Cozen Currents: The Defining Threat (to Define the Threat) to Democracy

January 9, 2024

“There is a shared concern among Americans of different political stripes that the future of democracy is on the line in this November’s election. The problem is that they disagree on who poses the bigger threat.”

— Howard Schweitzer, CEO, Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies


The Cozen Lens

  • On the third anniversary of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, both Democrats and Republicans argue that democracy is under threat, but from distinctly different perspectives.
  • Both parties have drifted toward their more extreme ideologies in recent years, making it increasingly difficult for coalition building, an essential part of both governing and campaigning.
  • The first electoral test of 2024, the race to replace expelled Rep. George Santos (R-NY), provides an early opportunity to road test respective GOP and Democratic campaign strategies and to gauge their prospects.

Democracy Under Threat?

The Democratic View. President Biden and Democrats are making the case that former President Trump and the MAGA movement are a threat to US democracy.

  • Three years after the January 6, 2021, insurrection, Americans’ views of the event are highly polarized. A recent poll found that a majority of 55 percent think it was “an attack on democracy” compared to 43 percent who think “it is time to move on.” Trump and his supporters’ efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results continue to loom large over US politics as the presidential election year begins.
  • President Biden highlighted the third anniversary of January 6th last week as his re-election campaign kicks into gear. On Wednesday, he met with historians at the White House for discussions about democracy. On Friday, Biden delivered remarks near Valley Forge, PA, an important Revolutionary War history site, and argued that Trump and far-right extremism put US democracy at risk. On Monday, Biden delivered remarks on political violence at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, the location of a white supremacist mass shooting in 2015. These are among the first public events Biden has held since announcing his re-election bid last year, underlining the centrality of the democracy theme to his campaign.
  • The president’s “Bidenomics” pitch has failed to resonate with the public. Biden’s approval ratings remain low and Democrats have raised concerns with this messaging. With efforts to run a positive campaign focused on Biden’s achievements not working, a focus on defending democracy allows the president to make a negative case against Trump. Biden is fond of saying “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”

The Republican View. The GOP frames the threat to democracy very differently: as the “weaponization” of the federal government.

  • Among the first actions taken by the new GOP House majority last year was the establishment of the House Judiciary Committee Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). Focused on investigating claims that the power of the federal government has been leveraged against conservatives, the committee has probed topics including the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation and the federal investigations into January 6. For his part, Trump has pledged to challenge institutional norms and launch investigations against his political opponents if elected to another term.
  • Republicans have also come to Trump’s defense as he faces indictments including the federal cases relating to the former president’s conduct relating to January 6 and handling of classified documents, as well as a Georgia case focusing on Trump’s attempt to reverse his electoral loss in the state. Trump’s legal issues have only boosted his standing within the GOP. Since the indictments came down, the former president’s support for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination has grown.

The Sanctity of Elections. A cornerstone of democracy is the acceptance of open and fair elections, which are increasingly being called into question and being re-litigated in both the judicial courts and the court of public opinion.

  • The Colorado Supreme Court and the Maine secretary of State have removed Trump from the primary ballot in their states, citing the Fourteenth Amendment’s prohibition on holding office for any official who has participated in an insurrection. From a political perspective, the fight is helping Trump energize his base for the primary election, but it’s an open question whether his election denial and ties to January 6 will turn off more moderate general election voters in a faceoff considered by many to be a choice between the lesser of two evils. The so-called “double haters” who dislike both Biden and Trump will likely be decisive in 2024. When they enter the polling booth, will they be thinking about democracy or abortion rights? Or will they be thinking first about their wallets?
  • As US politics has become more polarized, impeachment is becoming more common. House Republicans have launched an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, though congressional investigations have not found evidence against the president. They have also begun proceedings to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas over the Biden administration’s approach to the border.

Coalition Building in the Age of Extremism

A Growing Political Headache. Coalition building has always been at the heart of political success, but with both parties being pulled to the extremes, this poses new challenges for governing and campaigning.

