Sean McElwee’s Betting Against Democracy

Sean McElwee’s Betting Against Democracy

Sean McElwee’s Betting Against Democracy

The Data for Progress founder’s gambling isn’t just a bad habit. It’s a symptom of the decay of solidarity.

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Even by Washington standards, the rapid rise and equally quick descent of Sean McElwee is a dizzying story. Within a few years, he went from being a rabble-rousing outsider to a supposed data wizard to an éminence gris whispering in the ears of Democratic Party leaders—to a pariah accused of betraying his political clients to feed a gambling habit. If the arc of his social career resembled the zigzags of a volatile stock during a period of frenzied trading, his ideological shifts were even more rapid. Within the same period, he went from being a libertarian to a supporter of Bernie Sanders to the popularizer of the slogan “Abolish ICE” to a centrist cautioning against progressive excess.

The one time I met McElwee was at a Baffler Christmas party at the tail end of 2018. This was during his “Abolish ICE” phase. He indicated that he was solely interested in me because of the size of my Twitter following. Both in the way he glad-handed me and the way he assiduously worked the room, McElwee had the distinctive odor given off by a young man on the make. This is not the most alluring of scents. Although McElwee was at that point putatively a fire-breathing progressive, I distrusted him. This suspicion that we were dealing with an opportunist was shared by many on the left. His turn towards centrism once Joe Biden was safely in the White House was hardly surprising.

But whatever personal misgivings I might have had about McElwee, I couldn’t deny the importance of his career. Data for Progress, the think tank McElwee cofounded in 2018, quickly became a major force within the Democratic Party, selling its polling services and consulting expertise to many campaigns. As off-putting as he himself might be, McElwee is undeniably an emblematic figure of our age—and his meteoric saga offers many lessons for what is wrong with the Democratic Party.

Last Wednesday, The Washington Post published a superb profile of McElwee written by the journalist Ben Terris, an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals, and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind. Terris uses McElwee’s notorious gambling habit to explain both the man and his era.

Politics has always been rife with opportunists. But periods of upheaval are especially conducive to the rise of slippery characters who love taking chances. Just as the chameleon diplomat Talleyrand thrived in the chaos of Napoleonic France, quick-change artists like McElwee have proliferated in the wake of Trump’s disruption of the political order.

As Terris notes, “Washington is a town of gamblers, with members of the political class forever risking capital on candidates and movements, in the hope of scoring influence, money, status. In Sean’s case, political wagers were also literal.”

Gambling is very important to McElwee. According to Terris, a former girlfriend tried to warn McElwee when “she thought he was playing too much online poker, which he seemed to be doing all the time, sometimes on multiple screens at once.” As head of Data for Progress, McElwee not only gambled on political races he was advising (sometimes betting against his clients) but also encouraged his staff to gamble. As McElwee explained, “I do want my staff to gamble. People think it’s silly, but I actually think it’s very not silly. It is a really serious attempt to help them understand and engage with risk.”

The idea that gambling sharpens the mind seems dubious. Data for Progress has, at best, a middling record as a pollster—whose polls often seem geared toward pushing a specific narrative. Data for Progress was ranked only as a “B” pollster by FiveThirtyEight, not the worst grade, but far from the best. Terris, however, merely gestures vaguely at McElwee’s mixed record as a pollster, explaining McElwee’s false prediction that Terry McAuliffe would win the 2021 gubernatorial race in Virginia by saying, “Data for Progress missed on the polling, like pretty much everyone else.”

But the larger pattern is more damning. If you look at the record of Data for Progress as collected by FiveThirtyEight, what you see is that in 2020, McElwee consistently overrated the Democrats in Senate races in Iowa, South Carolina, Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi, as well as the presidential race in Texas, Iowa, Florida, and North Carolina. If McElwee wrongly expected a larger Democratic wave than materialized in 2020, he overcorrected in 2022 and predicted a Republican red wave. As Terris reports, John Fetterman’s Pennsylvania senatorial campaign, which had employed McElwee, became disenchanted when they heard that he was bad-mouthing their candidate’s chances. “They thought Sean had been preparing himself to look good in the event of a Republican wave by releasing a bunch of polls that looked bad for Democrats in swing states,” Terris notes. But that Republican wave never materialized.

Yet the threat of a red wave, it should be noted, also served an ideological purpose. It suited McElwee’s centrist politics, because it was a way to discipline progressives by warning that they were endangering the Democrats by asking for too much.

Besides the worrying possibility that McElwee has been massaging the polls as a way of promoting a political agenda, his gambling adds another reason for mistrust. At a poker table in early 2022, McElwee announced, “I was polling for Nina Turner’s super PAC. So I knew Shontel Brown was going to win.” Again, there are multiple levels of conflict of interest here, since McElwee was politically very close to the subsequently disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, who poured a small fortune into defeating Turner. (Terris makes no mention of Bankman-Fried’s intervention in the Turner/Brown race.) When candidates hire Sean McElwee, do they really know whom he is working for? Is it for his clients? For himself and his bets? Or perhaps for some hidden plutocrat?

After a staff revolt, McElwee was turfed out as head of Data for Progress at the end of 2022. As Terris notes, the cause of his departure “was everything: the midterm polls, the connection to Bankman‐Fried, the betting, and the perception that a bettor like Sean might be tempted to tweak the Data for Progress polls to improve his odds.”

McElwee’s gambling has to be seen not as an individual diversion or vice but rather as inextricable from his real problem: corrosive cynicism. The United States is increasingly a nation of gamblers, with the increasing legalization and normalization of all sorts of games of chance, ranging from sports betting to ubiquitous casinos. The social problems caused by gambling are partly individual: addictive gamblers descending into their personal hells of debt and alienation. The spiritually corrosive effect of gambling has been well-explored in countless works of art, ranging from Dostoevsky’s The Gambler to the Safdie brothers’ 2019 film Uncut Gems.

But gambling-as-way-of-life also undermines society. It destroys the bonds of solidarity that hold collective endeavors together. A political consultant who bets against his or her own candidate is a bit like an athlete or manager who bets that their team will lose a competition. Ernest Hemingway, in his great 1927 short story “Fifty Grand,” tells the story of a boxer named Jack Brennan who stands to make a small fortune if he throws a fight but almost wins it because his rival in the ring also tries to lose in order to collect a reward. The story is set in a world where all morality has been abandoned and athletic competition is actually about who can be the smartest crook. That’s what politics becomes reduced to if profit from gambling is the real goal.

The gambler is the quintessential loner, the person whose thrill is testing their individual skill against the odds. A consultant-gambler like McElwee might parrot progressive rhetoric for reasons of political expedience. But genuine solidarity is impossible for such characters. The rank cynicism of McElwee’s sordid career is what happens when you turn everything, including politics, into a game.

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