In January, Ron DeSantis argued that combating the repression of political speech was “the most important legislative issue” of 2021.
During an appearance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Florida governor delivered an impassioned defense of the freedom to dissent. In his telling, the speech rights of “disfavored” political movements didn’t just deserve protection against state censorship, but also protection from social-media suppression. The governor’s commitment to open democratic deliberation was so absolute, he was willing to abrogate the property rights of tech firms to protect it. And his concerns about “cancel culture” were so grave, he deemed safeguarding tweeters’ rights a greater legislative priority than public health or economic recovery, at a time when more than 1,000 Floridians were perishing from COVID each week.
Three months later, DeSantis signed a law empowering Florida drivers to run over protesters without fear of civil liability.
Marketed as an “anti-rioting” bill, the newly enacted legislation makes it legally hazardous to engage in mass public protests of any kind. The law makes “participation” in a riot a felony, and defines that offense as “three or more people” conspiring to “assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct.” It also establishes a new criminal offense called “mob intimidation, defined as “three or more people attempting to change someone’s viewpoint through the threat of violence. The vagueness of these definitions has alarmed civil-rights groups. Could nonviolent protesters be charged with “assisting” looters by commandeering police attention during a demonstration? Does the chant, “no justice, no peace” constitute an attempt to change views through a threat of violence? Perhaps prosecutors will take a narrow interpretation of the statute. But in the context of mass protests, cops are often unable or unwilling to distinguish between violent and nonviolent actors. Florida’s law gives police officers a wide array of pretexts for treating peaceful protesters who are in the vicinity of violent activity as “rioters.” And the law also makes anyone arrested as a rioter ineligible for bail until their first court appearance. Essentially, the legislation gives police broad authority to lock up any demonstrators who provoke their ire for days on end, a reality that seems likely to discourage citizens from protesting abusive police departments.
DeSantis’s law also makes the destruction of a memorial (including Confederate ones) a felony punishable by 15 years in prison; strong arms liberal city governments into adopting a more militant posture toward mass protests by making them liable for all property damages suffered by residents during an “unlawful assembly”; and makes blocking a highway into a felony offense. Finally, as indicated above, the law establishes civil immunity for drivers who run over protesters unlawfully congregated in a street.
These last items are worth dwelling on. It is essentially impossible to hold a spontaneous demonstration in an American city without illegally congregating in a street. And obstructing traffic has long been recognized as a legitimate form of nonviolent civil disobedience. When Alabama governor George Wallace wished to justify the violent suppression of the Selma marchers in 1965, he did so by citing the threat the civil-rights protesters posed to traffic on U.S. Route 80.
Disruptive street demonstrations are not the exclusive property of the left. Last April, the Michigan Conservative Coalition organized “Operation Gridlock,” in which a convoy of right-wing protesters brought traffic in Lansing to a standstill, to protest the Democratic governor’s public-health measures. This did not attract widespread Republican condemnation; to the contrary, the GOP president expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, imploring them to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”
Nevertheless, Florida Republicans are not alone in abetting vehicular manslaughter against traffic obstructionists. GOP lawmakers in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed similar measures.
In fact, even as Republicans have made opposition to progressive censoriousness (a.k.a. “cancel culture”) one of their party’s defining causes, GOP legislators in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills since the beginning of this year. Some of these proposals are arguably more aggressive than Florida’s; if some Minnesota Republicans get their way, anyone convicted of unlawful protesting would be barred from state-level student loans, unemployment benefits, and housing assistance for life.
Yet it would be a mistake (or at least, imprecise) to regard the GOP’s simultaneous opposition to “cancel culture” and support for criminalizing dissent as hypocritical. Although the former is often expressed through civil libertarian rhetoric, and the latter through authoritarian policy, the two positions are actually of a piece. The conservative movement has a principled view on freedom of expression, but the principle is that Republicans should use state power to promote conservative speech and deter progressive dissent.
In substance, the GOP’s “anti-cancel culture” agenda is broadly similar to its anti-protest one; in both cases, Republican officials aim to use public policy as a tool for increasing the costs of anti-conservative speech. Florida Republicans interested in advancing DeSantis’s anti-censorship crusade have called for divesting the state’s billion-dollar pension fund from Facebook and Twitter and denying state contracts to social-media firms that ban conservative accounts. Earlier this month, Georgia Republicans threatened to revoke Delta’s jet-fuel tax break, to punish the airline for criticizing the state’s new voting restrictions. On Capitol Hill, several Republican senators have called for stripping Major League Baseball of its exemption from antitrust law, as payback for the league moving its All-Star Game out of Atlanta (also in protest of Georgia’s election bill). On occasion, Republican officeholders have made their party’s tacit position — that it is appropriate for the government to deter corporate dissent through discriminatory economic policy — into an explicit one.
Last year, Amazon decided to exclude the Family Research Council, an anti-gay-rights organization, from the list of charities it encourages its users to donate to. This struck Marco Rubio as a tyrannical infringement upon religious liberty. Thus, when a union drive came to an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, Rubio endorsed the organizing effort — even as he maintained an opposition to “adversarial” labor relations as a general principle. The Florida senator explained this paradoxical stance in an op-ed for USA Today:
Here’s my standard: When the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values, the choice is easy — I support the workers … If Amazon thinks that conservatives will automatically rally to do its bidding after proving itself to be such enthusiastic culture warriors, it is sorely mistaken.
Florida’s other Republican senator, Rick Scott, delivered a version of the same message in an open letter to “Woke Corporate America” this week. “I hope you are enjoying trying to one-up each other and showing how woke you can be,” Scott wrote Monday. “There is a massive backlash coming. You will rue the day when it hits you. That day is November 8, 2022. That is the day Republicans will take back the Senate and the House. It will be a day of reckoning. ”
It’s plain then that the GOP’s opposition to “cancel culture” is not rooted in support for open debate untrammeled by economic coercion. Rather, the party’s concern is with social liberalism’s burgeoning cultural hegemony. As American politics has grown increasingly polarized along lines of education, the nation’s corporate elite is growing increasingly Democratic. Meanwhile, the most-coveted demographic for most consumer-facing companies are urban-dwelling, young professionals. Unlike older people, such individuals have few unwavering brand loyalties; unlike low-income workers, they have considerable disposal income; and unlike most rural Americans, they have the capacity to influence the consumption decisions of large peer networks. Young, urban-dwelling professionals also happen to be one of the most socially liberal cohorts in the United States. For these reasons, corporate speech is increasingly hostile to the conservative worldview.
The American right harbors a vestigial reverence for corporate prerogative and suspicion of state power. But as liberals gain disproportionate influence in corporate boardrooms, and Republicans entrench disproportionate power over the government, the GOP is losing its old-time religion. There are no atheists in a foxhole or libertarians in a culture war. Power is its own principle. As Tucker Carlson informed his audience on the night of Derek Chauvin’s conviction, if the Democratic mob gets its way, “the country as we knew it will be over.”
Florida’s anti-protest law is surely motivated, in part, by an earnest desire to deter riots, which have victimized many innocent Americans over the past year. But the legislation’s heavy burdens on nonviolent dissent aren’t incidental. They reflect a broader authoritarian turn in conservative politics. For Republican activists in 2021, any manifestation of progressive power — whether it be a street demonstration, corporate statement, or Democratic election victory — is itself a form of unlawful disorder; and authorities shouldn’t let constitutional niceties get in the way of restoring the peace.