  • The two-party system has been sustained by the ability of party leaders to join disparate coalitions under a single banner of a so-called “big tent.”
  • Building this consensus is more challenging with the drift toward extremism in both parties. It is harder to find a center of gravity, with viewpoints growing further apart on primary and secondary issues, resulting in greater intra-party divisions. The fiercest rhetorical fights waged over social media are increasingly between members of the same party rather than across the aisle. Democrats have clashed recently over the hot-button issue of support for Israel while Republicans have battled over how far to go to restrict access to abortions.
  • This trend and the difficulty of coalition building have also contributed to the erosion of the political center that often would serve as the catalyst for compromises. Many moderates are heading for the exits in Congress.

A Majority is Just a Set of Coalitions. In governing, this challenge has presented itself most prominently this Congress in the House Freedom Caucus’ (HFC) fraught relationship with House GOP leadership.

  • The HFC’s lack of trust with former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was ultimately his undoing. Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has already faced his own battles with the HFC in his short tenure.
  • The most challenging task for House GOP leadership is bridging the growing gap between the HFC and the majority makers, who tend to be more moderate as many hail from Biden-won districts. The district politics for the two groups are radically different, demand unique legislative agendas, and result in frequent conflicts. While these disagreements have always existed, the drift toward the extreme has exacerbated them, and the narrow House GOP majority and devolution of power the HFC extracted from McCarthy during his protracted speakership fight has undermined leadership’s leverage to forge compromises.

Winning Elections Means Coalition Building. Just as with governing, coalition building is necessary to run a successful campaign, and the trend toward extremism in recent years has made this more challenging.

  • In general elections, candidates typically want to pivot toward the middle and focus on less extreme policies, but the shifting bases have made this more difficult. Now, pivoting to the center risks losing excitement among one’s base, potentially hampering turnout.
  • For example, President Biden has pursued a more middle-of-the-road approach as the border crisis has become a significant campaign issue. This has led to frequent clashes with progressives whose votes he will need to win reelection this fall. While it is doubtful that this group will vote for the Republican nominee, the danger to Biden is that they do not vote at all.

The First Electoral Test of 2024

Filling George Santos’ Seat. With the controversial representative gone, a race for a pivotal swing district has national implications.

  • Santos made history by becoming the sixth member ever to be expelled from the halls of Congress, leaving the seat temporarily vacant. Governor Kathy Hochul (D-NY) has called a special election for February 13 to fill the term before the general election in November.
  • Due to the expedited schedule, no primary will be conducted, and each party has already chosen their candidate. Democrats have anointed former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), a known entity in local politics. The GOP pick is Nassau County legislator Mazi Pilip (R-NY), an Ethiopian Israeli immigrant and former Israeli Defense Force paratrooper (as well as a former Democrat).
  • The district at play covers the North Shore of Long Island and Queens. Due to other retirements, House control at the time of the election will be a GOP majority of 219-213. With a margin so slim, every seat in the chamber matters.

Not Just Any District. The New York third district features many special characteristics that make it worthy of attention.

  • This district is one of 18 won by President Biden in 2020 that Republicans won in 2022. With polarization an increasing feature of American politics, split-ticket voting — voting for members of different parties — is declining. A district Biden won by eight points in 2020 will be a top target for Democrats.
  • New York was the epicenter of a GOP surge during the 2022 midterm elections. The gains in the Empire State alone were the size of the current GOP margin in the House. Republicans continued their streak of victory with local elections on Long Island last year.

A Glimpse into 2024. Every special election is a small data point in a picture of what November may look like.

  • Special elections can sometimes act as roughguides for future party performance. The opportunity to see how people vote ahead of the big day is a sample of a poll on how voters feel.
  • Democrats are making a big bet on advertising:$5.9 million on the district’s mail, TV, and digital platforms. The featured ad ties the Republican candidate to “MAGA Republicans” and should indicate the persuasiveness of a message Democrats are increasingly leaning on. Republicans, meanwhile, are hitting on crime and inflation as their main issues.
  • The GOP has tried out a “diversification” strategy in recruiting candidates, of which Pilip is just one example. Pilip’s candidacy, in particular as a former IDF member and outspoken opponent of antisemitism, is playing on a cultural rift, splitting the left and provoking intense feelings among local Jewish communities in the district.

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