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Outlining the left wing of the Democratic Party with Sean McElwee: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Sean McElwee, someone at the nexus of the changing winds of the left, about a possible way forward for Democrats.

Can the Democratic Party keep up with the new left? The left-most wing of the party is growing and expanding, pushing platforms like Medicare for all, free college and abolishing ICE. Though this group is the minority, the space they’re creating is the space in which entirety of the party will have to participate in the coming elections. For example, Abolish ICE was popularized by a Twitter hashtag pushed by Sean McElwee.

Now, it’s a common campaign issue that the president rails against in his speeches and that any 2020 Democratic hopeful will have to answer to. Sean McElwee pops up again in these primaries, having foreseen two of the biggest Democratic upsets months in advance. As someone at the nexus of the changing winds of the left, McElwee joins us to share his thoughts on what they see as the way forward for the Democratic Party.

SEAN McELWEE: I mean, I think you know the famous example in the stimulus where like all the economists were like, make sure that people don't know you're getting them the tax credit, because if they know that they're getting it, then they're not gonna spend it. And it's like, no make them fucking know so they know to vote for you again instead of the people who are gonna give all the money to corporations.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. So if you've been paying attention to politics recently, particularly the midterm elections and the candidates in different races, you may have noticed there's a phrase that started cropping up more and more. And what's interesting about it is, it's cropping up on the Democratic side. You're hearing Democratic candidates talk about it. You're hearing them get asked questions about whether they support this particular policy, and you're also hearing Republicans talk about it a lot. In fact the president loves to talk about it. It's become one of his new favorite things to talk about. And the phrase is “abolish ICE.” Abolish ICE. ICE of course is Immigration Customs Enforcement. It's part of the Department of Homeland Security. And it has been involved in lots of the really awful stuff we've seen in immigration policy in the Trump administration. Most clearly, family separation, right? ICE has been the unit that's doing the separating, that's overseeing and implementing the policy.

They've also been doing raids in gardening stores in suburban Ohio where they roll through and they handcuff a bunch of woman who are working without papers. And haul them off. There's viral videos of them rolling up out of nowhere, unmarked. Not with any badges or not even identifying themselves, and trying to sort of apprehend people. And people freaking out. There's lots of reasons that people have started to get really wary of ICE as an agency and what it does. But abolish ICE, abolish ICE as a phrase and as a political platform sounds radical. It's like, when I first heard that phrase, I was like, abolish? Someone's got to enforce the immigration law. Can’t just get rid of it? Part of it is that word abolish. It calls back to abolition, which is a radical movement. A correct radical movement. People that work to get rid of the death penalty call themselves abolitionists. Radical organizers who want to get rid of prisons altogether, call themselves prison abolitionists. So there's kind of a radical bite to that phrase, abolish ICE.

But what's also really interesting about abolish ICE as a idea is that the more I thought about it, the more I was like, well it's not that crazy. I'm not sure that I agree with it, but my initial reaction that well, you just can't get of ICE. ICE has only existed since after 9/11. It was created in the wake of 9/11, and what it did is it put together essentially civil enforcement matters and criminal ones in the same place. And interestingly enough, when people defend ICE, when ICE itself defends ICE, or when they ... It's all about them doing criminal enforcement. It's like, well how can you get rid of ICE? ICE just busted a big sex trafficking ring. And it's like, yeah, you can bust a sex trafficking ring without an immigration dedicated law enforcement entity. If someone is sex trafficking, guess what? They're breaking the law. Immigrant or non-immigrant. If someone's dealing drugs, breaking the law. Immigrant or non-immigrant. If someone's killing someone in a gang, that is illegal. That is a crime. You can bust them and you should if they are killing people through the various law enforcement agencies we have.

You do not need a law enforcement agency dedicated to immigrants to do that. In fact, what's perverse about putting them together is that you end up with a culture that's all geared up to go after bad guys that kill people or traffic people. Being the same ones who roll up on the moms working in the garden store. Which maybe's not the greatest thing. So abolish ICE is an idea… was a phrase that I first heard and I was like, and it's grown on me a little bit. It's also grown on the Democratic party. This idea, which started, and we're gonna get to where it started in a second. Wait for it. This idea is now been endorsed by a whole bunch of Democratic candidates. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Talib in Michigan. The senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, has basically come out. Mark Pocan, who's a Democratic representative from Wisconsin has introduced legislation to get rid of ICE. To abolish ICE. There's like legislation for this.

And a year ago, you couldn't find the phrase. You couldn't find the idea. It was nowhere. No one was running on it, for God sakes. No one even thought about it as a thing. No one was asking Democratic candidates because it did not exist as an issue. That is what so fascinating about abolish ICE. It was not an issue, and now it is an issue. And there's nothing more powerful in politics than the power to define what an issue is. Right? What's an issue? Property taxes. Property taxes are an issue. If you're having a debate on property taxes, you're already setting the terms of what a campaign is gonna look like. If the first question in a moderated debate for a local elected representative is about property taxes, already all kinds of political boundaries have been defined. Right? What is fascinating and dynamic about the political moment we're living in is the terrain is moving very quickly about what are issues. And it's changing. And the way that the left particularly right now is thinking about what the issues are and how to address them are changing very quickly and in really, really interesting ways.

Which brings me to today's guest. Who's a guy on Twitter named Sean McElwee. He's more than that, I'll get to that in a second. Who was sort of the person to popularize the phrase abolish ICE. It originated with immigration activists, groups that work with immigrants every day. But he started tweeting about it, every time a bad ICE story would come out, retweet abolish ICE. He's got a t-shirt that he photographs himself in, abolish ICE, abolish ICE, abolish ICE. He throws this salon cocktail thing where bunch of lefties like from across the spectrum from like sort of progressive Democrats to like hardcore, very militant socialists come together. And he has placed himself in a really interesting way at the nexus of the building of this new left. This kind of vanguard within the Democratic party coalition. You know, these are folks that belong to Democratic Socialists of America. They have red roses on their Twitter handles. They want ideas like Medicare for all, free college for all, a public option for banking, abolish ICE.

