What is the matter with Florida?
It’s a question posed by generations of Americans. Whether it’s throwing a live alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window or joining a Facebook event dedicated to shooting down a hurricane, the wonders that are Florida Man and Florida Woman have long produced wonder and amazement. But more recently, the Hot Mess state has turned into something far more troubling — the most intolerant and authoritarian-minded state in the country and a disquieting reminder of the descent of the Republican Party into the political sewer.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis likes to call Florida the “citadel of freedom” and the place “where woke goes to die.” The reality is a policy agenda defined largely by pettiness, cruelty and a disturbing disregard for basic democratic norms. If states are the so-called laboratory of American democracy, then Florida is the meth lab of American democracy.
Last year, after Disney exercised its constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression and publicly criticized the GOP’s legislative assault on LGBTQ Floridians, DeSantis, and the Florida Legislature, struck back by revoking the company’s self-governing status. Now the Legislature has granted DeSantis the power to appoint a five-person board to oversee the theme park in an effort that he said would “force Disney to stop ‘trying to inject woke ideology’ on children.” It’s hard to come up with a clearer example of a political leader using the instruments of state power to punish a company for expressing opinions he doesn’t like — and using that power to influence their business decisions.
In recent weeks, DeSantis has widened his war on the First Amendment. He’s spoken of his desire to weaken libel laws, which would make it easier to sue media organizations for defamation. This direct assault on the freedom of the press was picked up by at least one Florida legislator, who introduced legislation last week that would require bloggers who write about the state government and its leaders to register with the state.
When not violating bedrock constitutional principles, DeSantis and his Republican cronies are force-feeding Florida’s students their take on American history. While DeSantis claims that he’s trying to stop “woke indoctrination” in the Sunshine State, he is seeking to warp their minds with his own form of indoctrination.
Last year, DeSantis pushed through a series of bills that banned the teaching of critical race theory and blocked discussions of gender preferences in Florida elementary schools — the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Those moves have led schools across the state to pull hundreds of books off library shelves for fear that teachers and librarians could face potential prosecution. Nothing quite says “citadel of freedom” like empty library shelves and removed books that includes biographies of former baseball player Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Now DeSantis is expanding his attacks on Florida’s public education system. The governor is backing a voucher program that would devastate the state’s public schools and allow parents to use state money to send their children to a private and religious school or use the vouchers for home-schooling and private tutoring. Bills have been introduced that would ban the use of preferred pronouns at schools and broaden the prohibitions on discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity to all pre-K through eighth grade classrooms. And he’s declaring war on Florida’s once-vaunted public university system. Last month, he unveiled legislation that would ban critical race theory in universities, end diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, give control of university curricula to a board appointed by the governor and effectively end tenure protections for faculty.
And as if that isn’t enough culture war waging, there is talk of allowing death sentences without the unanimous vote of a jury, allowing gun owners to carry a concealed firearm without a permit and a six-week abortion ban. One state legislator has even introduced a bill that “would decertify any political party that ever included a plank to support slavery in its platform.” That would include the Democratic Party, which endorsed slavery before the Civil War, and this would lead to its decertification.
While this piece of juvenile legislation is unlikely to be enacted, the rest of DeSantis’ sordid agenda will likely find its way into law. And then much of it will likely get blocked by federal judges.
But the legality of DeSantis’ political agenda is hardly his concern. What’s unfolding in Florida this month has more to do with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and all the other states where Republican voters will be choosing the party’s next presidential nominee.
DeSantis’ moves are a transparently cynical ploy to win over Republican voters who enjoy nothing more than angering liberals with culture war divisiveness. But that doesn’t make it any less deplorable (and what else can one say of voters who take such pleasure in legislation purposely aimed at enraging, enflaming and endangering their political opponents).
Nor is it any less hypocritical. Here’s the political party that espouses the genius of the free market using the instruments of government to punish a private company and influence its business decisions. Republicans appear to be nonplussed by the fact that a party organized around the idea of a smaller, less intrusive government is pushing book bans, promoting a government-endorsed educational agenda, terrorizing teachers and preventing women from having control of their own bodies. In February, Republicans made a big show of reading the Constitution from the floor of the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, in the nation’s third-largest state, the Republican Party is attacking the free press, punishing free expression and demanding fealty to their governing agenda … or else.
Rather than hurt DeSantis’ odds of winning over GOP votes, every one of these moves has been precisely calibrated to boost his chances. This self-serving demonstration of partisan power, unmoored from ideology and foundational constitutional principles, is not a bug for self-identified conservative Republicans — it’s a feature.
What is perhaps most remarkable about all this is that I’m not even talking about the other leading Republican presidential nominee and DeSantis’ key presidential rival — you know, the one who two years ago incited a mob to storm the Capitol and tried to undo a presidential election that he lost.
If DeSantis were to somehow win the presidency on a platform of trolling liberals, punishing his opponents and violating basic civil rights, is there any reason to believe that what is unfolding this month in Florida will not be replicated by a rubber stamp Republican-controlled Congress? Is there any reason to doubt that Republican voters would applaud such an effort and revel in any “liberal tears” it would produce?
For millions of non-Floridians, the Sunshine State long ago became a punchline to a running joke, but what’s happening there — and what it augurs for the country — is no laughing matter.