in the years following Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump. Many came of political age in the decade following the financial crash of 2008, and many are disillusioned by a Democratic Party they think has been ideologically hollowed out. They’ve organized outside the traditional party apparatus — the Democratic Socialists of America, the Justice Democrats — and worked to get representation in Congress, pushing figures like newly minted congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. Now they find themselves holding greater purchase than ever before in the formal Washington political process.
For a few years now, Democratic voters have shown they’re primed for a leftward shift, and this rising group of activists and politicians wants to push them even further. At the heart of the young left’s project is a discomfort with the free market capitalist system under which we live. It’s a system deeply ingrained in many Americans’ identities, though increasingly less so: 2016 was the first year since Gallup started tracking the question that it found Democrats had a more positive view of socialism than they did of capitalism.
This new group of activists wants to capitalize on that shift. And they’re doing it by tweeting incessantly and acting impertinently toward their fellow Democrats. Unlike bright young political things of years gone by, their purpose is to confound the party’s leadership, not earn their praise.
To this end, McElwee calls himself an “Overton Window Mover.” It’s a high-minded allusion to how activists can influence the national conversation to make fringey ideas seem less radical. He and the others have already opened the Democrats’ window, and the winds of change that blow through it might be more F5 tornado than gentle summer breeze.
My stop at McElwee’s weekly happy hour for left- wing activists and writers came just before Christmas. Twinkly lights brightened the bar’s dinge, and I grabbed a beer that was astonishingly cheap for New York City — one attendee told me that the “accessible” price of the drinks was in keeping with the progressive ethos of the group. Because he’s worried that right wing trolls might crash the weekly gathering, McElwee asked me not to reveal the happy hour’s location, but plenty of the city’s left-leaning activists and journalists know about it. “A pretty high percentage of people got invited to the happy hour via Twitter DM,” Eric Levitz of New York Magazine told me.
McElwee’s attendees — over a dozen — were scattered in pockets around the bar, some seated at a corner table, others hanging out closer to the kegs. Apparently the New Republic and The Nation both had parties that evening, McElwee told me later, so the turnout was pretty decent, all things considered. The conversation spun from rifts in the leadership of the Women’s March to the war in Yemen to how one woman at the bar had to take the day off after Ocasio-Cortez was elected because she had been overcome with emotion. (Many refer to Ocasio-Cortez simply as “AOC,” putting the 29-year-old freshman congresswoman alongside LBJ and FDR in the ranks of the politically monogrammed.)
“These are really left people, not party hacks,” Rachel Stein, an activist who works on local New York City issues, told me. The young left is a loose confederation of like-minded activists organized in like-minded groups rather than a monolithic movement with explicit goals. Organizers work for both established and emerging left-wing groups, but all share an ethos of pushing mainstream Democratic politics in a more explicitly progressive direction. Women’s marches, environmental protests at Standing Rock, and anti-racism demonstrations might draw a similar set of figures from this young left world.
Since the 2016 election, the left’s political and cultural influence has ballooned. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America grew exponentially during the first years of the Trump administration, thanks in part to the invaluable PR that was the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. At the same time, the “dirtbag-left” comedy and politics of Chapo Traphouse, a popular podcast, helped shape a certain shared sensibility among a socialist millennial set. (An excerpt from the Chapo hosts’ new book reads, “Capitalism, and the politics it spawns, is not working for anyone under 30 who is not a sociopath.”)
Many young left activists think the time has never been more right, the culture never more ready, to move left-wing politics into the mainstream. “This moment has radicalized liberals and electoralized radicals,” Maurice Mitchell, the 38-year-old new director of the Working Families Party, a New York-based progressive-left organization with close ties to the labor movement, told me.
A few days before the happy hour, I’d hopped a bus to mid-Brooklyn to meet with Waleed Shahid, communications director of the Justice Democrats, a group of Bernie Sanders campaign alumni recruiting progressive candidates to Congress. (New York City’s five boroughs are home to a number of the young leftists.) Shahid is even-keeled, if intense, and a card-carrying member (literally) of the Democratic Socialists of America. “My joke is that unlike Barack Obama, I am a Muslim socialist,” he said. He graduated from college in 2013 and worked for the Sanders campaign in 2016, followed by stints with Ocasio-Cortez and Cynthia Nixon.