All kinds of new ideas, all kinds of new issues, all kinds of new terrain being formed in real time right now by this part of the Democratic party. It's not the biggest part of the Democratic party coalition at all. It's not the dominant strain of the Democratic party coalition at all. It has the highest velocity in an ideological sense of any part of the Democratic party coalition. It is pushing and creating agenda spaces more than other parts of the party. And that hasn't always been true. There's a period of time back in the Clinton years where the DLC, which is the centrist part of the party, they were the ones at the forefront of creating new issues. They were the ones at the forefront of creating new policies. They were sort of leading the conversation. Not true right now. Is the left part of the Democratic party coalition. But if you're looking for where the ideological energy is in the Democratic party coalition right now, this is the part of the faction that has it.

And Sean McElwee's a fascinating guy because he has sort of placed himself at the center of a bunch of different networks between the kind of establishment of the Democratic party, or the sort of structure of the Democratic party. The sort of vanguard of the Democratic Socialists of America, and he's got his finger on the pulse in this sort of freakish way of this part of the movement. And I'll give you an example. He tweeted this on May 6th, 2018. Months ago. "I'm gonna be roasted endlessly for this, but I don't care. If the Democratic party has a Cantor moment,” meaning Eric Cantor, who was in leadership in the Republican party and got beaten in a primary out of nowhere by a guy named David Brat. Took everyone by surprise. “If the Democratic party has a Cantor moment, it will occur in New York 14.” What is New York 14? The district where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joseph Crowley, who is in Democratic leadership, who took most of the political world completely by surprise. This is Sean McElwee saying this back in May.

Everybody that woke up the next day and was like, who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Sean McElwee is like, "I am telling you. This is coming. This is happening." He then appended it with another tweet. He said, “for what it's worth, I think Massachusetts seven might surprise folks, but it wouldn't be a Cantor moment, more of a Bennett moment.” Let me decode that for you. Bennett was a senator from Utah who got unseated, again shocking everyone back during the Tea Party years by Mike Lee in Utah. Didn't, he was an incumbent senator, been there for years. Kicked out by his own party in favor of young, more ideologically right candidate, right? That's the Bennett. And Massachusetts seven, what is that? That's the district where Ayanna Pressley just won over Mike Capuano. Right now, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley are on their way to being members of Congress. They have token Republican opposition. When I talked to Sean, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had won, Ayanna Pressley was still yet to happen. So just keep that in mind when you hear us talking about it.

So just to be clear, back in May, Sean McElwee is out here saying these two people, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, running for Congress in their own party's primary, against great odds. Women of color with a very progressive agenda, they're going to win. They're coming for you. Months and months before I think the mainstream political press woke up to what was happening. And that is because of Sean's proximity to all that's happening is this part of the Democratic party coalition. And so as we head towards the midterms, we think about the future of the Democratic party, where it is headed. I thought a great person to talk to is Sean. A few things about Sean. He's a contributor to the Nation, he started this thing called Data for Progress, they put out these sort of interesting empirical analyses of different policies and different political questions.

He's also really profane, like he really likes to curse. So this is an explicit podcast, which is weird. But it is, if you're just riding around with your kids in the car, or you're playing it in your kitchen, just like FYI. I don't curse. I mean, maybe once or twice. Just get pulled into it. But, and so, but, here's the thing I would say. Whatever your politics are, where you place yourself in the political spectrum, even if you're a conservative, like you need to know, to understand where American politics are right now, and particularly the forces that are going to shape the next presidential primary. And the next agenda of Democratic governance, if and when Democrats reclaim control, both of national governments, and when they are governing in states, the ones they have majorities, like California. And in states they may take majorities.

If you want to understand the vector of change, which way the wind is blowing, which way the movement is moving, you need to listen to folks like Sean McElwee. How old are you, Sean?


CHRIS HAYES: You're 25 years old. You're someone who, I don't know how you came into my awareness. You email me?

SEAN McELWEE: I thought it was Twitter.

CHRIS HAYES: Maybe Twitter. It was probably Twitter.

SEAN McELWEE: I thought I just harassed you on Twitter.

CHRIS HAYES: You harassed me on Twitter, which does not make you stand out. Some harassment's more effective than others. You've been sort of hosting this happy hour in New York. What is the deal behind the happy hour? Like what's the idea behind it?

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, I mean when I came to New York and was like interested in politics. Like that was before being socialist was like cool. It was actually quite nice. You could show up to a Verso party, like an hour late and still have seating. Now you're like, an hour ahead of time, you're in a fucking third overflow room. Wait, am I allowed to say the f word?

CHRIS HAYES: You can say whatever you want.

SEAN McELWEE: All right. Yeah, one of the things I've noticed when I've been more on the record is I didn't realize how much I swore. And so like, I don't know, it was like the only left place you could go was like book launches and stuff. And I wanted to have like a place where people across the progressive spectrum could, you know, talk and find common ground. And at the time, Twitter was like a hell scape, and wasn't really giving us spaces to talk in sort of good faith. And sort of build the relationships that we need. I'm not saying that the left can't have disagreements. We just have to have them, I think better. And more effectively. And it's sort of just-

CHRIS HAYES: You mean, when was it? Because I felt like there's a way in which every sort of philosophical, ideological doctrinal debate on the left on twitter becomes a flame war extremely quickly.


