Illiberal Florida—Ron DeSantis' War on Freedom and Democracy
Republicans in the Sunshine State, led by Governor Ron DeSantis, mount repeated attacks on fundamental freedoms.
“Liberal, liberal, liberal.” I remember when Ronald Reagan used the term as a slur during a speech in 1988. That dreaded “L” word.
Many Americans lump “liberal” together with the words “bleeding heart” and incorrectly believe it means people who are just plain soft on things like spending and crime.
But true liberal values are actually what hold our democracy together, and the loss of them threatens our future of our Republic. Today’s piece looks at the state of Florida under Governor Ron DeSantis and how it is a prime example of the illiberal threat to our system.
With its illiberal policies, Florida is experiencing the first dangerous steps toward fascism and autocracy. It is something we would never recognize as a true democracy.
— George Takei
Recent headlines out of Florida should trouble all freedom-loving Americans.
In school districts across the state, teachers covered up or removed books from shelves out of fear they would be criminally prosecuted under Florida’s new education laws. A teacher who recorded a video of empty bookshelves was even fired for posting about it.
The governor installed handpicked cronies on boards from the trustees of New College to the tax district overseeing the Walt Disney properties, while he and his rubber-stamp legislature have threatened to cancel all high school AP courses, gender studies courses, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state colleges, all because the governor personally thinks the College Board and state education systems are too “woke.”
The state further has targeted Black voters, the trans community and political opponents while using the state’s coffers to fund political stunts around migrants. There has even been a proposed law to require bloggers who write critically about the governor or other political leaders to register first with the state.
These aren’t isolated instances of liberal value rollbacks. They are a disturbing and recognizable pattern.
What’s really going on down in the “sunshine state”?
Florida is experiencing what it feels like to live in what political scientists call an illiberal state. It’s the first step a democracy takes toward authoritarian rule.
But what does that mean, exactly?
We in the U.S. and in Western Europe live in a “liberal democracy.” The “liberal” reflects the fact we have laws protecting things like freedom of expression and the rights of minorities against the potential tyranny of the majority.
A democracy without liberal values, like freedom of speech and equal protection—things added into our Constitution as safeguards against majoritarian or strongman rule—can backslide quickly into rule by one man.
And that’s exactly what is happening in Florida.
What are the Tenets of Illiberalism?
“Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal,” said Hungarian president Viktor Orbán in a speech in July 2018, “it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues—say, three great issues.
“Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept.”
Modern American “conservatism” has embraced illiberal values so wholeheartedly that Orbán was the opening headliner at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, in Dallas in 2022 after Hungary hosted the whole CPAC conference earlier in the year.
How Do You Spot an Illiberal State?
Political analyst and commentator Fareed Zakaria warned as early as 25 years ago of the rise of “illiberalism” in certain parts of the democratic West. Illiberal leaders are elected through what seem like democratic processes, but the erosion of civil institutions and safeguards have actually so undermined traditional liberal protections for minorities, free thinkers, and political adversaries of the regime that it ultimately threatens democracy itself.
Orban’s battle cry and Zakaria’s warnings carry strong relevance for Florida today, which has become the fiefdom of presumed U.S. presidential contender Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.
There are some commonly recognized indicia of illiberal regimes, including the following:
Consolidation of executive power via a charismatic leader,
Populism targeting minorities and the monitoring of civil society;
Curbs on academia and curricula and restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly;
Targeted repression of opponents; and
Abuse of state financial power and state resources.
In each of these areas, Florida has not only drifted into illiberal territory but has done so purposefully and relentlessly under the leadership of DeSantis.
Let’s review a few striking examples in each area.
Consolidation of DeSantis’ Grip on Power
Today’s illiberal regimes share a common theme: a central, strongman who seeks to weaken other branches of government along with the checks and safeguards they provide.
DeSantis consolidated power in heavily gerrymandered Florida with both a Republican supermajority in the legislature and a Supreme Court stacked with his appointees. Governing in Florida often amounts to legislators doing what DeSantis wants, and his extremism put even his own sycophants in the state to shame.
For example, during the redistricting process for Florida’s 28 Congressional seats, the legislature came forward with maps that largely kept the old map’s districts in place. That old map was already quite skewed with eight Democratic-leaning seats, 14 Republican-leaning seats, and six that were competitive.