“I come from this loose network of basically millennials who were a part of all the different social movements that erupted under Obama,” Shahid told me. It was a group that had voted for the Democratic president but found themselves disappointed by many of his policies. “The people I learned organizing from were people from Occupy Wall Street, the Dreamer movement, People’s Climate March, 350.org, Black Lives Matter — that whole world which was all 22-32 [years old], mostly.”
That so many young Democratic agitators have come to their politics through movements tied to America’s racial strife has distinctly flavored their approach to the country’s economic system. “I recognized that the best way to respond to the white nationalist populism was to develop a multiracial left populism,” Mitchell told me as we sat in his Brooklyn office. In a rich turn of irony, the progressive party is housed in JPMorgan Chase’s Brooklyn outpost, the bank’s name emblazoned above the threshold. While the lobby was festooned with Liberace-inspired reindeer decorations for Christmas, Mitchell’s office was stacked to the ceiling with file boxes, one of which was labeled “crap.”
Mitchell, 38, is the first person of color to head the Working Families Party. “The aging Jewish radical can take you only so far,” outgoing director Dan Cantor told The New York Times when Mitchell’s appointment was announced in April 2018. Mitchell spent years as a community organizer on Long Island and most recently worked at Blackbird, a communications firm he co-founded that is closely allied with the Movement for Black Lives. By Mitchell’s telling, he’s spent most of his career at the outskirts of Democratic politics, sometimes in opposition to its elected officials, living “somewhere in that place apart.”
Trump’s election, though, had made the Democratic mainstream more receptive to ideas once thought to be liberal pipe dreams. “We’re in a moment of political realignment and it’s disorienting,” Mitchell said. “People are looking for solutions, and people instinctively understand — even people working in centrist think tanks — that the solutions of the past will not take us out of this moment of realignment and will not take us into the future.”
What’s difficult, Mitchell said, is that while the culture is primed for a shift, the details still have to be ironed out.
“It starts off by recognizing that this economy is insufficient for all of our needs, for all of our people having dignity — and then we have to transition, we have to figure out how to transition while we still live under neoliberal capitalism,” he said. “That’s the work that we’re doing.”
Alexandra Rojas, Justice Democrats’ 23-year-old executive director, was 13 years old when the financial crisis of 2008 hit. She recalls nothing of Washington’s deliberations over bank bailouts, only difficult conversations with her parents about scaling back. McElwee’s memories of the historic moment are similarly fuzzy. “I thought it was weird there was an organization called ‘Bear Stearns,’” he said. That childhood naivete was shed over the next decade, and the events of those years left an indelible impression; Rojas, McElwee and so many of their activist agemates were shaped by an early exposure to the potential dangers of the free market.
Much of the Democratic Party’s present identity crisis has its roots in the worldwide crash of financial markets late in George W. Bush’s presidency and at the beginning of Barack Obama’s term of office. Complicated financial products crumpled the U.S. housing market, and widespread unemployment, foreclosures and homelessness followed. While banks and investment firms failed, none of their heads were jailed for wrongdoing.
At the time, Democrats were divided over how to deal with the crisis. Elizabeth Warren — then a Harvard professor — made her first full step into Washington politics as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Warren devotes a large portion of her 2014 book, “A Fighting Chance,” to her memories of the crisis — namely, that the government was far too credulous of the banks’ requests. “Now Treasury was giving $20 billion in additional TARP bailout funds to Citibank, plus a $306 billion taxpayer guarantee.”
There was a fundamental divide in how Democrats approached solving the crisis. Dodd-Frank, the legislation that would eventually pass in response to the crash, took an incremental approach to industry reform. But there was a faction that favored broader, more systemic structural reforms of the system. The more incrementalist reform won out under Obama, thanks in no small part, some thought, to lobbying by the heads of investment banks.
