You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Inside D.C.’s Rowdy New Progressive Scene

The town’s lefties might not be notching a lot of wins, but they’re having a lot more fun.

Once a month, in the latter, vaccinated half of 2021, denizens of D.C.’s progressive ecosystem flocked to a bar in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood for a happy hour hosted by the pollster and think tank Data for Progress. December’s gathering took place on an unseasonably warm evening, perfect weather for the youngest members of the Beltway left to network and drink.

Staffers from the Sunrise Movement sipped cans of Narragansett beer as they mingled with aides to Representatives Jim McGovern and Maxine Waters. A contingent from the Omidyar Network, a top progressive investor, stood in a circle near the bar. People were excited to spot Matthew Yglesias, the Vox co-founder who took his vexatious brand of liberalism to Substack—if only because they seemed eager to dunk on his tweets in person. By 8:30, I’d had two tequila sodas and as many conversations retreading grievances against Neera Tanden, a White House senior adviser and establishment bogeyman among the Bernie crowd.

The White House held its Christmas tree lighting ceremony that evening, so the pair of President Joe Biden’s press aides who’d attended the previous month’s gathering were absent. So was the cadre of regulars from Senate Democratic offices—“too busy trying to make into law all that shit people talk about at those happy hours,” one senior aide texted me. Even so, roughly 100 members of the Beltway’s progressive sphere had crammed onto the rooftop by the evening’s peak, generating a din that drowned out the bar’s early aughts pop playlist. Sean ­McElwee, Data for Progress’ executive director and uncompromising leftist-turned-pragmatist, spent much of the night holding court near a high-top table close to the center of the crowd, pounding what would be the first of many nonalcoholic beers. “It’s about discipline,” McElwee told me, referring to both his newfound teetotaler status and his general wish for the progressive movement. He keeps pointing me to Marcela Mulholland, Data for Progress’ 24-year-old political director, for all official statements. (We’re both deep into the Huma Abedin memoir, so we gossip about that instead.)

McElwee’s weekly New York happy hours were among the most documented artifacts in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. His East Village guests were “really left people, not party hacks,” an attendee told FiveThirtyEight in December 2018. By the time New York profiled the events four months later, the magazine observed, “Democratic politicians in nice clothes Uber in to kiss McElwee’s ring and gain the trust of New York’s young socialist power elite”— held up as proof that the American left was ascendant as the country chose its next president.

Before the Biden administration, McElwee’s D.C. satellite happy hours had been low-key affairs. Now, the outsiders are closer to the inside—and there’s a lot more of them. Data for Progress is in the White House’s regular rotation of pollsters. The climate activists who once pressured the Biden campaign now sip beer as employees of the departments of Energy and Transportation.

Washington is a town where progressives are often the skunks of the party, rarely the hosts of well-attended, quasi-professional networking events. But that was before Joe Biden, noted centrist and policy agnostic, wrestled the White House away from Donald Trump. When victory came, he had a party to heal, a White House to staff, and an agenda to write. There were few better ways to hit those notes than to welcome progressives, the primary keepers of the wonks, the policy, and—perhaps most crucially—much of the Democratic Party’s bad blood. While Politico’s Playbook notes who is SPOTTED from Biden’s inner circle lingering at Georgetown soirees, there’s an enlivened alternative scene in D.C. these days: a younger, rowdier crowd of White House aides, congressional staff, and activists who likely voted for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, gathering on rooftops over cheap beer. Their candidate didn’t win—Washington belongs to Biden. But the left is taken seriously these days. And they’re having a lot more fun along the way.

That level of influence didn’t exist for progressives who were around for the last Democratic administration. (Most of the people on that Adams Morgan rooftop were not.) At its best, Barack Obama’s White House showed apathy: Phone calls went unanswered, letters unread. At worst, it was openly hostile—as when Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, in a 2010 interview, accused the “professional left” of being so “crazy” that its members “ought to be drug tested.” A tightly managed coalition of palatable liberal organizations—such as MoveOn and the Center for American Progress—had regular meetings with White House officials in a capacity blogger Jane Hamsher dubbed “the veal pen,” a phrase borrowed from Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel, Generation X, that describes a generation trapped in a cubicle until slaughter time.

That dynamic has changed, thanks to a pandemic and a Democratic primary that left the party in need of unifying. Not to say there isn’t still a “veal pen” in the Biden era. The leaders of D.C. progressive groups attend a meeting every other week convened by Deirdre Schifeling, a top aide in the White House’s political shop who cut her teeth in progressive organizing. In theory, it’s a place for lefties to stay in the loop on White House news. In practice, “it’s a meeting where people let off steam,” in the words of one frequent attendee.

