Born on the Left, Data for Progress Comes of Age in Biden’s Washington

Of course, for many political activists, strategists and officials, leveraging approval ratings to push an agenda is a pretty basic political strategy. But in a world of young progressive activists who often argue that a central goal is to bring left-wing ideas from the fringes into the mainstream, the Data for Progress approach can be controversial, criticized in some quarters as shrinking expectations and selling out a bolder vision of racial justice and economic equality to appeal to wealthier and more moderate voters.

“Imagine Sean McElwee giving a keynote address at the Walmart Center for Racial Equity — forever,” wrote Matt Karp, a history professor at Princeton and a contributor to the liberal magazine Jacobin, warning of a left that gives away too much of its agenda to a “corporate Democratic Party.”

Mr. McElwee and his organization, which now employs nearly two dozen data scientists, policy experts and communication aides, say spending their political capital now that Democrats control Washington is kind of the point.

“The point of being a progressive and being involved in politics is to make progress happen,” said NoiseCat, an activist and author who was Data for Progress’s first employee. “At a certain point progress should mean we got x and y thing done that made people’s lives better. I think it’s kind of ironic that a lot of progressives forget that the main point is we’re supposed to do the progress thing.”

Over the past three years, Mr. McElwee made his own shift from self-described “Overton Window mover” to a more pragmatic approach, coming to embrace Mr. Biden — “I don’t like him very much,” he said in 2019 before meeting with his campaign less than a year later — and moving away from calls to #AbolishICE, a slogan he helped popularize that became a rallying call for the left in 2018. (Only about a quarter of voters backed the idea of eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to polling at the time.)

Now, his group advocates what Mr. McElwee has called a “normie progressive theory of change,” backing liberal candidates who can build broad coalitions around popular policies. Think lawmakers like Representative Lauren Underwood, who flipped her suburban Illinois district, rather than more firebrand progressive leaders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

On policy, they’ve come to embrace what they believe are the most popular parts of a liberal agenda as a way of persuading voters who might be skeptical of bolder rhetoric. Emphasizing a clean electric standard, instead of a carbon tax, for example. Or focusing on passing Mr. Biden’s agenda through reconciliation rather than fighting over abolishing the filibuster, a proposal that currently lacks sufficient support among Senate Democrats.