early and often

Fall of the Progressive Boy King

Sean McElwee formed a lucrative alliance with SBF. Then his patron went bust and he suffered his own scandal.

Photo: Sean Pressley
Photo: Sean Pressley
Photo: Sean Pressley

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As much as he was known on Twitter for his persona as a lefty rabble-rouser, Sean McElwee was equally renowned among Democratic professionals for his Trump-era happy hours that hosted a new generation of progressive young political operatives figuring out how to upend American politics. Crowded, rowdy, and beer soaked, these were a far cry from the more staid affairs that usually pass as political gatherings. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stopped by, and so did Kirsten Gillibrand. Reporters lined up to chat with McElwee, who would hold court in the back of a downtown bar over a vodka-and-soda. For his 30th birthday this past September, he hosted two parties, one in New York, where he lives, and one in Washington, D.C., where his polling firm, Data for Progress, is headquartered and where he keeps an apartment. He sent invites out to Capitol Hill staffers, trying to get as many members of Congress there as he could. Chuck Schumer showed up, sporting a green polo shirt and slacks amid tatted millennials, and addressed the party.

In New York, there were fewer politicos on hand. McElwee spent the evening pressing into his friends’ hands copies of a book by the Australian philosopher Toby Ord called The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, which argued that human beings should take heed of the relatively small chance that life on Earth could be wiped out by any number of possible catastrophes and work to prevent them. The book is a cornerstone of effective altruism, a rising school of philosophical thought that advocates for using data to figure out how to do the most good and encourages some adherents to make as much money as they can, even in odious professions, to donate to altruistic causes. “It was like the old Evangelical in him coming out,” said a friend who was there. “Sean is always looking for something to preach out, trying to save as many souls as he can.”

One of effective altruism’s chief donors was crypto titan Sam Bankman-Fried, who came out of nowhere in 2020 to give $5 million to boost Joe Biden. He would go on to spend more than $40 million on Democratic causes during the following election cycle, second only to George Soros. McElwee had been chasing after the biggest donors in Democratic politics for years, and it wasn’t long after meeting SBF that he became something of a political lieutenant, telling him how best to direct a river of cash. It was “cool as hell,” McElwee told associates, to be advising one of the richest people in the world before he turned 30.

Inside of a decade, McElwee had gone from being an intern at a libertarian think tank to being heralded as an avatar of a rising generation of millennial leftists, eventually advising both the White House and a billionaire his age. The past few dizzying years culminated in an even more dizzying month when his relationship with Bankman-Fried suddenly became a liability and, in an echo of the criminal charges against the disgraced billionaire, he was fired by the organization he founded for allegedly pressuring an employee into being a straw donor for Democratic causes.

“Building Data for Progress has been the proudest achievement of my life,” McElwee said in a statement. “What the team and I have created together has profoundly reshaped the progressive ecosystem and helped pass transformative legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act. My vision for Data for Progress was to give progressives access to a tactic — polling — that would allow us to tell our story about where the public stands on our priorities, and DFP has accomplished that goal.”

Meanwhile, Data for Progress, which in a few short years grew from being a couple of people on a text chain to a central player in the Democratic Establishment, is trying to slough off its scandal-scarred founder ahead of the incoming Republican House and a presidential campaign to keep the White House in Democratic hands.

Six years ago, Sean McElwee couldn’t even get a meeting.

After attending a small Christian college, he had rejected both the Evangelical faith and libertarian politics he grew up with and moved to the left, working at the left-wing think tank Demos. Then, on his own, he started going around to congressional-campaign offices in New York, trying to get them to commit to an audacious plan he had to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that was busy executing Donald Trump’s draconian policies. They almost all said “no.”