In a state once considered a swing state, which only went Republican by a few percentage points in 2020, the old map already represented a strong gerrymander in favor of the GOP.
But even this bias wasn’t enough for DeSantis. His office drew up its own new maps which created an even greater skew. It also fell afoul of the Voting Rights Act by cleaving Black opportunity districts apart.
His legislature at first said, “No thanks, we’ll stick with ours,” so DeSantis did something unprecedented. He threatened to veto his own party’s maps.
The legislators, not wanting to commit constitutional violations, proposed a compromise map, but DeSantis decided it still didn’t favor Republicans far enough. So he actually went ahead and did veto it.
It was at this point the legislature caved.
In April of 2022, the legislature conceded that it would just go with whatever DeSantis wanted. Confident that his own state Supreme Court would back him, DeSantis forced his map upon the voters in 2022.
It had a whopping 18 Republican leaning districts, eight Democratic ones, and only two competitive ones.
In June of 2022, the state supreme court left that very red map in place for the midterm elections, ruling 4-1 (with 2 recusals) that it lacked jurisdiction to even hear the case. Three of the four votes came from DeSantis appointees.
This experience exposed the true nature of Florida politics. The legislature doesn’t have true autonomy, and DeSantis can bend it to his will any time he wants.
Now DeSantis is betting his own state supreme court will declare the state’s existing protections against gerrymandering actually violate the U.S. Constitution and therefore those protections are unconstitutional and void—paving the way for his unfair and racially discriminatory map to stay in place.
Targeting of Minorities and Reshaping of Florida Society
DeSantis targeted racial and sexual minorities through recent politically-motivated attacks upon Black voters and the LGBTQ+ community, two traditionally Democratic constituencies. His assaults upon their rights and freedoms were deliberately cruel and calculated to spread fear and division within the state, to depress voter turnout and to drive families and individuals from the state.
In the run up to elections in 2022, DeSantis made a point of publicly arresting and humiliating Black voters who mistakenly believed they were now permitted to vote.
Here’s how he did it.
The state of Florida—through a Constitutional Amendment passed by voters in 2018—restored the right of felons to vote, but a later law passed by the Florida legislature in 2019 only permitted registration by voters if they had paid off all fees, fines and restitution.
Many voters were unaware of this new provision.
Several Black citizens who had served their sentences for felonies but who were unaware of this repayment requirement proceeded to register, often with the help of well-meaning voter registration volunteers. Even though they didn’t intend to break the law, DeSantis had police fan out across certain counties to arrest them and charge them with voter fraud.
In the Gainesville, Florida area, ten people were charged with violating this law, eight of them Black. They faced five years in jail and fines of up to $5,000.
The message was clear. If you have a felony record and are Black (a sizable number of voters, given Florida’s propensity to over-incarcerate Blacks), then you had better not even think about trying to vote.
The DeSantis administration also waged war against the LGBTQ+ community at all levels, from the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law that effectively erases gay families and identities from school curricula to recent moves by the Florida Board of Medicine to deny gender affirming care to trans youth and a new bill that grants emergency power to the state to remove trans kids from the custody of their parents if they provide gender affirming care to them, even if they live in another state.
DeSantis’s official press spokesperson labeled opponents of his measures as “groomers,” and his administration took legal action against groups and establishments that hold drag events, even threatening to revoke the liquor license of Orlando Plaza Live, a venue that hosted an all-ages drag queen performance in December of 2022.
The message to the LGBTQ+ community in the state is also clear.
You and your families are not welcome in Florida. The atmosphere is so poisonous and toxic many LGBTQ+ families in Florida are leaving or considering doing so.
Curbs on Education and Restrictions on Speech and Assembly
DeSantis made national headlines with his attack on the teaching of racial history in the state through his so-called “Stop WOKE Act,” which outlawed what conservatives loosely have termed “critical race theory” and other educational models or practices that might cause white students to feel shame or discomfort on account of their own race.
He followed this up with direct attacks upon higher education, targeting New College’s board by replacing progressive members with his own hand-picked trustees. His administration also began demanding accounting from all state colleges and universities for how much of their budgets were spent on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. There is now proposed legislation to eliminate these programs entirely.