CHRIS HAYES: And maybe every exchange, maybe that's just the nature of the medium, or maybe that's just the nature of the internet. Like, I mean I was on for years I was on message boards or listservs, and it was not that different frankly. Like flame wars are flame wars and have been since basically inception of the internet.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, I mean, it was sort of a sense of like look, people don't talk like that in real life. I mean, I have never heard someone talk in real life like over drinks the way they do on the message board. And it is a little bit harder to sort of like go off on someone if you know them at least reasonably personably. And that's something by the way that really benefits the right wing and centrists now. Right, like one of the reasons that conservatives get sort of this endless amount of good faith from the media is because all of them are slapping backs and stuff like that at parties. And I wanted to have that, but for the left. And like have a sort of understanding of like, yeah, this person comes at these issues from a different way, but you know we can hear them out. I found it very useful.

I think there was the recent DSA endorsement debate over Cynthia Nixon. And at my happy hour, we had like these really awesome discussions about it from people who came from different sides. And I think it gave me a really strong sense of perspective of how people were approaching it. And that, I just didn't see that as much on the internet at the time.

CHRIS HAYES: So the reason I want to talk to you is precisely this. Because there's a lot of really interesting things I think happening on the left and the center left right now. And they get covered sort of sporadically. You know, there was a moment after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's victory where this was all this attention being paid. She belongs to the Democratic Socialists of America, and what is socialism, and the party's moving left. And I will say that I think the first I heard about her was you. You emailed me to say there's this woman primarying Joe Crowley who's really interesting. She's gonna come by the happy hour, you should meet her at some point. And I started following that race because of that. And I think you, you're 25 years old. You're sort of sitting at an interesting point at the kind of intersection of a lot of these currents that are happening.

I think you used to work for Demos, which is a sort of liberal progressive think tank, but in the kind of institutional vein of where the Democratic party or where the progressive movement is at. And then you have a lot of interactions with activist groups and also sort of socialists. And so maybe the best place to start right now is just like, where would you characterize where the base of the left is? What that means in 2018?

Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at the Netroots Nation annual conference for political progressives in New Orleans
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at the Netroots Nation annual conference for political progressives in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 4, 2018.Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah. I mean I think that there are some pretty clear electoral demands that come with it which is I think centrally Medicare for all has emerged as an issue that the progressive left is pretty united around. I think there's no question at this point that if you want to run on the mantle of progressivism, you have to support abortion rights, support a path to citizenship, and often more. Decriminalization of migration. I think that it is increasingly true that you have to support policies that would really tackle inequality in a very serious way. This seems like something of a low bar. But you know, if you've observed politics for more than a decade, you would know that this is in fact not a given in the Democratic party. And for a long time, these were not seen as core values that had to be taken seriously.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, part of it too, so there's two things going on here, right. One is this question of like what is the base? Or when we're talking about the progressives or left, I mean, there's always this sort of creeping danger, I think of like vanguardism, which is like, and I should say, you're a young white man, which I don't hold against you. As I don't hold against me, but not representative I think necessarily of where I think the future of the party is, I think we would both agree in a lot of ways. But there's always this question of like, who are we talking about, right? We're talking about, like there's millions and millions of Democratic party primary voters. Who counts as the base, who counts as the left?

At some level, it's like older black women in the south are some of the most reliable Democratic voters that exist. Like so in some ways, it's like they're the base in some sort of demographic, you know, who's coming out and voting in election after election. But they're not the people necessarily showing up at the Democratic Socialists of America conference. So like, how do you think about that?

SEAN McELWEE: Sure. I mean I think that what it means to be a progressive is contested now. I think it's a debate that we're having within the party. I mean, there's like sort of an old style of thinking about politics, which was like, there's the Democratic position, the Republic position. And then like Ted Kennedy hangs out with like Tip O'Neill or whatever, and they like come up with here is the bipartisan compromise. And what's changed is now instead you sort of have in the interregnums in which the party is out of power, the various forces that make up that party sort of have feverish internal debates to determine what is our agenda. And then they get power, and then they sort of implement that agenda.

CHRIS HAYES: They try to ram it through.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this is what happened to the Republican party.

CHRIS HAYES: Stop right there, because that's an interesting idea of like the model to your mind has changed, right? And this is a thing that people lament about the model changing, right?

SEAN McELWEE: I love it. It makes me happy. I wake up every day and it's the only thing that makes me happy.

CHRIS HAYES: The idea that like the old model of legislating, which is like we get bipartisan sponsorship, we try to get to like 80% of votes. We pass stuff like the tax reform of '86, which you mentioned Tip O'Neill, is like the iconic example of that. That model of legislating is gone. So what you do is you have internal fights within the party for maximalist positions that you then try to impose on the opposition.

SEAN McELWEE: It means you don't have to talk to Republicans anymore. What a relief. What a joy, what a wonder. Yeah, so I mean, like abolish ICE is sort of an internal debate within the Democratic party, which is when we have the power to create an immigration system, will we create a humane, humanist, human-centered immigration system? Or will we cave once again to the forces of white supremacy? And you know, the Republican Party has shown itself many times that they do not want to be part of any immigration policy discussion that is not deeply fascist. I take them at their word for that, and I say, “All right, well then, let's come up as the Democratic Party as this is what we're going to do in 2021.” I think that you can't really use the model that we've had before because the path to citizenship that we had a decade ago was far too onerous than what we would ideally want.

I see myself and what I do as just trying to get within the Democratic Party and the constituent membership of the Democratic Party and the people who vote for Democrats and the people who are invested in the Democratic Party as a means to get the policy in. They want to see, what is an agenda that we can agree on and that we can implement in 2021?

CHRIS HAYES: The big question there, where the pushback comes, there's a bunch of different way the pushback comes. Let me tick through them. One of them is, is the Tea Party a good model?

SEAN McELWEE: I understand the Tea Party somewhat differently than most people who study this type of stuff do. Power is a finite commodity, and lots of people want it. If you want to gain power in the Republican Party, the way you do that as you exploit the biggest tension between the establishment of the Republican Party and the basis they’re falling apart, which is at the time on the issue of immigration.