So McElwee went to Twitter, started the hashtag #AbolishICE, and hectored candidates to sign on. Many did, including presidential aspirants Bernie Sanders and Bill de Blasio, if only to keep the online army the 26-year-old was forming at bay. In a political world of pleated khakis and strategic politeness, he wore too-tight T-shirts and seemed to prove a truism of the internet era: that with enough brashness, the world could be yours. His friends in politics were rushing off to book parties, but, as he would put it, books are dumb — they only tell you what people want you to know. The key to gaining power is to find out the things they didn’t want to share. And so he would get a bunch of well-connected and powerful people in a bar, mix in alcohol, and come out with their secrets.

The happy hours were covered relentlessly by the press as the secret cell of a rising socialist millennial cohort. As a result, McElwee became one of the movement’s chief spokespeople, explaining that a timid Democratic elite had allowed itself to be captured by corporations and that it was due for a reckoning led by aggressive young upstarts.

Labeling himself an “Overton Window Mover,” McElwee formed the nonprofit polling outfit Data for Progress in 2018 to win the fight for the direction of the Democratic Party. McElwee thought he could prove with data that many progressive ideas were more popular than the Establishment and the mainstream media realized, like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. After working at two think tanks, McElwee turned Data for Progress into something like one of his own. He solicited polling ideas in a giant Slack channel, asking political operatives to suggest queries. He kept costs down by getting young pollsters to work for cheap and aspiring intellectuals to write for free. As the 2020 campaign heated up, he supported Elizabeth Warren and told people he wanted Data for Progress to be the “in-house think tank” for her White House — and that he wanted her donors for his own.

Sean McElwee drinking beer in a hammock as a debate between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole plays during a happy hour at his friend David Shor’s apartment in Manhattan last year. Photo: Bryan Anselm/Redux

But then Warren lost, and Bernie Sanders did too, and Biden won, if just barely, and some of the young lefty fervor of 2018–19 began to look to many like a mistake. As the Zeitgeist shifted to the center, McElwee moved along with it. “Progressives achieved a lot with the agitation that we did, and we are now in a different place of entrenching those agitations into law,” he told me in 2021, “and that requires a fundamentally different set of tactics. 2018, 2020 — running primaries from the left was the way of gaining power. Now we have power; let’s pass laws.”

After a few short years of preaching a no-compromise approach, McElwee was spreading a new gospel: Democrats were too enthralled by the values of the coastal elite and needed to appeal to voters in the middle to win. “The marginal person that you are persuading on any issue is an independent or a Republican,” he said. “So if you are just talking to Democrats about any issue, you are not breaking through. Any successful progressive initiative has been successful because we found messages that resonated with Republicans and independents.”

“I believe that we can change people’s minds on any given position on any given day if it’s the right time and with the right tactics,” he continued. “I want to change the world, and I believe we can do it.”

It was a message that appealed to Biden’s team, which, after all, made a bet that the country was not as liberal as Twitter would have you believe. After the primaries, Biden’s campaign tapped McElwee and Data for Progress as advisers and brought them along to work with the White House.

Data for Progress got busy hiring pollsters, data scientists, a political team, and a press team. It was a great place to work, nearly a dozen current and former employees told me. They felt like the polling equivalent of the Squad that was shaking up Washington. Activist groups like the Sunrise Movement and the Movement for Black Lives came to rely on them to provide language about how best to communicate far-reaching progressive ideals, while McElwee’s swashbuckling persona brought in attention and with it even more clients and funders.

Running a company filled with a bunch of leftist 20-somethings while courting wealthy donors and criticizing his progressive allies was a big risk, but McElwee likes to gamble. He held a weekly poker game and, when the pandemic hit, invited his staff to join a session over Zoom — while playing on another, higher-stakes poker game on another screen. And he encouraged them to bet on the races they polled through the online marketplace Predictit. Doing so, he believed, forced them to ask what they believed about the shape of the electorate they were surveying. In 2020, he bet $20,000 that Biden would win.

“The biggest bet I’m making is building this polling and think-tank firm. That’s a way bigger bet in terms of my material well-being,” McElwee told a podcast host in August. “The money on the side is for me to better train my heuristics. So I think we’re all making bets. Some people know that they’re making them, and some people know that they’re losing them. Your brain is just so powerful, but it is profoundly designed to trick you into thinking you were right about things you were wrong about.”

