It’s a complicated time for the American left. They’re generally heartened by President Joe Biden’s domestic policies, which suggests a meaningful shift in a progressive direction within the Democratic Party. Still, they can’t forget that both of their top candidates in the 2020 presidential primary—Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—were beaten squarely by the relatively moderate Biden. Progressives, including their biggest star, democratic-socialist Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, may be building a base in Congress; but they have a long way to go in persuading their party—and any unaffiliated fellow Americans they could possibly persuade—to embrace their leadership and most ambitious ideas. Can they find common ground and build alliances to move progressive policy and governance into the American mainstream?

Sean McElwee, a prominent progressive activist in the U.S., and the co-founder of the polling firm and advocacy group Data for Progress—whose polling on the popularity of Biden’s policies the White Hose now often cites—believes his comrades on the left need a clearer, more tough-minded, view of how Americans see them and their policy agendas. For McElwee, too many progressives have operated with a distorted view of public opinion, their own party and political base, and the role activists play in American political life. He thinks the moment offers progressives opportunity, though—to consolidate and institutionalize the gains they’ve made in recent years, to hone their case to the public, and to advance specific reforms that can lead to deeper change down the road.

Graham Vyse: Why do you think the Sanders and Warren presidential campaigns failed?

Sean McElwee: You needed one person vying for progressive votes in that primary. Both Sanders and Warren ended up increasingly moving left, such that they weren’t even really vying for progressive voters, because I don’t think there are a ton of voters who are that left-wing. They were trying to get endorsements that were supposed to bring voters with them, and it turns out these endorsement organizations really don’t bring voters with them.

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