IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

DeSantis aims at Disney and hits Florida's taxpayers

Aspiring culture warriors soon learn that government cannot engineer sweeping changes into existence.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill last week that will effectively eliminate an “independent special district” where the Walt Disney World Resort sits. According to that legislation, in mid-2023, Disney will lose control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, an area twice the size of Manhattan in New York, in which it operates municipal services and collects its own taxes.

Supporters of this muscular maneuver are quick to make note of the conditions that compelled Florida to punish the children’s entertainment company: Disney’s promotion of progressive politics. They’re less forthright about what said punishment will achieve, in part, because their goals are far broader than what this one discrete effort to pare back a corporate giveaway can accomplish.

Deploying this tactic makes it more likely that progressive-led states will lash out similarly against their own political adversaries.

The impetus for Florida’s shot across Disney’s bow is no secret. As NPR reported, "In recent weeks, the tensions heightened when Disney CEO Bob Chapek said he'd support the repeal of Florida's Parental Rights in Education Act, a measure critics call 'Don't Say Gay.'" Few who support this DeSantis-led initiative would dispute NPR’s framing. It is, indeed, retaliation against Disney, a firm that promotes values they believe are at odds with their vision, over its criticisms of that law.

The most sympathetic analyses of Florida’s scheme maintain that it could have the salutatory effect of communicating to other “woke” companies that their corporate officers should stay out of politics, even if deploying this tactic makes it more likely that progressive-led states will lash out similarly against their own political adversaries in the private sector.

In other words, the most charitable interpretation of DeSantis’ retaliation against Disney is that it is, at best, a bank shot. It might make Disney and other similarly left-leaning firms more reluctant to promote progressive values. Maybe. What the maneuver will do, however, is transfer $1 billion in bond debt to local officials and likely force municipal governments to raise local taxes by staggering amounts to make up for lost revenue. American conservatives want nothing less than for Disney to change its corporate culture, but all they’re getting is a punitive measure that will be felt primarily by the residents of Florida’s Orange and Osceola counties.

In this, we see the limits aspiring culture warriors encounter when they try to leverage the power of the state to effect sweeping aims that government cannot engineer into existence.

First, the likelihood that Florida’s repeal of Disney’s Reedy Creek will materialize in the way the legislation envisions next year is minimal. Beyond the crushing 20 to 25 percent increase in property taxes one local official estimated Orange County could have to impose on residents, the transition of emergency and social services, animal control, road maintenance and even the distribution of power to local authorities is unlikely to be complete in a year’s time. A negotiated settlement between the company and its aggrieved host is the most likely outcome.

If the Republicans who are energized by DeSantis’ culture warring are tuned in to this issue a year from now, then they’re going to be disappointed by the governor’s failure to execute his own vision.

Republicans energized by DeSantis’ culture warring are going to be disappointed by the governor’s failure to execute his own vision.

The disappointments along these lines are mounting. In the wake of 2020’s protests against police violence, some of which descended into riotous violence and looting, the Florida governor backed, and the Legislature approved, a bill that would fine demonstrators found in the same area as a protest that turned violent. The American right welcomed the overdue effort to deter would-be rioters. Far less attention was paid to a federal judge's decision overturning what was inarguably an assault on First Amendment rights. Another federal appeals court is slated to hear arguments over another Florida law designed to prevent social media companies from blocking certain users — in particular, former President Donald Trump — from their platforms while making public the proprietary information they use to make such decisions. Legal observers expect the injunction against this overbearing infringement on a private company’s conduct to stand.

Those on the right who support these maneuvers are not shy about telling you why they think they’re necessary. These companies enjoy outsize influence over the national discourse. They are imperious and unresponsive to democratic contrivances. They say the right’s refusal to fight fire with fire — especially in deference to abstract principles like the value of limited government and free enterprise — represents unilateral disarmament in an existential cultural struggle.

What they don’t say is what these measures are supposed to achieve, especially after the courts invalidate them. If a simple gesture of hostility in the general direction of a particular problem satisfies these right-leaning critics of cultural progressivism, then they are only in the market for theatrics.

The culture warring we’ve seen from Florida’s Republican governor isn’t typical of ideological conservatives. Indeed, it borrows from progressives, who have long behaved as though the banal, circumscribed and often unsatisfying conduct of legislative affairs can amend cultural covenants that arose organically. And when those efforts fail to achieve their sweeping aims, the psychological effect on the activists who were seduced by the prospect of a shortcut to cultural dominance are real and pernicious.

The 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act did not help “change the culture” in the American workplace because all it ever did was relax the statute of limitations on civil litigation involving allegations of workplace discrimination. The reimplementation of the Violence Against Women Act “changed our culture,” then-President Barack Obama insisted upon its extension in 2013. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But as the #MeToo movement demonstrated four years later, a presidential pen stroke did not extirpate abusive men from the institutions that shielded them from the consequences of their actions.

The myriad “systemic” problems that allegedly plague the nation today — from racism to drug abuse, poverty to obesity — are too entrenched, multifaceted and devilishly complex to be resolved in one foul legislative swoop. It’s enough to depress any wide-eyed activist, and that’s exactly what’s happened.

The myriad “systemic” problems that allegedly plague the nation are too devilishly complex to be resolved in one foul legislative swoop.

“Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased expectations,” the psychologist wrote of modern-day America, and given enthusiastic young people the idea “that political activism can create social change.” The result, Levine wrote, is “mass disappointment.”

There’s no shortage of performatively fatigued partisans for whom the promise of political activism has turned to ashes in their mouths. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated,” Zack Linly wrote in The Washington Post, in particular, of the futility of reparative racial politics. “I’m just tired.” Ultimately, the committed activist reaches the only logical conclusion: America is unequal to the scale of the challenges before us. “Our current system is simply not programmed to secure the well-being of people, place, and planet,” Democracy Collaborative’s Gus Speth lamented. These activists are speaking for the misled millions. Those who don’t respond to adversity by dropping out of politics in the pursuit of their own mental wellness are likely to succumb to crippling fatalism about the American system of government.

Republicans who have turned against laissez-faire conservatism risk succumbing to these same temptations. They will only repeat progressives’ mistake by misinterpreting what government can achieve. They have not misdiagnosed the problem — the commodification of progressive cultural politics by corporate America — but they have prescribed solutions that will not effect the kind of change they say they want to see.

It’s easy to see why politicians with national ambitions would engage in doomed assaults on the citadels of cultural progressivism, knowing full well their advance was destined to be repulsed. It generates publicity, aggravates partisan divisions and demands little in the way of tangible results. It should not, however, be enough for voters. If failing flamboyantly is enough to satisfy constituents demanding cultural combat from their elected officials, then we must conclude that the stakes in the culture wars are far lower than the loudest voices let on.