Power is also a finite commodity on the Democratic side. When people want to contest your power, they tend to do it in a somewhat different way, which is there aren't really, really huge ideological divides between Democratic primary voters and their elected officials, but there are pretty big descriptive representation divides. You have a lot of white men representing districts, the majority people of color. You have a tonal divide between the threat that many Democratic primary voters see from Trump and the way their representatives respond to it. You do have some interest group divides.

Is there a Tea Party in the left in the sense that there are a lot of people who have a lot of talent and could be in Congress and would like to be in and at some point I think will be and they will do whatever it takes to get there? Absolutely. Ayanna Pressley is a great example of this. It's just like-

Image: Boston City Councilwomen And House Democratic Candidate Ayanna Pressley Attends Primary Night Gathering In Boston
Ayanna Pressley, Boston City Councilwomen and House Democratic candidate, gives a victory speech at her primary night gathering after her opponent Mike Capuano conceded in Boston on Sept. 4, 2018.Scott Eisen / Getty Images

CHRIS HAYES: Slow down. Ayanna Pressley is-

SEAN McELWEE: She’s primarying in Capuano.

CHRIS HAYES: In Massachusetts.

SEAN McELWEE: He’s a fine back bencher. He’ll great professor at Boston University. What her argument I think is, look, I was on the Hill for 12 years. I was on the City Council for eight years. When the fuck is my turn? No one was giving her, her turn, so she's going to take her turn. In that sense, yes, I would like to see Democratic incumbents face primary challengers because I'd like to see the voters of the Democratic Party have an option between multiple visions for the future of the party.

CHRIS HAYES: In a weird way though, let me stop you there, so there's a few ways to understand what the Tea Party did. One is that I think putting your finger on, which I think is an important one, which is people forget this about the Tea Party. There's all of this anti-Obama activism and trying to stop the ACA, but an electoral consequence is a huge … Its first manifestation were this series of shocking upsets of Republican favorites in primary races, race after race in which these Republicans just got their ass handed to them. It probably cost them control of the Senate in a few different elections. In some total gimme seats, Delaware is the one that most comes to mind, we have not seen something like that.

What's interesting to me about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley is that we haven't seen more of it. It seems to me the Democratic primary voters, for whatever reason, are more comfortable, happy with, loyal to the establishment of their party than Republicans circa 2010, at least when you look at the results so far. What do you think of that?

SEAN McELWEE: Sure. I think that that gets to the other aspect of the Tea Party, which I think is not helpful for the left, which is that it's deeply nihilistic, and fundamentally nihilism does not serve left aims, though it does serve the aims of the Republican Party. If everything-

CHRIS HAYES: You mean like burn it down, burn it down, burn it down.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah. Everything in the government shuts down forever. That is a win for the right. It's a win for the Republican Party. That is not true of the Democratic Party. It would not be a win for us. Because of that, I think that the way that the actors think about this electorally is much different. The reality is that the groups who are responsible for giving muscle to these primary challengers have been pretty smart about this. There’s not an attempt to knock off Bredesen in Tennessee. There wasn't really an attempt to knock out Sinema. There wasn't an attempt to knock off Rosen. Though in the latter two, I do think a more progressive person would still be a viable general election candidate.

CHRIS HAYES: Bredesen in Tennessee. Sinema who is going to be the Democratic nominee for Senate in Arizona, who herself is fascinating because 15 years ago, she might've been sitting in your chair as a young leftist. She's a Green Party member who is now the centrist member of Congress.

SEAN McELWEE: She fought against the show me your papers law in the Arizona State Senate and then basically voted for the same fucking law as a member of the House.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, things change.


CHRIS HAYES: So what I'm hearing from you, and I think this gets at something really deep about the asymmetries between the two coalitions, I do think because of the nature the Democratic constituencies have to the government that there is more, for lack of a better word, pragmatism or more investment in institutional health and success than on the other side.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, for sure. One other difference with the Tea Party, which is that their agenda is wildly loathed by the American public and the left's agenda is actually quite popular. It's worth dividing candidates into two dimensions. One dimension will be ideology, and one dimension would be, how good are they of a candidate? I think that we tend to think very extreme ideological candidates also correlates with being a bad candidate.

Marco Rubio is a wildly extreme person. It's really hard for I think media people to understand this because they are always imbibing their own bullshit. Marco Rubio believes that women should never be allowed to have abortions. That's an absurd position, but it is what he has stated as his view that is wildly unpopular, but it seems like a not unpopular position because Marco Rubio is very hot and is treated by the media as a normal person.

I keep going back to Todd Akin and Marco Rubio. They have the same policy views. If they were in the Senate, they would vote for the exact same bills, but one is seen as extreme and one is not. That gives you a sense of the flexibility of ideology. There's a great study by Christopher Warshaw in which he shows the American public really meaningfully cannot distinguish between the ideology of different politicians. When you're thinking of ideological effects, what you're really looking at is candidate effects. It just so happens that people are good candidates tend to ended up being in ecosystems where they are told, here's the ideology.

I think that's why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's victory was so powerful. Actually you can have very out of the mainstream, in finger quotes, of what the media will allow ideology. If you're an incredibly compelling and successful candidate, that doesn't matter. Sherrod Brown is as much the same, and as is Tammy Baldwin. Tammy Baldwin wants fucking to end share buybacks and have worker code determination of every corporate board in America, and she's wildly popular in Wisconsin.

CHRIS HAYES: One thing I'm suspicious of, you've got this report in which you polled a lot of the left agenda. There's this thing that happens a lot which is almost a joke, which everyone thinks that their policy preferences are popular. If only people did the things that I want to see, then everyone will win elections.

SEAN McELWEE: Chris, that's not true.

CHRIS HAYES: You look hurt when I say that.

