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The surprising success of Bernie Sanders's insurgency should be a wake-up call to the Democratic establishment

Hillary Clinton breathed a "big sigh of relief" at the end of the night in Iowa. And odds are that she will eventually prevail and secure the nomination. But at the same time, a year ago — or even six months ago — the idea that Clinton would be trying to put a positive spin on a de facto tie in Iowa would have seemed wildly implausible.

No modern political party's establishment has ever tried as hard to package up a nomination and tie it off with a bow as the Democrats did for Clinton over the course of 2016. And it didn't work out very well. The result ought to serve as a wake-up call to a Democratic Party elite that's gotten a little smug and out of touch over the past few years.

Democratic leaders aren't as smart as they think

The Clinton campaign's strategy will, of course, be second-guessed, as stumbling frontrunners always are. But the larger problem is the way that party as a whole — elected officials, operatives, leaders of allied interest groups, major donors, graybeard elder statespersons, etc. — decided to cajole all viable non-Clinton candidates out of the race. This had the effect of making a Clinton victory much more likely than it would have been in a scenario when she was facing off against Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Deval Patrick. But it also means that the only alternative to Clinton is a candidate the party leaders don't regard as viable.

Trying to coordinate your efforts to prevent something crazy from happening is smart — otherwise you might wind up with Donald Trump. But trying to foreclose any kind of meaningful contact with the voters or debate about party priorities, strategy, and direction was arrogant and based on a level of self-confidence about Democratic leaders' political judgment that does not seem borne out by the evidence.

This is a party that has no viable plan for winning the House of Representatives, that's been pushed to a historic low point in terms of state legislative seats, and that somehow lost the governor's mansions in New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Illinois.

It's a party, in other words, that was clearly in need of some dialogue, debate, and contestation over what went wrong and how to fix it. But instead of encouraging such a dialogue, the party tried to cut it off. That leaves them with Sanders's political revolution theory. It doesn't seem very plausible to me, but at least it's something.

Sanders complicates Democrats' demographic determinism

Sanders's most significant legacy, win or lose, is going to be what his campaign has shown about the ideological proclivities of younger Americans. Specifically, he showed that the hefty liberal tilt of under-35 voters is not a question of Barack Obama's cool-for-a-politician persona or simply an issue of being repulsed by this or that GOP stance.

Clinton tried hard to make waves with superficial appeals to youth culture, include Yaaas Hillary T-shirts, appearing with the cast of Broad City, and campaigning in Iowa with Katy Perry.

But the hearts of America's young people — including, crucially, young women — are with the crotchety 74-year-old socialist from Vermont. This both tends to confirm Washington Democrats' conviction that demographic headwinds are at their back and complicates their hazy sense that faith in demographics is a substitute for political strategy.

The problem is that the young progressives the party is counting on to deliver them to the promised land are, as Sanders has shown, really quite left-wing. They aren't going to be bought off with a stray Snapchat gimmick or two. To retain their loyalty and enthusiasm, party leaders are going to need to offer some kind of theory about how Democrats intend to deliver change and get results.

The Sanders surge should be a wake-up call

Most of all, uncomfortable though it may be, Democratic leaders are going to have to make more effort in the future to convince their supporters that they are genuinely trying as hard as they can to deliver the things they promise.

On the campaign trail, Clinton likes to emphasize her decades of experience fighting for children, health care, the environment, and other progressive causes.

It's a message that shows that she and her campaign understand what the voters they are trying to reach care about. They admire people who have dedicated their lives to fighting for those causes. Except it's not quite true that Clinton has dedicated her whole life to fighting for these causes.

Between serving as US secretary of state and hitting the campaign trail, she made millions of dollars delivering high-priced speeches — often to for-profit companies or trade associations with interests at stake in political debates. She didn't do this to put food on the table for her family, as she and her husband were already rich thanks to Bill Clinton's own buckraking adventures.

And, of course, family connections had already set up Chelsea Clinton with an absurd six-figure salary at NBC News, while an array of Obama administration veterans have decamped for gigs at Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Warburg Pincus, Amazon, McDonald's, and other big companies.

There's nothing wrong with any of these individual choices or career trajectories. But taken as a whole, it paints a picture for the grassroots of a party whose elite cadres simply aren't as committed to fighting the good fight as they like to portray themselves.

That may have been entirely appropriate for an earlier iteration of the Democratic Party that clearly conceived of itself as a coalition between liberal and centrist or even conservative elements. But today's Democrats — including Clinton — are light-years away from the rhetoric of "the era of big government is over." And their supporters increasingly want them to live up to their promises, developing a strategy that can win or at a minimum demonstrate clearly that they are struggling wholeheartedly.

The party establishment's immediate concern over the next month is going to be how to put down the Sanders insurgency. But while they work on that, they really ought to spare a moment or two to consider what Sanders got right and where they've fallen short.

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