“The financial industry has so much clout and so much influence, not just because of the money but because they’re smart people, they’re persuasive, they have great tailors,” Paul Krugman, the 2008 Nobel laureate in economics told me over coffee on a recent afternoon in Manhattan while wearing a tidy, if not tailored, outfit featuring a scarf and zip-up sweater. “I had a little bit of experience trying to persuade Obama and associates of taking a harder line on the bailouts,” he said. But Krugman didn’t prevail. “Jamie Dimon [chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase] cuts a really impressive figure, even though in fact he’s dead wrong about many of the crucial issues.”
Krugman called the emerging clutch of young activists’ skepticism about capitalism useful, and a necessary counterbalance to the lobbying and financial strength of Wall Street. Though in some aspects, he said, the far-left movement hasn’t reached intellectual maturity. “The truth is there aren’t a lot of technically adept people from that [far-left] position, which is not because there couldn’t be, but because they haven’t been a factor — it’s all new.” He continued, name checking his fellow Nobel laureate, “If you’re having meetings in which Joe Stiglitz and I are the farthest left voices, that’s a limiting spectrum and it would be helpful if there were people beyond.”
In part, that’s because before the financial crisis, American policy makers, including Democrats, didn’t do much about income inequality or widespread financial system reform. Mike Konczal, an economic fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank, characterized past Democratic attitudes toward financial reform as mostly centered on workers increasing their skills and education. Democrats in the Bill Clinton era were still near-uniformly bullish on capitalism. “The system more or less worked fine, it was just a matter of getting people access to the system,” he said. “There wasn’t a big problem with the economy itself, it was just that some people were excluded from it.”
In the last decade, the far left has found the problems too great to ignore. The Occupy Wall Street movement kicked things off a few years after the financial crisis but was plagued by a perception that its demands to end income inequality were too vague and the organization too decentralized. But in recent years, progressive politics have found more precise policies and voices in figures like Warren and Sanders. Rojas, the director of Justice Democrats, dropped out of community college in 2015 to work for the Sanders campaign. She said she’d had experience working three or four minimum wage jobs just to make rent. “I saw my dad suffer during the financial crisis,” she said. “I’m someone who comes from a family that really loves work and is hard working but has also experienced a capitalist system that’s run amok.”
The rising far-left Democratic activists are necessary counterpoints, Krugman told me, pushing new ideas to the masses. “Banking is on the one hand a deeply technical issue, but on the other hand it’s too important to be left solely to the technocrats,” he said. “Elizabeth Warren shouldn’t be the outer bound; we should have some people who are much more radical.”
With its incessant tweets and Instagrams, the young left has in essence begun a long session of political exposure therapy with the Democratic mainstream, popularizing ideas that many people have never heard of before or ones that would have been laughed down at first mention not so long ago.
It hasn’t gone over well with some factions of the party. In an exit interview following her November 2018 loss, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said she wished Ocasio-Cortez well, but called her “a bright and shiny new object who came out of nowhere.” She advised her to “stick to issues we can actually accomplish something on,” saying, “the rhetoric is cheap. Getting results is a lot harder.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has been more measured, but in the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s primary upset, she tamped down suggestions that the surprise election was indicative of a radical shift in the party. “Nobody’s district is representative of somebody else’s district,” Pelosi said. “It should not be viewed as something that stands for everything else.”
That hasn’t stopped Ocasio-Cortez from using her ever-growing national platform to push for new candidates like herself all over the country. In November she announced that she would support Justice Democrats’ effort to primary Democratic members in the 2020 election, a move that’s seen as highly unusual, if not uncollegial. Maneuvers like that haven’t universally endeared her, even to sympathetic members of the party. In the weeks following the November election, one anonymous staffer from the Progressive Caucus told the Atlantic, “She’s so focused on truly Instagramming every single thing that, aside from the obvious suspects in her friendship circle, she’s not taking the time to capitalize on building relationships with members as much as she should.” (Recently, Ocasio-Cortez helped lead a Twitter class for members of the Democratic caucus.) In a recent Politico piece, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said, “I’m sure Ms. Cortez means well, but there’s almost an outstanding rule: Don’t attack your own people, we just don’t need sniping in our Democratic caucus.” Corbin Trent, Ocasio-Cortez’s spokesman, told FiveThirtyEight that the freshman would stay the rhetorical course and continue to support efforts to primary Democrats. “Most of her time is spent sniping Republicans and white supremacists — very little time is spent in intraparty conflict. It’s a mountain out of a molehill.”