SEAN McELWEE: I have lots of policy preferences that I know to be unpopular.

CHRIS HAYES: See. Thank you for saying that.

SEAN McELWEE: I wish that the center would do that.

CHRIS HAYES: I know. Thank you for saying that.

SEAN McELWEE: I really served report full of things that I want to do. It turns out-

CHRIS HAYES: It’s true, that I acknowledge are unpopular. I’ve been turning to your polling on reparations here, which you guys-

SEAN McELWEE: Hey, it's above water with under 45s. It’s the future.

CHRIS HAYES: You polled reparation, spoiler alert, not super popular among the whites. We’re not going to get big majorities of white people. Where am I here? Reparations in your polling in the white working class is 39 points under water. White college-educated, it's 30 points under water. With working class people of color, it's 15 points plus, and college-educated people of color, it's plus five. Yes, you have-

SEAN McELWEE: I will acknowledge that. However, it is more popular-

CHRIS HAYES: You're not urging every Democratic candidate to run on reparations.

SEAN McELWEE: It is more popular though than cutting social security, which I've joked a little bit on Twitter, but I was like, look-

CHRIS HAYES: That's fascinating actually.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah. I was like, look, if Tom Carper wanted to in line with the American public opinion, he would stop trying to cut social security, and he would support abolishing ICE.

CHRIS HAYES: I totally agree. There are many members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate whose voting records are more conservative than they would maximally need to be to get reelection. I want to go back to this ideological question because you're saying two things that are intention, and I think it's not an easily resolvable thing, which is you're polling on these issue areas but then it's also like, well, people don't really actually have fixed ideas about ideology.

Those to me seem intention. You can point to polling and be like, well, abolish ICE is more popular than privatizing social security. People say all sorts of stuff in abstract senses around polling. What they really do is form their worldview based on the signals and the back and forth that's happening for the dynamic political process.

SEAN McELWEE: Maybe. One of the policies that we have there is a public option for internet. I don't know what arguments you can come up with that would make that unpopular for the American public. It seems like it would be very difficult. Stripping pharmaceutical companies of their patents for lifesaving drugs and producing generic versions of that. That seems to me something that I don't know how big pharma would attack that, but I'm fairly confident it would be able to stand up to scrutiny.

CHRIS HAYES: By the way, I’ll just say for your own polling on public internet, this is fascinating, so public internet, you have polling across four different categories. It's plus 71 among Clinton voters, plus 71. That's essentially unanimous. Here's what's more interesting then. It's plus 15 among Trump voters. It's plus 32 among nonvoters. You pull these different groups. You say, hey, should there be a public option for the internet? It's a popular idea.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, exactly. It turns out that the way to win these voters is not you move to the center. It's actually that you take a playbook from the progressive left and start injecting new ideas that are going to disrupt the way that they're thinking about the two parties.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, for sure. That theory to me is a really interesting one. The idea that of that, the issue space is … Because I actually think this is something that is happening right now in the world that I think you're closer to than a lot of folks that I've talked to are, where the idea that inject new issues, push on new issues. Abolish ICE is a great example. Abolish ICE went from a slogan that you were tweeting a bunch, and it's something that the groundwork has been laid by a lot of immigrant groups who have been up against ICE during previous administrations.

Image: Abolish ICE
Immigration activists protest against the Maricopa County Sheriff and Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the county jail in an ongoing effort to get immigration authorities out of the jail, in Phoenix on Aug. 22, 2018.Ross D. Franklin / AP file

SEAN McELWEE: I made the reference in one article I talked about. If I started tweeting, let dolphins vote, and people were like, yeah, you know what? I love that idea. We should let dolphins vote. There would be no intellectual or activist infrastructure that they can hop on to, to let dolphins vote. When people become … Yeah, I do want dolphins to vote. I genuinely believe dolphins would be some socialist voters.

CHRIS HAYES: I’m turning to page 20 of your report that has dolphins voting at plus 40 among Trump voters. Continue.


CHRIS HAYES: That's a joke, by the way.

SEAN McELWEE: That infrastructure was already created by immigration activists doing a lot of work. When people became engaged in the idea that we need to dismantle ICE, there were ways that they could engage with that work that was already there. They can be like, all right, well, let's stop data sharing. We actually have those activist networks set up. We have this theory of change set up that we can immediately engage with. All of that really laid the groundwork to make this something that could happen. I think everyone who is investing in the idea of abolish ICE becoming reality owes immense debt to the people who have been organizing around it for 20 years.

CHRIS HAYES: Here's what I think is interesting about abolish ICE. It starts out, it sounds like a crazy or radical idea. It gets injected into the bloodstream. There's already an infrastructure of immigrant rights groups that have been frontline dealing with ICE day in, day out, pointing out its problems, issuing reports like the ACLU did about ICE detention under the Obama administration. And, exempting for a second whether it's a good policy idea, which I want to put aside for a second, although I would like to engage on it, clearly you think so, but exempting that for a second. It's been wildly politically successful insofar as when you poll Democratic voters now about ICE, ICE is totally under water.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah. I don't know. I've been drinking with the progressive left for the last five years every Thursday. I just have absorbed all these ideas. I just want to put them out there. I think that if we as a party and as a progressive movement, we can actually disrupt right now how we're viewed and we can change the playing field to be more on our terms. I think that we should really be injecting a lot of these new ideas into the public realm because I don't think we know off the top of our heads what the public is ready for. I think that there is an increasing willingness among the general public to take a second look at really left ideas because a lot of the things that have been currently in the discourse have not been going very well.

CHRIS HAYES: When I was 24, 25, it was in the teeth of the Bush administration. It was a weird time because it was post-9/11. The politics in the country had gone insane, totally insane. Bush was at 90 percent approval rating. We were about to go to war in Iraq, which was an absolutely criminally horrible idea that I opposed and a bunch of people in my cohort and world opposed, but-

SEAN McELWEE: Thank you.