McElwee said betting forced pollsters to put skin in the game, but three staffers told me they felt like their professional reputations were already on the line when it came to accurately polling races. And they said they would regularly hear concerns from clients who were alarmed that their boss appeared to be trading on insider knowledge. But if it was problematic, it also didn’t matter much. Business was booming, and McElwee’s profile was rising further. His combination of smarts and charm made him a favorite of both journalists and billionaires. “I’m like Radiohead for donors,” he once told an interviewer. “You can’t really explain why I’m good, but everyone knows that I’m good at it.”

As McElwee was hustling for more donors, he was introduced to Sam Bankman-Fried, who pledged to give $1 billion to Democrats before 2024 and tapped McElwee for advice. He and his younger brother, Gabe, started a nonprofit advocacy organization called Guarding Against Pandemics and a super-PAC called Protect Our Future, which paid Data for Progress to do polling. In the vein of effective altruism, the ostensible purpose was to support Democrats who talked about pandemic preparedness and the long-term risks to humanity. But a lot of those candidates were also pro-crypto, or at least reluctant to criticize it at a time when Bankman-Fried was pushing the federal government for a light regulatory touch. “This was not just about directing donations to candidates; this was about Sean running a political strategy designed to shield crypto from government oversight so that crypto billionaires could continue to rip off working people,” said Max Berger, a onetime McElwee ally and a progressive strategist. “That’s what Sam Bankman-Fried was paying Sean McElwee for. From a progressive-politics perspective, it is unforgivable.”

One, Maxwell Frost, a Florida Democrat who has become well known as the first Gen-Z member of Congress, got $8,700 in contributions from the Bankman-Fried brothers and nearly $1 million in help from Protect Our Future, almost all of it after announcing a “crypto-advisory council” for his campaign. McElwee was a member of the council despite having no professional experience with cryptocurrency. When Guarding Against Pandemics endorsed Carlina Rivera, a New York City Council member running for the House, a representative of her campaign reached out to McElwee to let him know she was already publicly against crypto mining and would likely be asked about it given the endorsement. “It’s fine. Be as critical as you want. In fact, it’s probably better that you are,” he said, according to a campaign staffer briefed on the conversation.

As the midterms ticked closer, McElwee’s employees were growing uneasy. Data for Progress had been at the left vanguard of politics, but as his star rose, the firm was pulled into the mainstream, working for the Democratic Party’s congressional-campaign arms. Its founder was increasingly vocal about what he saw as the excesses of the kind of progressive politics the firm was formed to support. Clients were asking about the gambling, and he was increasingly busy with his side project of advising Bankman-Fried, which was an odd look for a company that prided itself on not taking corporate clients. “It was embarrassing to be associated with him,” said Johannes Fischer, director of analytics and engineering at Data for Progress. “I always tried to put out of my mind his work with crypto nonprofits, but as that became a larger presence in the news, it was harder to ignore. On the left, we are supposed to be about getting dark money out of politics. And then he was straying further from the ideological commitments of our organization and infuriating people on the left. It made our jobs harder.”

Despite its shoestring budgets and unapologetically partisan philosophy, Data for Progress had developed a reputation as one of the more accurate public pollsters. There were exceptions, though. In 2020, like a lot of pollsters, it had Biden winning big nationally and taking both Texas and Florida. In 2022, on the eve of the election, it released a series of polls that showed Democrats losing by wide margins almost everywhere. The campaigns were furious. “It seemed like they just did it in order to make up for 2020 and to show everyone that they were right,” said one Democratic operative working on a race. “But they are supposed to be on our side.”

It all might have blown over after Democrats did better than expected but for the Tartan, the student newspaper of Carnegie Mellon University.

