Sean McElwee runs an organization called Data for Progress, a progressive organization which makes use of a trove of survey and poll data to help progressive causes. Ezra Klein interviews him here on The Ezra Klein Show about his thinking on progressive politics in light of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 primary loss. I found myself nodding along to much of this podcast and think it would be a valuable conversation for other progressive-leaning citizens to hear.
I have often wondered about the nature of progressive politics. McElwee and Klein provide much-needed clarity. On the one hand, you have this wonderfully alluring ideologically pure conception of how the world works. On the other hand, you have this very inflexible view that most of the world silently agrees and simply needs to be activated by uncompromising leaders. In the way that much political philosophy is alluring because of its imagined idealism, progressive thinking has also had trouble finding broad appeal due to the perception of its unrealistic aspirations and theory of change. The theory of the Sanders campaign was that this economic populist message was so broadly appealing to working class Americans, that they would all join in the fight to redistribute power in this country. This class-based strategy left behind the massive electorate of suburban and urban voters who, while being sympathetic to many of the progressive causes, are also more interested in incremental change. In 2018, the progressive movement spent much of its effort trying to win rural districts with an economic populist message, which was not very effective at electing partners for the progressive cause. In contrast, candidates running with a more work-within-the-system approach to progressive politics fared much better. The true partner to the Left is the suburban electorate, not the rural voter.
Another aspect of the “silent majority” argument is that if you campaign on a maximalist, no-compromise platform, then you introduce a big achievement gap between what is being promised to voters and what can actually be accomplished. McElwee recommends implementing progressive policies in an immediately-achievable, incrementalist fashion:
What I think that the ideal is is that you pick very ambitious progressive policies that can deliver immediate gains for people that they can see in their lives. You run on those, then you deliver those gains. … If you keep saying you’re going to deliver on something and you deliver on it, people are going to notice. … We also have to have direct, implementable, winnable policies that we take to voters to show we are serious about governing, we are serious about delivering benefits that you can see. When a Democratic governor gets in office, and they say “I’m going to pass Medicaid expansion,” and they pass Medicaid expansion, and then people have Medicaid, then they turn out to vote. That is really important to winning and building political power.
He continues, expressing worry that progressive policies, constructed maximally, never get passed. This demobilizes supporters of these policies. But if the progressive movement can pass smaller but significant reforms, they can tell a great story about how the progressive movement makes real change for real people and how that brings about a better life for all people. That can’t happen when maximalist policies are the only ones put forward and discussed, and therefore up to so much opposition that they can’t get passed. All-or-nothing approaches to governing never work – why should we believe that they work in campaigning?
I think that the thing progressives have to remember is that people who come to politics with an ideology-first way of thinking are not the majority of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party can be best understood as a collection of the interest of African-American groups, Latino groups, women groups, unions, and progressives. Of the groups, the progressives are the only ones whose first priority is winning ideological policy gains. For [the other groups], it’s much more about delivering concrete benefits to those constituent groups and delivering descriptive representation.
This conversation is a beautiful post-mortem of the progressive candidacy of Senator Sanders, and is a guidebook on how to achieve progressive policy moving forward.