As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to run for president in 2024, a new poll suggests that he may be overplaying his hand with his war on “wokeness.”
The poll, conducted by Ipsos and published last week in USA Today, shows that 56% of Americans consider “woke” a positive term, meaning “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.” Even more than a third of Republicans agree. Just 39% agreed with a negative definition: “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.”
Many Republican leaders have made “anti-wokeness” a cornerstone of their political agenda, but DeSantis has led the pack by upending the lives and liberties of Floridians through authoritarian book bans and speech codes. “Florida is where woke goes to die,” DeSantis crowed when he was sworn in for a second term earlier this year.
But if most Americans believe “woke” is a positive term, why would they want a president to suffocate it, and replace it with autocratic power grabs and far right curricula? DeSantis won his gubernatorial reelection handily, but he might be a little high on his own supply.
DeSantis’ increasingly draconian measures give Americans plenty of opportunities to examine exactly what killing “wokeness” entails, beyond the rapturous admiration of GOP primary voters. Following last year’s passage of the Parental Rights in Education Act -- also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law — banning discussion of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity in public schools, countless Floridians have lost their rights. Teachers in same-sex marriages left or lost their jobs. Children of gay parents now fear mentioning their parents’ sexual orientation at school. Librarians must undergo state training on the law, and face losing their livelihood if they lend books blacklisted by the state education board.
The governor’s war on K-12 programs has expanded since that bill: DeSantis banned a high school Advanced Placement class on African-American studies, claiming it was “indoctrination.” He is now angling to ban all AP courses in Florida, something surely anathema to parents hoping their children will attend reputable universities.
And DeSantis is also targeting higher education institutions, which most states strive to showcase as incubators of groundbreaking ideas, pedagogy, and research. He carried out a hard-right takeover of New College, a small liberal arts school within the state’s public university system, stacking its board of trustees with anti-critical race theory demagogue Christopher Rufo and other fringe figures from the Christian right and MAGA world. “The mission has been I think more into the DEI, CRT, the gender ideology rather than what a liberal arts education should be,” DeSantis declared, referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives as well as critical race theory.
The American right has long turned public school classrooms into culture war lightning rods, casting efforts to teach children about race or sex as evil, predatory, and un-American. These crusades have played out over decades, with political attacks on academic freedom to craft curricula, textbooks, and reading lists, full of distorted facts and revisionist history. DeSantis has taken up this mantle with unprecedented zeal and terrifying effect. His reelection victory has apparently cemented his confidence that voters beyond Florida will be bewitched by his supposed power to keep their children safe from nefarious “wokeness.”
These assaults on democratic values and institutions are not to be taken lightly—but it is also critical to see how deeply contrary they are to most Americans’ beliefs. As Ipsos pollster Cliff Young told USA Today, “Most Americans understand that to be woke is to be tuned in to injustices around us.” The audience for DeSantis’s “anti-woke” rhetoric, Young said, is a core contingent of the GOP base that sees “woke” as a catch-all pejorative for the “emerging multicultural majority.”
But outside that base, such a message falls flat. The USA Today-Ipsos findings are broadly consistent with a Morning Consult poll earlier this year, which found majorities of voters opposed lawmakers punishing companies that speak up in favor of abortion rights and other issues. And Republican attempts to use attacks on “woke Democrats” in last year’s midterms fizzled.
DeSantis may believe that most Americans share the right-wing doctrine that America’s white Christian heritage is threatened by learning about history, racial injustice, and systemic racism—or that at least that his own charms will convince them of it. But in fact, he’s out of touch with Americans and American families, and that is the most important thing to know about his presidential aspirations. All that remains is for voters to tell him at the ballot box.