Ron DeSantis and the Unlearned Lessons of the GOP Culture War

In late March, when Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, in an act of Trumpian belligerence, signed into law the Parental Rights in Education Bill, his action marked, among other things, a new front in the Party’s crusade. Republican Against Revival. The legislation, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law, prohibits discussing gender identity or sexuality in public school classrooms from kindergarten through third grade, and contains ambiguous provisions for older students. DeSantis dismissed concerns that the law could inflict harm on LGBTQ youth as “woke gender ideology.” (In April, the governor also signed into law the Stop wake up Act, which restricts the ways public schools can address race-related topics, allegedly to protect the rights of Florida children.) Republican lawmakers have been campaigning more broadly since the death of George Floyd, and against sympathy for the progressive causes he generated. Using specious concerns about critical race theory and its alleged potential to traumatize white children, they decided to ban discussions of race in classrooms across the country. This same child protection playbook can be seen in the defenses of Florida’s classroom law and in the recently released opinion by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asserting that medical care asserting gender for minors are “child abuse”.

In this light, it is particularly ironic that, under the banner of child protection, DeSantis has fallen into internal conflict with the institution that is arguably the most beloved of children. In late April, after Disney CEO Bob Chapek criticized the Classrooms Act, DeSantis and state lawmakers moved to revoke the company’s special tax status, which had been in place since 1967. As the Time reported, Disney did not initially publicly criticize the bill, and Chapek came under pressure to speak out against it, both within the company and from outside activist groups. He finally did, on March 9, a day after the Florida State Senate passed the bill. (On the same day, the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights watchdog, flatly rejected a $5 million donation proposal from Disney as an insufficient response to the legislation.) Disney is one of the largest employers of the state and, as such, under normal circumstances, carry a great deal of weight with elected officials. These are not, as any observer of American politics knows, normal circumstances.

The discord between Disney and DeSantis is the clearest example yet of an increasingly common kind of conflict between GOP leaders and big business in the states they control. (More than one hundred and fifty companies, including Marriott and American Airlines, have signed a petition condemning the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. At least twelve states, mostly in the South, are considering similar measures.) These disputes have generally been the product of legislative assaults on communities marginalized by race, gender or sexuality. DeSantis’ situation is most immediately reminiscent of the conflict that North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature sparked six years ago when it passed an anti-trans law that regulated the use of public restrooms. In response, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced a state boycott of its annual March Madness tournament. (The Legislature eventually repealed the law, and the NCAA rescinded the boycott.)

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In March last year, the Georgian legislature sparked a national backlash with the passage of a restrictive election law, which President Biden has called “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” In a series of events that preceded the current standoff in Florida, Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Air Lines, one of Georgia’s largest employers, finally denounced the law as contrary to company values. “The whole rationale for this bill was based on a lie,” Bastian said. The idea that there had been widespread voter fraud in Georgia during the previous presidential election, he added, was “simply wrong.” Like Chapek, Bastian had been criticized for his silence as the law worked its way through the legislature. Coca-Cola, which is also based in Atlanta, followed Delta in criticizing the law. Both companies were major donors to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which opened in this city in 2014, and critics have pointed to the hypocrisy of their willingness to be associated with the people who fought for the right to vote six decades ago, but not with the struggle to retain those rights today.

Amid the storm, Major League Baseball pulled the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest of the law, prompting Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp to announce that the league had “gave in to fear.” , political opportunism and liberalism”. lies” and warning his constituents that “woke political activists come for all aspects of your life, including sports”. Two weeks later, Republican Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Marsha Blackburn, Marco Rubio and Mike Lee retaliated by introducing a bill to strip baseball of its antitrust exemption, a century-old statutory exclusion that grants baseball the immunity from the law. which prohibit collusion in interstate commerce. There are, in fact, reasonable — and progressive — arguments that could be made for actions initiated by both the Florida Legislature and Senate Republicans. Disney presides over what previous generations would have recognized as a corporate city, and baseball’s antitrust status is a gift to its ownership class. But it does mean something that Republicans apparently arrived at these positions out of spite rather than principle.

These dynamics are not confined to the business world either. Last May, the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, amid a flood of conservative criticism of the 1619 Project, denied tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who had created the project. original at Time. More recently, Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, called for the elimination of tenure for new faculty hires at public colleges and universities in the state, to fight those who “indoctrinate” students. through critical race theory – and the right to revoke tenure from professors who already have it if they teach theory in their classes. Patrick’s comments were absurd even as political bluster. The tenure change would cause an immediate exodus from the UT system, with its most visible and accomplished faculty in mind.

Republicans are adopting such a regressive and retrograde policy at precisely the time when issues of race have emerged into the public consciousness and when black Americans have gained more visibility and influence in business and higher education. Kenneth Chenault, the former CEO of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chairman of the board of Merck, organized a campaign of high-ranking black business executives to speak out against Georgia’s election law. The Chapel Hill imbroglio drew condemnation from the National Association of Black Journalists and open letters from faculties at other journalism schools (including one from Columbia University, which I co-wrote and signed) . The clear implication is that Republicans in these Southern states have not learned from the past.

Southern history is, on some level, defined by its attempts to distance itself from history. After the civil war, efforts to build a “new South” were hampered by the persistence of visible, blatant and violent racism. An unintended but undeniable consequence of the civil rights movement was that the lifting of these restrictions enabled Southern business interests to rebrand the region as forward-looking, inclusive and socially stable. But given the successes of the freedom movement, it is unlikely that a city like Atlanta could have reached its current GDP of three hundred and sixty-nine billion dollars, or that the state university systems of North Carolina and Texas were able to attract the type of faculty that made these institutions internationally recognizable. This dynamic has continued into the present. In 2015, when then-Governor Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House, following the mass murder of black worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that this move could potentially boost the local economy. The CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, who had long advocated for the removal of the flag from the statehouse, told NBC News at the time that the action “will be good for business growth and job creation”. Its absence, he argued, could help state businesses recruit a diverse and talented workforce.

For all of these reasons, it should have been easy for Republicans in Florida to see that the trade-off for resurrecting the antiquated gender and race landscape of the 1950s would be to potentially forgo some of the prosperity that was achieved in the State. from. So far, Florida hasn’t suffered the magnitude of the losses Atlanta suffered when it lost the All-Star Game, or North Carolina suffered in the NCAA boycott. The Disney-DeSantis dispute will likely turn into a cold detente – new law revoking Disney’s preferred status is expected to go into effect next year, though Disney officials have pointed to a provision in the original legislation that could leave counties neighbors on the hook for a billion dollar bond debt, should the company lose that status, but the underlying intentions it produced will remain. We will almost certainly see more matchups like this in the future. To an extent that the GOP seems to have barely considered, continued culture wars may lead to unexpected collateral damage. And the worst wounds will undoubtedly be self-inflicted.

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