DeSantis Won’t Let Disney Sit Out the Culture War

The Mouse is mighty. Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

As conservatives have leaned even harder into culture-war themes in recent years, they’ve typically chosen easy targets. If your principal audience is conservative Christians primed to believe that traditional values are under attack, it’s not too risky to beat up on LGBTQ+ kids and their adult supporters. Similarly, proponents of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation and efforts to ban the alleged teaching of critical race theory are comfortable going after public schools, as conservatives have a long history of hostility to “government schools” and the public-sector unions they harbor.

But something more interesting has developed as the Republican Party wages its crusade against “corporate wokeness.” While conservatives previously focused their attacks mainly on distant corporations allegedly dispensing leftist ideology from Hollywood or Silicon Valley, Florida governor Ron DeSantis is now attacking the Walt Disney Company, his state’s top employer. In the latest of a series of escalating threats to Disney based on its initially faint but growing opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” law, DeSantis is going after the special concessions that made Disney World possible, as Fox News reports:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Tuesday that he is calling on the state legislature to consider legislation in a special session to dismantle special protections for Disney operating in Florida following the company’s opposition to a controversial parental rights bill.

“I am announcing today that we are expanding the call of what they are going to be considering,” DeSantis said during a press conference at The Villages in Florida. “Yes, they will be considering the congressional map but they also will be considering termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968 and that includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District.”

In 1967, Florida gave Disney the power to act more or less as a local government with taxing powers in order to build the original Magic Kingdom theme park. Its special-status territory, which covered 38.5 square miles of mostly uninhabited land, was dubbed the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Ever since the “Don’t Say Gay” controversy broke out, DeSantis has been arguing that the whole thing was a mistake: “What I would say as a matter of first principle is I don’t support special privileges in law just because a company is powerful and they’ve been able to wield a lot of power,” DeSantis said March 31. Now he’s moving to implement his implied threat.

This is a big deal in Florida. Back in 2011, a study showed that Disney’s operations in the state accounted for $18 billion in revenue and 160,000 jobs. But more important, its Orlando complex of theme parks is the linchpin of the Sunshine State’s crucial tourism industry. Without Disney, it’s unclear how many snowbirds (or summer vacationers from states nearby) would choose Florida over other states with sun or surf as a money sink for their income and savings.

It’s unclear how badly DeSantis’s proposed action would affect Disney. The company cannot, of course, just pull up stakes in Florida and take its theme parks, co-branded with Orlando for so long, somewhere else. Perhaps DeSantis believes he’s got the Mouse over a barrel or can at least count on Disney to turn the other cheek and await his departure from the governorship. But whatever his calculations about the short-term consequences of bashing Disney, it’s pretty clear he thinks the long-term benefit could be enormous, as Marc Caputo recently observed at NBC News:

For months, DeSantis has steadily increased his rhetoric denouncing “the rise of corporate wokeness,” but he didn’t have a clear target until Disney announced its opposition to the measure, which critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, on March 9. Since then, the company — Florida’s largest employer — has been a singular focus for the governor as he runs for re-election and eyes a 2024 presidential bid. As a vestige of Florida’s old business-aligned GOP, Disney provided DeSantis a perfect foil to highlight the revolution in Republican politics as it de-emphasizes talk about free markets in favor of culture war attacks on “wokeness.”

In other words, a fight with Disney makes it easier for DeSantis to pose as the rare politician who places principle before self-interest. And even if his stance could boomerang on Florida, he may be on the presidential-campaign circuit by then, bashing the “woke” company the whole way.

More generally, by attacking what some progressives and libertarians alike have called “corporate welfare,” DeSantis is committing a serious heresy in the world of Republican state and local politicians, particularly in the South with its tradition of chasing capital investments with public-policy concessions ranging from tax subsidies to special exemptions from regulations. Now, it appears, MAGA politicians such as DeSantis are willing to make such goodies contingent on corporations either shutting up about culture-war topics or joining the crusade against “wokeness.”

To be clear, DeSantis isn’t attacking “corporate welfare” generally, just the perks that state and local governments have offered Disney, as Forbes noted when the governor first attacked the Mouse:

DeSantis said that while he’s in favor of the state taking away privileges that are unique to Disney, those tax breaks are ones “that any business would be eligible for,” and insisted there are “no special tax breaks that are Disney-specific that we would contemplate” taking away.

If the conservative attack on Disney does go national, however, the company is not without resources. Disney’s cultural influence is difficult to overstate. Aside from its theme parks and signature animation products that have shaped untold hundreds of millions of childhoods, Mickey has his tiny white-gloved fingers in a vast array of entertainment companies. They include 21st Century Fox (including its film studios and multiple TV outlets); Marvel Studios; the Star Wars franchise; the ABC, ESPN, History Channel, A&E, Disney Channel, and Lifetime TV networks; the rapidly growing Disney+ streaming service; and a music-production company. Mickey’s grip on televised sports via ownership of ESPN makes it powerful in that arena too.

Perhaps DeSantis’s threats (plus the suspiciously well-timed formation of a conservative Disney employees group) will intimidate the company’s management into curtailing its championship of LGBTQ+ causes. Indeed, like a dog that smells fear, DeSantis may have decided to take on Disney precisely because its top brass was initially so passive about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. But Disney is under increasing pressure from its past culture-war allies and from the bulk of its employees, some of whom recently walked off the job to protest management’s — and especially CEO Bob Chapek’s — initially passive attitude toward the anti-gay legislation. (The company has suspended all contributions to political candidates in Florida, which suited conservatives just fine.)

Disney aside, DeSantis’s crusade could signal a new relationship between Republicans and their corporate sponsors and beneficiaries, in which business types can no longer roll their eyes at the cultural panics of the right while pocketing tax cuts, deregulation, and other public policies that boost the bottom line. Being on the same team with DeSantis is clearly a matter of being all in. It would take quite the backlash to stop the Florida governor and his emulators from bullying these allegedly “woke” corporations.

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DeSantis Won’t Let Disney Sit Out the Culture War