CHRIS HAYES: That generation of Democrats, Bill Clinton is a perfect example, there's a whole generation of Democrats whose defining thing that they experienced was being caught unawares by right wing backlash. There's the McGovern loss in ‘68. There's amnesty.

SEAN McELWEE: Amnesty, acid, abortion.

CHRIS HAYES: Amnesty, acid, abortion. There's the idea of getting too far left of the populace. The idea of getting caught unaware by right wing backlash. The idea that all these rights movements of the ‘60s and early ‘70s pushed and pushed and pushed, and they precipitated the backlash, and it gave us Nixon then it gave us Reagan and all this stuff. Young liberals and leftists I think don't have that same experience. What do you say to people that say like, “You are going to screw up the chances for Democrats by essentially pushing too far and the President of United States is happy to run around saying they want to abolish ICE because he knows that's not popular, and you are handing him your version of amnesty, acid, abortion.”

SEAN McELWEE: I think Clinton ran on amnesty, acid, abortion, and she ended up winning a popular vote majority.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that and $2.75 gets you on the subway.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, but what I'm trying to say is … Actually, I don't know what that means.

CHRIS HAYES: Meaning it's worthless. Meaning she won, but she's not president of the United States.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah. I actually deeply understand folks. I actually encourage young people to read a book by a young fellow named Thomas Edsall called "Chain Reaction."

CHRIS HAYES: Which is a great book on exactly this topic.

SEAN McELWEE: I've imbibed the book. I talked with Edsall. I understand. I understand why older folks are very skeptical because it seems to me it would really be tough to spend your entire political career in the wake of the Reagan Revolution and nothing you do can stop you from just being brutally beaten in the ballot box at every chance you get. Every time you think you finally have gotten out of it, you get the shit kicked out of you again. That seems awful, but it's also not the experience that we have with the American electorate now.

The electorate has changed dramatically in terms of what they are willing to countenance. I think that inequality has made it so that even folks who have incomes, $75,000 a year, are really feeling left behind and are a little bit more open to progressive left ideas. The attitudes that Americans hold about race in America have changed dramatically as well.

What I'm trying to say is I understand where those folks are coming from, and I actually really try to empathize with them deeply by understanding that time in politics. What I try to tell them is just “we are not in the same America now.” Also that by expanding the ideas that are allowed to be discussed in the American politics, I'm actually helping you. In the current status quo when we're talking about ICE funding, Paul Ryan goes to Pelosi and he says, “Look, we got to increase ICE,” and Pelosi says like, “All right, we're going to do that because that's what's been going on. That's seen as the normal outcome.”

CHRIS HAYES: I should note here that funding for CVP, border security in the nebulous category, and ICE has been going up year after year after year after year.

SEAN McELWEE: Now all of a sudden, Paul Ryan is talking to Nancy Pelosi and he's like, “Look. I'd love to fund ICE as much as the next person, but I got Adriano Espaillat who wants to destroy the institution. Maybe let's just zero out funding.” Look, you saw this with the Goodlatte bill where he introduces a fascist bill and then some of the Republicans introduced a somewhat less fascist bill and this is called a compromise. It's not a compromise with Democrats. It's a compromise within the Republican conference.

CHRIS HAYES: One of the things that you talk about a lot and shows up in Data for Progress, which is an organization that you run, I guess.

SEAN McELWEE: Data for Progress, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Data for Progress. It’s just like the fact that marginal voters, particularly young voters, voters of color who are infrequent voters or nonvoters. If you look at their opinions on stuff, they are quite progressive in their leanings. And a huge project for building power for the left should be focusing like a laser on how you engage those people, how you create the structural conditions to turn them out, and how you create the sort of legal regime that will open up the franchise.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I see this as you expand the electorate, you expand the sort of political possibilities for progressive policies. And the people who are currently disenfranchised are the people who are gonna be most sympathetic to progressive ideas. I mean there was a study of Medicaid expansion in Alabama. And what it found was that most of the people who fell into that expansion gap between what we would have gotten and what it currently exists in Alabama were either disenfranchised permanently through felon disenfranchisement or were not registered to vote.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow. Right. So the people who are in the gap who would have been benefited are people who either had their voting rights taken away from felon disenfranchisement or are not registered, and so they don't wield any meaningful political power electorally.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, I mean this is why I'm a big fan of calling up your European representatives and having them implement a regime of sanctions against the United States until felon disenfranchisement is ended.

CHRIS HAYES: Another popular idea.

SEAN McELWEE: Well, I mean people are calling Collins. I mean it's great. You should call her, but at the end of the day, who's really gonna have your back? It's the French parliament.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's exactly where people should focus their energy. Well there's now, this year there's a Florida, there's actually this really important fight in Florida that to me it seems like a good example of a frontline fight on this. Florida has one of the felony disenfranchisement laws in the country. And that is gonna be on the ballot this fall.

SEAN McELWEE: Pretty wild that felon disenfranchisement in Florida costs us like three elections, and it took us two decades to figure out that we should probably stop that.

CHRIS HAYES: This is truly an excellent point. I mean, literally I lived through 2000, and we saw what happened in Virginia when they largely got rid of felon disenfranchisement under McAuliffe, and it did alter the sort of center of gravity in that state.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah. I mean like, love y'all for protesting the war, but you know, could have put some time into that felon disenfranchisement. Would have appreciated it.

CHRIS HAYES: We were very busy, back then trying to stop that war. But that to me sort of strikes me as a place where like, when you talk about these sort of factional or ideological disputes, in the broader center left, it does seem to me that on place of overlap, where like everyone lines up, I mean it's good for everyone across the spectrum, right? I think in some ways, is widening the franchise. Things like automatic voter registration, getting rid of felon disenfranchisement, et cetera.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean I think that's one of the things where you see the sort of most overlap, and where it's easiest for folks to organize around. You know, it's one of the reasons I think why Andrew Cuomo is so despised. He's governor of New York, governor of super blue state, also you know-

CHRIS HAYES: Despised, I have to say this. Despised by activists on the left. Like he's polling 30 points up in the Democratic primary. I don't want to overrepresent that point of view.

