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Why Bernie Sanders lost and how progressives can still win

7 takeaways from a conversation with progressive data expert Sean McElwee on The Ezra Klein Show.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders participates in the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Democratic presidential primary is over. Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee heading into the election. And this week, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren endorsed their former competitor.

On the left, the question is: What went wrong? How did Sanders lose to Biden? Why didn’t Warren catch fire? But too few of these postmortems have had sufficient data to build out their theories. And too many of them explain away strategic and tactical failures as media or establishment conspiracies.

Sean McElwee has a different perspective. McElwee is the co-founder and executive director of Data for Progress, an organization that utilizes cutting-edge polling and data-analysis techniques to support progressive causes. His aim is to fashion an agenda that is both progressive and popular. But he also sits atop mountains of data that let him test hypotheses with a lot more rigor than most armchair pundits.

As a result, McElwee has a fascinating, heterodox view of the 2020 primary, the Sanders and Warren campaigns, and what it will take for progressives to build power. We discuss the critical mistakes both major progressive candidates made, which progressive ideas are most popular with the American people, how the left’s theory of class politics interferes with its most obvious path to electoral victory, why maximalist policy agendas fail even when they look like they’re succeeding, what good (and bad) Overton Window politics look like, how progressives can shape Biden’s presidency, and much, much more.

You can listen to our full conversation by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

As a teaser to our discussion, here are some of McElwee’s findings:

  • It is extremely difficult to significantly change the composition of the electorate via an inspiring campaign or a killer field operation. It has been tried many, many times and almost always ends in failure.
  • There is a way to change the composition of the electorate: by changing laws. Legal and structural reform that focuses on a) making it easier to vote (e.g. automatic voter registration) or b) giving people something valuable to protect (e.g. Medicaid expansion) works.
  • The left’s theory of class politics is grounded in the idea that lower-income, less-educated rural white voters are the likeliest constituency for a left agenda. But those voters, in reality, are much more conservative than the college-educated suburbanites the left often dismisses.
  • The trifecta of progressive policy issues that resonate most with these voters (and voters in general) are 1) aggressive pharmaceutical reform, 2) a job-creating clean energy agenda, and 3) ambitious paid family leave.
  • The way that progressives can build institutional power within the Democratic Party is not by trying to flip red districts but by ousting moderate Democrats in relatively safe blue seats.
  • Incremental legislative victories are an important though often overlooked way of shifting public opinion. In order to pass a major, structural change like Medicare-for-all, you need to prove your theory of the case to voters who are skeptical of change by showing that smaller, incremental changes like Medicaid expansion or lowering prescription drug costs can pass and work when implemented. Those smaller victories are like an investment in the future — they build public confidence in reform that can be cashed in for bigger reform later.
  • Running on a maximalist policy agenda creates a massive expectation gap between what you can achieve and what you say you can achieve. When you promise something and deliver, you build power. When you promise something and bring home half or a quarter, you deflate hope and create cynicism.

There’s a lot more where that came from. You can listen to our full conversation by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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