Recently, he even sought to curtail national educational programs by threatening to ban the College Board’s AP African American studies program as violative of Florida’s laws against “race-based” education.
Seeming to cave to the political pressure while insisting that changes to its curriculum were not politically motivated, the College Board struck dozens of Black writers from its required reading including seminal authors on Critical Race Theory, Black reparations and intersectional identity.
The word “systemic” was removed in most places in the course because the teaching of “systemic racism” is contrary to Florida’s ban on “critical race theory.”
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, DeSantis’ legislature at his urging also passed the “Combatting Public Disorder” law in 2021. That upped the possible penalties for “mob intimidation” to a one year prison term and for “rioting” to a whopping 15 years.
Critics charged that under Section 15 of the law, police get to define what is a riot and who gets arrested, and therefore the law is unconstitutionally vague. The law further prevents the posting of bail (and thus keeps protestors in legal limbo while in custody) until they have made an initial court appearance.
If the state also charges them with causing damage to historical property, such as a Confederate moment, that is classified as a third-degree felony and is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Max Gaston, a staff attorney of the ACLU of Florida, put it plainly:
"Section 15 essentially means that peaceful protesters could be arrested, held without bail, charged with a felony punishable by up to five years in prison just for standing in an otherwise peaceful demonstration if violence occurs nearby."
The ACLU and other groups challenged the law, and it was enjoined by a federal court. DeSantis appealed the decision to the conservative 11th Circuit, but in January of 2023 that court sent the case over to the Florida Supreme Court stacked with DeSantis appointees for guidance in understanding what the term “riot” means.
Few are optimistic about an outcome from that state’s high court that is favorable to free speech rights.
Targeted Repression of Political Opponents
DeSantis made clear he will not tolerate political differences from state government employees, even within the ranks of state prosecutors serving more liberal regions of the state.
When Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren publicly pledged, in the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion, that he would not enforce Florida’s 15-week abortion ban, DeSantis suspended him.
He also suspended Warren for stating he would not charge anyone for providing gender-affirming care to transgender patients, which now appears a prescient stance given efforts to outlaw such care in the state.
Legal observers saw DeSantis’ suspension of Warren as an extraordinary move and a severe encroachment upon the traditional power of state and local district attorneys to use their discretion in deciding what cases are worth pursuing and how to allocate limited resources to best serve the communities and constituents who elected them.
Warren sued in federal court and prevailed on the question of whether it was wrongful for DeSantis to suspend him. However, the judge also ruled he lacked the power to order Warren reinstated because only a state court could reverse the governor’s decision.
Despite a ruling plainly stating the suspension was wrongful, DeSantis refused to reinstate Warren. DeSantis likely knows attempts to win in Florida state court, stacked as it is with his cronies, are unlikely to succeed.
Abuse of State Financial Power and Misuse of Resources
Eager to grab the national spotlight ahead of his anticipated presidential run, DeSantis orchestrated high profile campaigns against perceived corporate enemies and against vulnerable migrants who weren’t even in the state of Florida.
In picking his corporate battle, DeSantis chose the Walt Disney Company, which happens to also be the state’s largest employer. DeSantis accused the company of “woke” policies against traditional conservative values, particularly on the question of LGBTQ+ inclusion and identity.
After Disney came out against the Don’t Say Gay or Trans bill, DeSantis threatened to take away the company’s special tax district status which it has held for over 50 years. That status permits the company essentially to self-govern and plan on its own properties, which are extensive within the state.
When that plan failed, after DeSantis and his allies realized it would stick counties with a $1 billion tax bill, he moved successfully to seize control over the Tax Board of the district serving Disney, insisting only his political appointees be permitted to govern it.
The message here again was clear.
Oppose DeSantis’s policies and you will suffer financially for it, no matter how big a company you are and no matter how long you have been here working cooperatively with the state. The message is not meant just for Disney, but for any company, big or small, within the state.
DeSantis sent a different kind of message, but one with a similar threatening undertone, to the migrant community. Using state funds, he ordered a plane full of Venezuelan migrants flown to the liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard.