SEAN McELWEE: Wow, busting me. Yeah, no, I mean look.

CHRIS HAYES: He is just, he is absolutely despised by a certain group of folks in New York.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah. One of the funniest things people know, it's not really funny, it kind of stinks. But you know, one of the most pro-Republican gerrymanders in the country was signed into law by Governor Cuomo. He gerrymandered our state senate to ensure that he wouldn't have to pass progressive policies. And I absolutely think that one of the things you see is these very powerful, sort of cross ideological, within the Democratic party and progressive movement broadly. But often even across ideological, including conservatives. You know, in Alaska, they passed automatic voter registration, and that's a very red state. Around the sort of rights of the franchise. And one of the things that you've seen is that when Democrats are taking power in states like Washington and New Jersey, that's one of the first things they're doing. And also you know we just saw this in Maryland. And one of the things that's actually been really frustrating for me to watch is how rapidly these things have happened.

And it's like, yo, why the fuck weren't we doing this 10 years ago? Like one of the frustrations I really deeply feel as a sort of young progressive is why are all of our institutions, why have they been failing for so long? Why have we not, why doesn't New York have better voting laws? Like many of the leading pro-voting rights groups are based in New York. Like why, what's going on? What have y'all been doing with that money? What have y'all been doing with that energy? That all of the sudden it's Indivisible that's knocking up the W's in states like Maryland.

CHRIS HAYES: One area where there is asymmetry that is rebalancing is our map. Because one of the things you saw in 2010 when Republicans took power in states was they attacked the root of progressive power right away. So like, all of the stuff about collective bargaining and public sector unions, and voter ID was about go after the institutional power of the other side. Make us more powerful and them less powerful as a sort of first priority. And I think what ends up happening to progressives is that there's often a kind of substantive governing agenda that people want to put first, understandably because they're like we made these tangible promises on we're gonna spend more money on education or whatever it is.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah. You're older than me. So maybe you can explain this. But like, I was looking back at sort of like what was the sort of ... What did we reap from the 2008 and 2010, the fact that we controlled like, you know, two thirds of the governorships in the country. And it's like genuinely unclear to me. Like it didn't seem like there was a sort of coherent, now that we have power, here is what we're gonna do with it. And so you got to the point where Democrats ended up getting wiped out in 2010. And Republicans just started really aggressively implementing this agenda and we were caught on our back foot. And we hadn't sort of solidified the gains we made. And it reminds me a lot of sort of Bill Clinton, where the whole Democratic party agenda was just like, let us maintain reasonably high favorable ratings.

And Bill Clinton did leave office pretty popular, but he left without a substantive governing vision that was sort of fulfilled. That he can sort of claim, you know, this is my thing. It's like genuinely hard to go back and be like, what was left over from Bill Clinton that we're like super dope and down into now? Whereas with Obama, we sort of have that agenda. Like here are the things that he did. And you just, you had the same thing with the governorships, which was just like, look as long as we're remaining relatively popular, we have done our job.

CHRIS HAYES: I think that sort of interestingly tees up I think the idea of what the sort of ideas primer is for 2020 on the Democratic side. Like amidst the family separation crisis, we saw a bunch of people coming out either with various versions of abolish ICE. One thing I think that's happened that I think is very interesting is that because that field is gonna be so competitive, there's gonna be so many people. And people are gonna be looking to the left, is that you see this kind of like appropriation of phrases. Where people are like, "Sure, I'm from Medicare for all or for abolish ICE." And that it's like, you look at the details and maybe it's just, they say that, but that's not really what's gonna actually happen. What do you see as the big ticket items that there's gonna be kind of consensus around or fights over in this?

SEAN McELWEE: Well I mean you sort of loaded up a question then with another one. I mean, I think to be very clear I do think that it's good for the left to sort of have our ideas be something that Democrats want to be associated with. Because it means that we have some mechanism of accountability. You know a bunch of state legislators and mayors and stuff signed on to a sort of statement that they said, we want to abolish ICE. And I'm like, well, motherfuckers, you don't hold the purse strings of the federal government, so you can't. But here are a couple things you could do to limit the power of ICE. Like why aren't you setting up funds to pay for the legal services of undocumented folks? Why aren't you sort of aggressively limiting data sharing with ICE? You know, why aren't you sort of investigating the circumstances of detention in your backyard? They wanted to be associated with those ideas and we were able, as the left I think, to sort of start extracting concessions. Like if you like our framing, and you like our ideas, like we need a seat at the table.

It is true that there is some sense in which I think Democrats are gonna try to water down the ideas of the left. And we should contest that absolutely. But it's unabashedly good from my perspective that the Democratic party wants to be associated with those ideas because it gives us the ability to sort of define what those ideas are. And hold them accountable. And so to the second part of your question, which is what are the ideas that are sort of coming up and getting big. You know, I think we've seen a good number of presidential contenders come out in favor of some form of a job guarantee. The idea that the public sector has much more of a role to play in labor markets. I tend to think of the job guarantees something as like a public option for employment. A sort of way out of an abusive private sector labor market that is increasingly defined by monopsony, which is the idea of a few large employers who have the ability to set wages. Which you know, could explain why we're not seeing wages increase.