Perhaps the policy activists care most about promoting in the next year is the Green New Deal. It’s a plan that’s been pushed by a group of high-profile new Democratic legislators, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, who proposed creating a new congressional committee to develop a detailed plan. As of now, the policy specifics are vague, but the plan’s broad goals are to fund a “massive investment in the drawdown in greenhouse gases,” explore renewable energy sources, and train Americans in new, more sustainable jobs. Recently, Elizabeth Warren endorsed the idea of a Green New Deal, which Ocasio-Cortez was quick to point out on Twitter. (Cory Booker and Sanders have also voiced support.)
Krugman is also bullish on the young left’s centerpiece policy. “If the Green New Deal means that we’re going to try to rely on public investment in technologies and renewables and things that will make it easier for people to use less fossil fuel, that’s a pretty good start,” he said.
The policy that has him more worried is single-payer health care, a centerpiece of Sanders’s campaign that many likely 2020 candidates have already come out to support. “That’s a huge amount of money — you can’t just do that by running up the deficit. You’d have to be collecting a bunch of new taxes, which is a reason for concern,” he said.
Krugman has been thinking about other ways to fiddle with the market system, though.
“I’ve been trying to do a little exercise with myself. I think with the fall of communism, we’d say central planning, government control of production doesn’t really work. But actually that’s not totally true,” he said. “What I try to put together is what could plausibly actually not be capitalist, actually not be markets — maybe 20-25 percent of the economy.” Things like health care, education, and utilities are all in the mix.
McElwee and I had dinner at a midtown Chinese restaurant on the same day that Ocasio-Cortez had tweeted one of his Data For Progress visualizations showing the rise in the number of tweets mentioning the “Green New Deal” since the summer of 2017. “Never underestimate the power of public imagination,” she wrote. It had been retweeted nearly 3,000 times and garnered 17,000 likes. Was the virality of the tweet and the promotion of a once-obscure policy idea some kind of success in and of itself, I asked.
“What is success? It’s power, it’s having a vision of the world that’s different from the status quo and enacting that vision,” McElwee said in between bites of scallion pancakes. At well over 6 feet tall with a uniform of puffy jackets and baseball hats, McElwee gives the impression of an overgrown teenage boy, fervent but with flashes of seeming self-awareness for his big talk. “And if three years from now Data for Progress has not enacted its vision, has not exercised itself upon the world and its ideas on the world, then we will have failed and we should stop doing this.”
Wasn’t that self-imposed timeline a little quick for broad political change to happen, I asked.
“We’re all going to fucking die of climate change,” McElwee shot back. “We have to accelerate, accelerate, accelerate.”
A trademark of the young left movement is its urgency of mission. This, coupled with a deep disdain for establishment politics, has made the dissemination of their gospel of change — particularly online — sharp-elbowed and disdainful of naysayers. “You don’t win over these people, you crush them,” McElwee told me of Republicans the first time we met. “I don’t make friends with Republican operatives. I don’t try to reach across the aisle. I think they’re bad people and I don’t want to be associated with them and you’ll never find a picture of me shaking hands with David Frum or something,” he said, referring to George W. Bush’s former speechwriter who is now a staff writer at The Atlantic.
Now that some of the left’s candidates have found themselves in office, agitation from inside the party is a tactic that will be put to greater use. After her election, Ocasio-Cortez attended a sit-in at Pelosi’s office over climate change. Tlaib unsuccessfully asked the Democratic leader to put her on the powerful House Appropriations Committee — an assignment that typically goes to seasoned members. (Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez have both been placed on the Financial Services Committee.) And on the first day of the 2019 House session, Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ro Khanna of California said they would vote against Democrats’ rules for the new Congress because they included a measure that necessitated any spending be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases. For progressive politicians pushing massive government-funded programs like Medicare for all and the Green New Deal, the rules are not seen as bureaucratic minutiae, but as sabotage.