This was an escalation of the political theater that he and GOP Governor Greg Abbott of Texas earlier had performed by busing migrants to D.C. and dropping them off at the home of Vice President Kamala Harris.
The migrants on the DeSantis plane weren’t even originally in the state of Florida, but rather in Texas. That didn’t deter DeSantis from executing his plan. Indeed, the Florida legislature, eager to support their leader’s antics, doubled down on the program and authorized new state funds to transport migrants to other states even if they were not in the state of Florida at the outset.
Again, the intended message here is unmistakable.
DeSantis was saying, “We have the power to do this and we are willing to abuse it.” He is fully ready to use human beings as political pawns in order to score points nationally with his future base of voters. The cruelty and inhumanity is truly the point.
Today Florida, Tomorrow the Rest of the Nation
Now that DeSantis intends to extend his illiberal brand beyond his home state to the rest of the country, it’s time to take seriously the notion that he would in fact be worse than Trump if elected President.
While Trumpian populism scoffs at liberal values and institutions, DeSantistic illiberalism seeks their outright destruction as its principal mission. In each of the five areas discussed above, DeSantis has shown us who he is and how he would govern the nation if given the opportunity. He also is more cunning and willing to plan far more carefully than Trump.
America is not immune from the dangers of illiberal attack and a quick resulting backsliding of democracy. The ferocity of DeSantis’ attack has been matched by the speed of the decline in liberal protections there.
Rather than recognize and alert the public to the danger, however, national media often has cozied up to DeSantis, speaking about his “brand” and telling liberals what they can “learn” from him.
Communities Fight Back
DeSantis’s assault on vulnerable communities, educators, and political opponents in Florida came at a fast and seemingly unrelenting pace. It has taken some time, but groups are beginning to push back against his policies and attacks.
On the education front, Florida college students recently held a statewide walkout to protest DeSantis’s attacks on educational freedom. The walkout organizers are demanding an end to "the DeSantis administration's attacks on LGBTQ+ and BIPOC students, faculty and staff" and the restoration of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in all colleges across the state.
Black legislators, preachers, and activists recently rallied in Tallahassee to protest DeSantis’s ongoing assault on the AP curriculum, his slashing of college diversity programs, his migrant relocation plan, and his targeting of the LGBTQ+ community.
And student-led groups such as the Florida-based Dream Defenders are organizing to partner with left-leaning publishers who can supply banned books on African American history and intersectionality to students who are currently being denied access to them.
Resistance to DeSantis’ administration is currently scattered and in the early stages of organizing. But with the attention of the entire nation now turning to his possible presidential run, Americans of all stripes are growing wiser to the danger he represents.
They are learning that DeSantis is not so different from strongman authoritarians like Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Ultimately, he is not even so different from Vladimir Putin in Russia who, like DeSantis, is not actually interested in democracy, let alone protecting freedoms and the rights of minorities.
To the contrary, he is interested only in his own power and aggrandizement, and he is willing to use open attacks upon freedoms and vulnerable communities to solidify his authority and embolden his supporters.
The sooner we all recognize and move to counter the danger, the safer all of the rest of America will be from Ron DeSantis.
It's past time for companies who are against this to leave Florida., including Disney. Huge undertaking, yes, but if they don't take a stand, nothing is going to stop him. Florida needs to be hit where it hurts the most, tourism dollars and corporate tax base. Some will say this would hurt the people who are against Desantis, but aren't they already being hurt? He's out to destroy everyone who dares to defy him. Enough. The media has been complicit in this crap for years. It's journalistic malpractice. They helped get us stuck with trump with their her emails bullshit, they tried to do it in 2020 and in 2022. If we don't start holding them accountable, we're all screwed.
The only hope to restore sanity to Florida is to elect a Democratic President, Senate and House in 2024, with enough votes in the Senate to overcome Manchin and Sinema's systematic undermining of progressive policies, pass the stalled voting rights legislation AND add four seats to the Supreme Court. I wish President Biden, who has done a stellar job, had done these things immediately upon his inauguration in 2021. I understand why he tried to work to create bipartisan consensus, but it only gave the fascist minority time to regroup, subvert Manchin and Sinema, and work to reestablish their narratives of hate and lies.