A Warning to Our Fellow Democrats: A Campaign Focused on Trump Won't Win | Opinion

The Democratic Party is, at last, united—united in its opposition to Donald Trump. Our every attack on Trump is amplified by the media. He jumps at the bait. And it all seems to be working beautifully. The House and Senate are going blue! The Democrats will win Georgia, Arizona, maybe even Texas! That's what almost all the polls say. And everyone on Twitter seems to agree.

This is what we were thinking at this same point in the election of 2016. And we all know how that turned out.

Then as now, our (legitimate) grievances against Trump have blinded us to the reality that to regular people out there—who don't read all of our hot takes on social media—the Democratic Party doesn't seem to stand for much of anything else. We had four days of primetime coverage with the Democratic National Convention, and while it met every expectation in the age of Zoom and social distancing, beyond not being Trump, did we persuade anyone that we would help them if elected in November? Did Democrats offer concrete ideas for governing?

This puts our election chances this November in jeopardy.

It's not as if Republicans are rushing to the fill the gap of the national policy vacuum, either. Their convention was high on platitudes and paeans to an America that never was, but frustratingly short on policies that will actually help the working class. After two weeks of conventions, a working single mother in Tucson or a mechanic in Flint would be hard-pressed to name a single policy priority of either party.

This is where Democrats need a major campaign pivot, away from the echo chamber of the social media channels we dominate and news coverage that amplifies our attacks on Donald Trump. The ratings game of cable television and algorithms of Twitter and Facebook are designed to elevate the sharp rhetoric and sick burns against Donald Trump. But do we really believe that there are undecided voters out there who have been living under a rock for the last four years and haven't already formed an opinion of Trump?

If voters are undecided, it's because they are waiting to hear what Democrats are offering as an alternative. Instead, this ratings game neglects the policies that will help the working and middle classes overcome the slow-motion nightmare of a COVID-induced economic recession. Even worse, our thin policy portfolio allows Trump and his allies to redefine it in ways that will alienate crucial swing voters by picking and choosing ideas floated by the extremes on the Left—abolishing police forces or eliminating all vestiges of private health care.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden Alex Wong/Getty Images

This is the danger of insularity, something the Democratic Party has always had to guard against. We like to talk to each other. We prefer to stay in our blue enclaves, but there's a country out there that doesn't think like Hollywood or SoHo. It's an unpleasant reality that for all of our talk of winning the national popular vote in 2016, Donald Trump won the popular vote in 30 of the 50 states—many of them in Middle America.

In 2016, we assumed that the average voter loathed Donald Trump as much we did. They couldn't bear voting for a crass pathological liar and political neophyte like Trump. In crucial battleground states, at least, that turned out to be wrong.

We cannot make the same mistake four years later, yet it looks like we are on the verge of doing so once again. We need to keep the voter and their concerns front and center.

In an era when the entire campaign trail has gone "virtual" and there aren't opportunities for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to do meet-and-greets and campaign events in swing districts in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Arizona, it's even easier to lose touch. There are millions of swing voters who need to hear the case for how we can improve their lives, something desperately needed on the heels of the largest economic contraction on record.

They need an affirmative reason to vote for Democrats at the top of the ticket, and at every level of government. We need to be talking to them about common-sense policies to expand job opportunities, fix education for the 21st century, provide child care and invest in infrastructure. These are the voters who will decide the election in the coming months. We ignore—or worse, alienate —them at our peril.

Sly James is the former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. Winston C. Fisher is a partner at Fisher Brothers and CEO of AREA15. Both are authors of the new book, The Opportunity Agenda: A Bold Democratic Plan to Grow the Middle Class (Amplify, August 4th).

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.