When I asked Shahid if the new left movement was going to be the Democrats’ version of the House Freedom Caucus, his answer was unequivocal: “Yes, it is.”
He had another historical example in mind, too: Thaddeus Stevens and the Radical Republicans, a group of abolitionists who stridently pushed for Lincoln’s Republican Party to abolish slavery. “Politics is still the art of compromise, you still have to pass legislation,” Shahid said. “But the idea is on whose terms is the compromise?” Every transformative president, he said, had found himself pushed into radical new policies by movements. (Ocasio-Cortez said something similar in a 60 Minutes interview that aired a few weeks after Shahid and I talked.) Abraham Lincoln had the abolitionists at his throat, Franklin Roosevelt had labor unions pushing for the New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson had civil rights leaders prodding him toward reforms of racist laws.
“Maybe we can make Joe Biden into a Lincoln,” he said.
So whom do young leftists want as their 2020 candidate? And what role will their movement have throughout the campaign?
“I want the left to really think seriously about the fact that the core of our strategy right now is if we endorse the right person, they will owe us,” McElwee told me. The left, he said, should take a page out of big businesses’ book and not care what candidate is ultimately chosen. “Knowing what the fuck you’re talking about, having the right contacts with the right staffers who you need to call to make sure the right amendment is passed at the right time — we’re much worse at that. We don’t actually have that capacity built up.” For an idealist, McElwee has a tendency toward Machiavellian realism.
McElwee said he could live with a Biden or a Beto O’Rourke as the Democrats’ presidential nominee, which is heresy in some progressive circles. Shahid voiced a more common progressive view of O’Rourke, comparing him to Emmanuel Macron, the young centrist president of France. “He says beautiful things, but what does he believe in?”
Mitchell, for one, was put off by the rumblings of support for O’Rourke coming from Obama World. “It’s outrageous. What O’Rourke did was pretty amazing, but he lost by more than 200,000, and Stacey [Abrams] and Andrew [Gillum] lost by a hair. So how is his loss a signal that he’s a rising star and Stacey and Andrew’s losses are definitive losses — they need to regroup and figure things out? Somebody needs to explain that to me.”
A recent poll of Democrats in Iowa, a largely white state that holds the nation’s first caucuses, put Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke in the lead. Mitchell thinks that figures of the Democratic establishment are too eager to cede the party to centrist figures who appeal to a particular slice of the electorate.
“Basically what they’re saying is the Democrats need a white man that can talk to other white men and not scare this imagined centrist voter away with too much radical talk about totally restructuring our economy,” Mitchell said. “Politics is a swamp of confirmation bias.”
Regardless of who the party nominee turns out to be, it seems inarguable that the young left’s ideas will filter their way into the race. Shahid told me he thought that one strategy is for his ideological cohort to staff presidential campaigns. Justice Democrats, however, will focus on the next batch of congressional campaigns. “The biggest achievement we’ve gotten outside Ocasio was building a pipeline for candidate recruitment that actually reaches working class people,” Rojas said.
McElwee said his plans are mostly to stick to the issues. Right around the new year, his Twitter name changed to read “we’re going to pass AVR” — automatic voter registration — and a new website popped up promoting a new project to pass AVR in New York state. The Daily News had a piece on it, and McElwee’s feed was a litany of retweets of progressives cooing over the initiative. McElwee had told me that if he ever stopped seeing what the next new thing was, he’d get out of politics, lose 40 pounds, and try to sell his method as the next big fad diet. As he downed the last of his sake and finished my soup dumplings, it seemed clear he wasn’t in that headspace just yet.
“I’ll clearly support whoever the nominee is,” McElwee told me. “I think all of these people can be moved. They’re pieces on a chess board that’s so much larger than them. And I want to be helping move those chess pieces.”
UPDATE (3:11 p.m., Jan. 22, 2018): This article has been updated to reflect Rojas’s revised recollection of how many jobs she had to simultaneously work to make rent. Rojas said she had four jobs at most, not four or five.