A week after the election, the Tartan interviewed the owner of an anonymous Twitter account called @CityaFreaks. A college student studying political science with a penchant for Twitter beefs, he is a lot like a younger McElwee. He had predicted that Democrats were going to have a much better election than almost any pollster thought — and rubbed it in after Data for Progress whiffed. “They looked terrible this year,” he said in the interview. “They basically fudged their numbers to match the outcome they were betting on. They lost the bet.” He accused them of “doing Enron shit” and claimed McElwee “lost like $50,000” betting against Democrats. @CityaFreaks told me he treated the interview like it was Twitter and that he was shitposting by making things up, such as the $50,000 loss. Really, from what he had read about McElwee, he didn’t particularly like him: “He just always seemed like he was too interested in brand-building and too interested in having everyone think he’s the smartest guy in the room.”

The Tartan pulled down the story, but not before it lit up Twitter and the inboxes of pretty much everyone who works in politics. “It was like wildfire,” said one senior Hill aide, and Data for Progress staffers were inundated with calls from both clients and friends. For McElwee, everything was collapsing at once: He faced a viral accusation of gambling on campaigns, with even larger amounts that McElwee had already admitted, on top of the embarrassing polling error.

Unfortunately for McElwee, at the same time, Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto business was imploding in public view. As FTX shut down, it began to look more and more like the crypto magnate had been taking money from unsuspecting investors around the world and funneling it to not only his private hedge fund but also his preferred political causes. Suddenly, Bankman-Fried was drawing comparisons to Bernie Madoff, and candidates on both sides of the aisle — one of SBF’s executives gave big to Republicans — were pledging to return the donations. “There was discomfort with how we were being talked about,” Fischer said of the mood among the staff.

McElwee started calling around the team, trying to keep them on his side and explaining that if they just kept their heads down for a few weeks, they could ride out this last bit of bad news. On some of the calls, he was in tears; in others, he was combative. When someone suggested he take a leave of absence, he responded, “Oh, you are just trying to overthrow me. You want my job.”

Senior members of Data for Progress decided something had to be done. On November 18, they got on Zoom with McElwee and read a letter to him announcing their decision: Either he leaves or the entire senior staff leaves. He asked whether the decision was unanimous and how much severance he would receive. (Puck reported his exit a few days later.) As he negotiated that last bit with the board of directors over the next few weeks, both sides assented to a non-disparagement agreement while they figured out the terms of his departure. The board then heard that McElwee broke the agreement when he supposedly told associates that he didn’t think Data for Progress would survive without him.

On December 12, McElwee took another hit to his reputation when Bankman-Fried was charged with running a massive fraud and breaking federal campaign-finance law by routing some of his political contributions through unidentified straw donors. Two of McElwee’s critics pounced: a blogger who writes under the pen name Carl Beijer and a policy researcher named Will Stancil. They both pointed out on Twitter that McElwee had given tens of thousands of dollars to SBF’s favored candidates.

As Data for Progress was once again publicly embarrassed by its founder, the board of directors and its financial backer, Tides Advocacy, learned of another allegation made behind closed doors. McElwee was accused of pressuring one of his employees to participate in a straw-donor scheme, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, similar to the kind that Bankman-Fried was indicted for. “Following reports of potential misconduct that violated Data for Progress’s mission and values, the board of Data for Progress and fiscal sponsor Tides Advocacy immediately terminated Sean McElwee’s employment,” a spokesperson said in a statement. The employee, a data analyst named Ethan Winter, gave nearly $31,000 in political contributions this election cycle. A lawyer for McElwee called the accusation “categorically false” and Winter, who resigned at the same time the board confronted McElwee, denied the allegation and said he had been planning on leaving at the end of the year for some time.

Data for Progress, which had come to symbolize a generational turn in American politics, is trying to move on and forge an identity in its own right. “I feel like it’s like Game of Thrones, when everyone was fighting with each other over land and ignoring the Night King,” said Danielle Deiseroth, who replaced McElwee as interim executive director. “We have real fights we need to focus on and not this ongoing drama. The Republicans are the Night King.”

Before he was fired, McElwee was already talking to potential donors about a new business idea. He was getting out of the political game and maybe doing some corporate work for a while.

The Fall of the Progressive Boy King