I think that on immigration there's gonna be a pretty rapid move left. I think that of abolish ICE is sort of the first big thing. But I think that you're gonna start to see people sort of contesting what that path to citizenship is gonna look like. I think a 10 year long path to citizenship that includes paying back taxes is very onerous and also is something that you know, President Trump 2.0 could reverse. So you really have to get a path to citizenship that's a little bit shorter. And I think less onerous, and I think that there's gonna be some activism around that. I think that decriminalizing migration broadly is gonna be a big issue. I think things like ending cash bail, you've seen both Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders introduce legislation on that. I think that ideas, even bigger ideas. Things like an idea of a universal basic income, or a universal basic wealth will actually begin to emerge.

And I also think that you're gonna start to see public options for everything be a thing that people are thinking of. Like we need a more robust role for a government in providing ... You know, why don't we have a public option for banking? Why do we have one quarter of our publication is unbanked, why can't they go to the federal reserve or their post office and open up a bank account? I think that you're gonna see a really big increase in progressives contending that there are increasing numbers of domains of life that the government should be involved in. And so when I say public option for everything, I mean that. That means public option for college, public option for child care. I think public option for healthcare. All of those are gonna become things that are on the agenda.

CHRIS HAYES: In that argument that you want to have. That like the big arrow in your quiver is the ACA, right? Because like, when it came down to it, the two big parts of the ACA, which was Medicaid expansion, which was like, the brute force expansion of the public sector, right? This is public provision of health care that we're gonna expand. And the exchanges, which is the Rube Goldberg mechanism to like get into the market and regulate it in certain ways and make incentives, and you have tax credits and yada, yada. Like it's pretty clear politically. Like again, aside from the policy, what was popular? The Medicaid expansion. The states that had the Medicaid expansion did not climb down from it. Now there's huge fights in other states about Medicaid expansion, but that did seem to be the more politically popular part of the entire enterprise.

SEAN McELWEE: I mean I think you know the famous example in the stimulus, where like all the economists were like, "Make sure the people don't know you're getting them the tax credit. Because if they know that they're getting it, then they're not gonna spend it." And it's like, no, make them fucking know so they know to vote for you again instead of the people who are gonna give all the money to corporations. I mean like look, I'm not trying to love on Viktor Orban. I'm not like Steve King over here. But one thing I read that was interesting was-

CHRIS HAYES: This is the president of Hungary right now, who's sort of a right wing nationalist and extremely controversial figure in the EU.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah. He's a piece of shit. But he nationalized the energy industry, and every receipt that you get it sort of says, here's what we saved. You by nationalizing it. Let's do that. Let's do generic drugs. And you know, whoever the president is, you know, it's just gonna have their fucking big old shiny face right on it. And it's like, here's your drugs, given to you by Gillibrand Corp: the section of the government, the Democratic party has now nationalized. We need to sort of think very concretely and very coherently about how are the policies that we are implementing affecting people's lives…

CHRIS HAYES: In a tangibly connected way to policy. 'Cause I think you're right that one of the sessions of the kind of Democratic party wonk class, for a very long time, was like, the minimally invasive intervention to produce the outcomes so that no one knew you'd done it. And it turned out, that's like a kind of a bad way to do politics, right? Because again, the non-Viktor Orban example of this is that check that people got from the Bush tax cuts where there was like an actual check that said thanks to the, you know, whatever the act was, signed by President Bush, here is your check. Like it was very straightforward.

SEAN McELWEE: Yeah, they should have done the seamless checks with like Obama's face just like right on there. And also then a lot of Republicans wouldn't have cashed it in, so it's perfect because like…


SEAN McELWEE: Exactly. There you go. But no, that's exactly right. And I mean like, look. Some of my best friends are economists. But y'all have to have a little less influence over policy. And also lawyers. I actually talked to a lawyer once, and I told him I thought lawyers should have less influence over policy. And he said to me, "Yeah, but do you want economists?" And I'm like, God. Can we have it so it's not lawyers or economists? Like can-


SEAN McELWEE: Can we have people-

CHRIS HAYES: You have described-

SEAN McELWEE: That are not those two?

CHRIS HAYES: You've described the wonk class of the Democratic party. Sean McElwee runs Data for Progress. He is, I don't know how to describe ... How should I describe you?

SEAN McELWEE: Jackass of all trades.

CHRIS HAYES: Jackass of all trades. Our most foul mouthed guest here.

SEAN McELWEE: Ah, really? I feel like I was being good.

CHRIS HAYES: Jesus, no. We'll put the explicit tag on this one. You can follow his work. He's got a Twitter handle that we'll put up on the website. And if you have questions for him, or you want to follow up on the conversation, you could always email us at We can loop Sean in on those. Sean is always a contributing writer at the Nation. It was great to have you on, man.

SEAN McELWEE: Any time.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to thank Sean McElwee for coming on the program, even if he cursed a lot. We decided not to bleep him, 'cause that would be annoying. And lame. But also like, I don't know what the but also was. As always, we'd love to hear your feedback. You can always get in touch with us by tweeting us the hashtag withpod. That's W-I-T-H-P-O-D or email us at We actually got a few emails in response to our interview with Mehdi Hassan about Brexit. One from Joyce, and Joyce asked us, "Anyone of the cast of characters in Britain connected to oligarchs, or was Russian cyber campaign meddling in Brexit the only form of that influence?" So it's a great question. There's a lot of reporting about the Russia connection to the Brexit campaign. We know that the Kremlin was invested in it. We know that some of the same kind of troll farms, like the Internet Research Agency, were pushing pro-Brexit messages.

There's also some reporting on connections between some of the key people pushing Brexit and connections to Russian oligarchs or Russian money. None of that is like completely definitive. It's certainly not definitive in any criminal sense. But there are connections that people are looking at. And what is clear, zooming out, is that yes. What did Moscow want in the case of both Brexit and Trump? In both cases, like, yes. They wanted Brexit. They wanted Trump. That is very clear. That was their preference, and they did things to try to bring that about.

"Why Is This Happening" is presented by MSNBC and NBC news, produced by the "All In" team. And features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to