×

Here's what the Democrats are doing wrong

  • The Democratic party has lost its way and appears to be in no position to govern at a national level any time soon.
  • The anti-Trump fervor that has overtaken the party is not helping it correct its real problems.
  • Here's what Democrats need to learn about their mistakes and how to regain voters' trust.

There's now virtual consensus, even among Democrats' most loyal backers, that the party has been decimated nationwide at all levels of government. Save for a few select regions going against the grain—Northern Virginia, Southern California, etc.—the party's fortunes have fallen precipitously, and in its current state will be in no position to govern nationally any time soon.

Given the present political climate, it would be easy for prospective Democratic standard-bearers to calculate that trafficking in anti-Trump fervor is the key to reversing these grim trends. With his overall unpopularity, and the visceral rage he inspires in liberals, Trump has enabled the emergence of a hucksterish grievance industry among portions of the center-left.

Many of their leading lights peddle corporatized "resistance" paraphernalia and promote emotionally-satisfying but fanciful scenarios whereby Trump will be ousted from office imminently for "treason"-related offenses. Given Trump's long history of promoting grifters and cheats, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that he's indirectly engendered this new breed of them.

An air of perpetual frenzy has been stoked among plugged-in liberals, such that they've barely gotten any time to breathe over the past year. While sustained diligence is obviously necessary -- Trump and his cronies will attempt to get away with all manner of malefaction—hysterics don't help.

The trouble with these hysterics, too, is that they serve a certain self-absolving purpose. Factions of the center and center-left, which bone-headedly elevated Hillary Clinton thus rigging the 2016 primary in her favor, have found a convenient tactic in continually stoking Trump-related indignation, because it takes the heat off them and allows them to evade responsibility for sustained failure.

"Rather than cater to spurned elites' preferences - as Hillary Clinton very consciously did -Democrats would be wise to conclude that agitating against decadent elites is in fact a highly viable strategy, not just electorally but ethically."

Democrats can take a partial lesson in the opposition Trump has cultivated. During the campaign and right up to today, political, cultural, and economic elites have coalesced against Trump with a vigor unlike anything before seen in the modern era. Whether it's the media, the intelligence community, or high finance, Trump is viewed as Enemy Number One by massive swaths of elite society.

Rather than cater to spurned elites' preferences - as Hillary Clinton very consciously did -Democrats would be wise to conclude that agitating against decadent elites is in fact a highly viable strategy, not just electorally but ethically. Elites are distrusted and disliked not because Americans are bumbling dupes prone to demagogic blame-shifting, but because elites are indeed genuinely blame-worthy. And Americans are right to scorn them. All within the not-so-distant past, their malfeasance has crashed the economy, hobbled governmental institutions, mired the country in endless war, and frayed societal bonds.

If it is to regain electoral viability, the Democratic Party's next standard-bearer can't be someone comfortably ensconced in one of these elite strata, where politics is more a matter of cultural affectation than life-or-death exigency. It also can't be someone who looks back on the Obama years with unadulterated fondness, because whatever you think about the man personally, Obama presided over a long period of fermenting discontent which culminated in the electorate opting to gamble on one of the most outlandishly anomalous candidates in all of American history.

The moment Clinton lost the presidency last November, Bernie Sanders became the party's most significant figure. This wasn't merely because he was the runner-up in the primary, and by popular custom would thereby become the "next in line." It was because he championed an entirely new model of politics, one based on the notion that appealing principally to donor class chieftains was no longer a prerequisite for electoral success.

Whether it's him or someone else who takes up the mantle ahead of 2020, the lesson to be drawn is that a successful candidate must be animated by popular discontent with the prevailing order. And in the process, angering discredited elites—whether they be in media, Washington, or Hollywood—must not be seen as a burden to be overcome, but an advantage to be capitalized on.

Sanders came across as "authentic" to vast swaths of young, disenchanted Americans not because he effectively focus-grouped the most authentic-seeming catchphrases, but because over a lifetime of thinking, politicking, and legislating, he identified a set of authentic grievances which resonated with significant parts of the population.

For so many Americans, everyday life is tedious. Corrupt bosses lord over them with arbitrary dictates and inconvenient work schedules. Ubiquitous advertising floods them with promises of happiness in the form of an extraordinarily innovative new smartphone app or diet soda flavor. Meanwhile, cultural elites clustered in a select few affluent locales struggle to comprehend how such vast swathes of the country could be so disillusioned.

Sanders, as someone who once labored in precarious economic circumstances, was relatable in ways that many left-wing populist leaders around the world have historically been relatable; they rose from humble beginnings, and carry with them the anxieties of that precariousness. In other words, they're able to channel grievances due to lived experience. Given Sanders' unique relationship to the party—many voters supported him precisely because he maintained independence from the corrupted Democratic hierarchy—it's difficult to foresee who can follow in the mold.

There's a tendency in American progressive media to slavishly adulate whoever the latest politician was who successfully "dunked on" Trump, which shows that there's an enduring obsession with the kind of theatrical, surface-level politics that might excite and infatuate professional-class liberals, but don't have much relevance in the lives of most the public. "Kamala Harris Sure Did Lay The Smackdown On Jeff Sessions!" "You Won't Believe How Ferociously Adam Schiff Just Owned Roger Stone." And so on.

Tweeting aggressively about how bad Trump is means next-to-nothing if it's not accompanied by a viable political critique, one which recognizes the failings of the past. Emphasizing aversion to concentrated financial power, institutionalized political corruption, and a hopelessly wayward foreign policy would be a good start.

So far, Democrats seem stuck in familiar old patterns.

Commentary by Michael Tracey, a reporter for The Young Turks. He was previously a columnist for VICE, covering both the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns, civil liberties, American religion, political corruption, foreign policy, and more. He's also been a contributor to the New York Daily News, The Daily Beast, The American Conservative, The Nation, Mediaite, The Intercept, Rolling Stone, Current Affairs, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @ mtracey.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.