Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Ron DeSantis’s Florida Is Where Free Speech Goes to Die

The governor again shows he’s far more illiberal than the “woke” left he vilifies.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“The state of Florida is the place where woke goes to die,” boasted Ron DeSantis at a recent press conference. “We are not gonna let this state descend into some kind of woke dumpster fire. We’re going to be following common sense. We’re going to be following facts.”

DeSantis is one of many right-wing politicians who have noticed that the spread of a strain of reductive, hypermoralized left-wing discourse on race and gender affords them an opportunity to posture as champions of universalism and simple common sense.

And while I do not think the rise of post-liberal progressivism represents anything close to the biggest problem facing America, I do believe it is a problem that has anathematized dissent at many elite universities, private schools, media and entertainment organizations, nonprofits, and other progressive spaces. If you have serious concerns about the spread of these illiberal norms and feel tempted to vote Republican as a corrective measure, you should ask yourself a question: Does electing Republicans make this problem better or worse?

Hardly any critic of the illiberal left would deny that the peak moment of progressive cultural Jacobinism occurred in 2020, when Donald Trump was president, and that it has receded since Joe Biden took his job. The comparison is obviously not perfectly fair since 2020 also saw the video-recorded murder of an unarmed Black man by a grinning white cop. Still, it seems fairly clear that the explosion of reductive left-wing identity discourse was in no small part a response to Trump’s provocations.

While everybody knows Trump boasted on tape about committing sexual assault, habitually berated female opponents as ugly, denied that non-white immigrants could be American or deserve equal rights, and so on, the effect of those qualities on the way the left thought about racism and sexism was oddly underdiscussed. The fact that the most powerful and famous man in America was a gigantic racist (by the confession of many of his own allies) surely made the critical race theorists’ job much easier.

Biden might not have unwound all the social changes he inherited, but there is little doubt he has tried to heal the social cleavages. His affect and rhetoric are designed to soothe rather than inflame. He speaks in old-fashioned terms and invokes Americans’ common humanity. He has presided over a boom in bipartisan legislating. His administration has consulted with famous cancellation victim David Shor and broken openly with the left on ideas such as decriminalizing immigration enforcement and defunding the police. It’s no coincidence that, over the past year, many liberals at progressive institutions have begun to push back against the illiberal excesses of recent years.

The Republican Party’s strategy is precisely the opposite. Where Biden seeks to conciliate, the Republicans revel in stoking cultural conflict. The Republican method is the mirror image of the far left’s: to define the terms of the debate as a binary choice between extremes and, thus, to negate the possibility of any moderate position between them.

DeSantis’s appearance at a rally for Turning Point, a far-right organization, underscored this determination. In his speech, DeSantis demanded that the party “needs to be all in” for candidates like Kari Lake, whom some Republicans have hesitated to openly embrace on account of her fervent endorsement of Trump’s election-conspiracy theories. DeSantis has lived this ethos, campaigning with the Christian nationalist and January 6 participant Doug Mastriano.

DeSantis has clearly grasped onto education as an issue on which he perceives progressive overreach. But his policy response has drawn criticism not only from the left but from sources that regularly criticize the left like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Reason, and Michael Bloomberg. If you listen to even his own account of his agenda, it is clear DeSantis’s method is not to depoliticize the schools but to replace what he sees as left-wing propaganda with right-wing propaganda.

“We have banned ideologies like critical race theory from our K-12 schools,” he boasted in his Turning Point speech. “The purpose of our school system is to educate our kids, not to indoctrinate our kids.” Yet moments later, he made clear his alternative was to “graduate kids that … know that our rights come from God, not from government.” He boasted of requiring schools to devote a day to instructing children about the evils of communism. Notably, he does not see any need to teach them about the history of right-wing authoritarian regimes, only left-wing ones. And his stated reason for doing so was that he believes it will turn them against progressivism: “They need to know the evils of communism because we thought it was dead with the Cold War. The left wants it back.” DeSantis is perfectly open about his intention to use school instruction to inculcate children in his own partisan conception of the ideological divide.

DeSantis proceeded to tell the audience he was eliminating tenure protections for university faculty in his state: “So one of the reforms that we just enacted is in the state of Florida, at all our state universities, all tenured professors are required to undergo review every five years, and they can be let go if they’re not doing the job.” Tenure is the strongest protection professors have against censorship pressure from the left. DeSantis proposes to scrap it because the universities, controlled by boards stacked with his cronies, can pressure schools to hew to his preferred line.

Likewise, he gleefully recounted his bullying of Disney, punishing the company in retaliation for its criticism of his anti-gay legislation. “When you take positions that you’re gonna repeal parents’ rights, that you’re gonna go after these very young kids in the state of Florida, you do not have a right to force my citizens to subsidize that behavior,” he said. “If you’re gonna go down that road of being against parents’ rights, of wanting sexuality in the elementary schools, we are not gonna have a relationship with you where you get this type of treatment.”

DeSantis pretended that the retaliation against Disney represented merely some kind of good-government reform (“Disney is gonna live under the same laws as everybody else, and Disney is going to pay its fair share of taxes!”). But if this is so, why did he impose these changes only in response to Disney’s criticism? His own explanation is that if Disney had refrained from criticizing his agenda, it would not have to live under the same laws as everybody else or pay its fair share of taxes.

DeSantis has no principled objection to blacklisting, censorship, or propagandistic indoctrination. All he wants is for the whip to be in his own hand.

Figures like Trump and DeSantis sell themselves as the masters of the cultural fight, striking fear into their quavering enemies. But if you pay close attention, you might notice that the left, for all its loathing of the right, also has a curious appreciation for it. Every time a reactionary poses as a champion of free speech on campus, the left erupts in smug mockery of the liberals who advocated those ideals in earnest. The cynical reactionary exploitation of those ideals serves the left’s goal of defining the liberal ideal out of existence. See, nobody really believes in free speech. It is all a pose. The only choice is between our bullies and theirs.

I understand perfectly well the frustrations of liberals and moderates who have watched progressives all around them lose their minds. The key thing to understand is that the illiberalism of the left is a subcultural phenomenon while the illiberalism of the right has state power within its grasp. There is no failure of liberal norms on the left that the Republican Party cannot make immeasurably more dire.

Ron DeSantis’s Florida Is Where Free Speech Goes to Die