The real measure of influence is honest-to-goodness access, which these activists now have in spades. That’s due in no small part to the fact that certain activists and wonks now serve in the roles they antagonized in past administrations. That shift was on full display at a meet and greet happy hour that Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, held at his home in October. Green has periodically hosted networking gatherings on his rooftop, where a regular rotation of left-flank operatives mingles with the Democratic establishment and reporters in front of a street art mural of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that Green had painted along the back wall of his patio. Many of those regulars reappeared that October evening to mix with a crew of Big Tech critics who now have key jobs in the administration, such as Rohit Chopra, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission; and Tim Wu, the White House’s policy adviser on technology and competition.

The Biden era has also offered progressives long-rare opportunities to celebrate victories, albeit fleeting ones. In late October, UltraViolet co-founder Shaunna Thomas and progressive angel investor Leah Hunt-Hendrix hosted a happy hour planned on the heels of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ momentary success in keeping the fates of the infrastructure bill and Biden’s Build Back Better bill tied together. The shindig was a celebration for Mike Darner, the CPC’s executive director. Darner, aptly described in the invitation as “quiet and humble,” had one request: Hold the happy hour soon, before progressives ran out of things to celebrate. (He would be correct, as the House voted for the infrastructure bill alone two weeks later.)

On a balmy evening, a veritable “who’s who” of the Beltway left congregated on Hunt-Hendrix’s rooftop. Representatives Mondaire Jones and Jamie Raskin made brief appearances—as did Ilhan Omar, who plopped down on a wide, cushioned patio chair next to an aide. Cori Bush wasn’t present, but a contingent of her aides were. Staffers from lefty activist groups, such as Indivisible and the Justice Democrats, caught up with leaders of progressive think tanks. Guests politely sipped wine from clear plastic cups until the gathering reached its fourth hour and supplies ran dangerously low. Around 9 p.m., someone offered me a hard seltzer they’d quietly procured from a friend’s purse (and, like the dutiful millennial I am, I accepted).

So, are progressives having more fun in Biden’s Washington? “I don’t know if I’m having more fun,” Green said, hinting at exhaustion. “But when it comes to having impact, it is a better time to be a progressive.”

Alongside the rise in revelry has come newfound mainstream media attention. Some of that began after the arrival of “Squad” members such as Ocasio-Cortez and Omar. “The press is paying attention to us! I like this!” Pramila Jayapal, chair of the CPC, exclaimed at a press conference after the 2018 midterms. But often that attention devolved into the unwanted kind—an uproar over the Squad’s defense of Palestine or a kerfuffle with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Now, “because we have power, reporting is more focused on the work we’re doing and how it relates to the administration,” said Jeremy Slevin, Omar’s communications director. “I keep hearing from reporters telling me: I just got hired to cover progressives for AP or Reuters.” But Slevin isn’t sure that all the attention has led to savvier coverage. “There’s still a deficit in understanding the left and the dynamics in the party,” he said. “Some of that was borne out in Build Back Better—I think a lot of mainstream outlets did not understand it was progressives who were defending Biden’s agenda.”

The distance between the White House and the Beltway left isn’t what it used to be, but proximity hasn’t necessarily guaranteed results. Not since LBJ’s Great Society have so many aggressively liberal ideas made their way into law, but the boldest of them—the ones that progressives helped craft and that earned Biden comparisons to FDR—have been sold for parts in the slog of legislative sausage making. The Senate is evenly divided, and plenty of lefties serving in the administration remain skeptical. One progressive operative pointed to Biden’s principal advisers who continue to describe the soaring ambition of his domestic agenda as a middle-class tax cut. “This beautiful state-of-the-art home they built is being sold by a Realtor with a wide tie and [who] specializes in ranch houses,” the operative said.

“It’s not enough to just pass Build Back Better, we need to win the win,” said Mulholland, Data for Progress’ political director. “The White House should specify the provisions of the bill and universalize its benefits so that voters across the country know that Democrats are behind their lower childcare and electricity bills.” But when I asked her about the White House’s framing, she replied with an air of pragmatism. “The median Senate seat is 7 points to the right of the median voter,” she texted, “so it’s important to message BBB using language that works in red and purple states, too.”

D.C. is still a divided town, even among liberals. The light beer–drinking twenty- and thirtysomethings who packed onto that Adams Morgan rooftop aren’t on the invite lists for “This Town” festivities in Georgetown, where the elite, regardless of ideology, find common ground. I asked McElwee whether he’d ever been to Café Milano, the longtime power broker restaurant that transitioned over the past year from a Trump-era hot spot of Ivanka and Jared into one where you are now likely to spot White House chief of staff Ron Klain. “I’m not sure,” McElwee replied, with an air of confusion suggesting he lacked the context to know what the question was really asking.