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Ron DeSantis and the Unlearned Lessons of the GOP’s 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 Republican Party’s crusade against wokeness. The legislation, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law, prohibits discussion of gender identity or sexuality in public-school classrooms from kindergarten to third grade, and contains ambiguously worded provisions for older students. DeSantis dismissed concerns that the law might inflict damage on LGBTQ youth as “woke gender ideology.” (In April, the Governor also signed into law the Stop WOKE Act, which restricts the ways that public schools can address topics relating to race, allegedly to protect the rights of Florida’s children.) Republican lawmakers have been fighting the wider campaign since the death of George Floyd, and against the sympathy for progressive causes that it generated. Using specific concerns about critical race theory and its alleged potential to traumatize white children, they have moved to prohibit discussions of race in classrooms across the country. That same child-protection playbook can be seen in defenses of Florida’s classroom law, and in the Texas attorney general Ken Paxton’s recently issued opinion, arguing that gender-affirming medical care for minors is “child abuse.”

In that light, it is particularly ironic that, under the banner of protecting children, DeSantis stumbled into an internecine conflict with the institution that is arguably the most beloved by kids. In late April, after Bob Chapek, the CEO of Disney, had criticized the classroom law, DeSantis and state lawmakers moved to revoke the corporation’s special tax status, which has been in place since 1967. As the Times reported, Disney did not initially criticize the bill publicly, and Chapek came under pressure to speak out against it, both from within the company and from outside activist groups. He finally did so, on March 9th, a day after the Florida State Senate passed the bill. (The same day the Human Rights Campaign, a watchdog organization for LGBTQ rights, pointedly rejected a proposed five-million-dollar donation from Disney as an insufficient response to the legislation.) Disney is one of the state’s largest employers and as such would, under normal circumstances, carry a great deal of weight with elected officials. These are not, as any observer of US politics knows, normal circumstances.

The discord between Disney and DeSantis is the clearest example so far of a genre of conflict that is increasingly common between GOP leadership and prominent businesses in the states they control. (More than a hundred and fifty companies, including Marriott and American Airlines, signed a petition condemning the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. At least twelve states, most of them in the South, are considering similar measures.) These disputes have Typically been the product of legislative assaults on communities marginalized by race, gender, or sexuality. The DeSantis situation most immediately recalls the conflict that the Republican-led North Carolina legislature started six years ago, when it passed an anti-trans law that regulated the use of public bathrooms. In response, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced a boycott of the state for its annual March Madness tournament. (The legislature eventually repealed the law, and the NCAA called off the boycott.)

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In March of last year, the Georgia legislature sparked a national backlash with the passage of a restrictive voter law, which President Biden called “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” In a series of events that prefaced the current Florida impasse, Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Air Lines, one of the largest employers in Georgia, eventually denounced the law as contrary to the company’s values. “The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie,” Bastian said. The idea that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia during the previous Presidential election, he added, was “simply not true.” Like Chapek, Bastian had faced criticism for remaining silent as the law made 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 that city in 2014, and critics pointed to the hypocrisy of their willingness to be associated with the people who fought for voting rights six decades ago, but not with the fight to hold onto those rights today.

In the middle of this tempest, Major League Baseball pulled the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta, in protest of the law, prompting Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican Governor, to announce that the league had “caved to fear, political opportunism, and liberal lies” and warn his constituents that “woke political activists are coming for every aspect of your life, sports included.” Two weeks later, the Republican senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Marsha Blackburn, Marco Rubio, and Mike Lee struck back, introducing a bill to strip baseball of its antitrust exemption, a century-old legal carve-out that grants baseball immunity from laws that prohibit collusion in interstate commerce. There are, in fact, reasonable—and progressive—arguments that could be made for the actions initiated by both the Florida legislature and the Senate Republicans. Disney presides over what earlier generations would have recognized as a company town, and baseball’s antitrust status is a giveaway to its ownership class. But it means something that Republicans seemingly arrived at these positions through spite rather than through principle.

Nor have these dynamics been confined to the corporate world. Last May, the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, amid a stream of conservative criticism of the 1619 Project, denied tenure to the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who had created the original project at the Times. More recently, Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, called for the elimination of tenure for new hires of professors at the state’s public colleges and universities, in order to fight those who would “indoctrinate” students through critical race theory—and the right to revoke tenure from faculty who already have it if they teach the theory in their classes. Patrick’s comments were absurd even as political bluster. Tampering with tenure would provoke an immediate exodus from the UT system, with its most visible and accomplished faculty leading the way.

Republicans are adopting such regressive, retrograde politics at the precise moment when matters of race have emerged in the public’s consciousness and 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 highly placed Black corporate executives to speak out against the Georgia voting law. The Chapel Hill imbroglio elicited condemnation from the National Association of Black Journalists and open letters from the faculties of other journalism schools (including one from Columbia University’s, which I co-wrote and signed). The clear implication is that Republicans in these Southern states have failed to learn from the past.

The history of the South is, on some level, defined by its attempts to distance itself from history. After the Civil War, efforts to build a “New South” were impeded by the persistence of visible, egregious, and violent racism. One unintended but undeniable consequence of the civil-rights movement was that the lifting of those strictures allowed Southern business interests to rebrand the region as forward-looking, inclusive, and socially stable. But for the freedom movement’s successes, it is unlikely that a city such as 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 could attract the kind of faculty that have made those institutions internationally recognizable. This dynamic continued into the present. In 2015, when the then Governor Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse, following the mass murder of Black congregants at the Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, it did not go unnoticed that the move would potentially increase the localeconomy. The CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which had long advocated for removing 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 businesses in the state in recruiting a diverse, talented workforce.

For all these reasons, it should have been easy for Florida Republicans to see that the trade-off for resurrecting the antiquated gender and racial landscape of the nineteen-fifties would be to potentially surrender some portion of the prosperity that has been achieved in the state. since then. So far, Florida has not suffered the scale of loss that Atlanta experienced, when it lost the All-Star Game, or that North Carolina did, during the NCAA boycott. The Disney-DeSantis conflict will likely fade into a cold détente—the new law revoking Disney’s favored status is set to take effect next year, though Disney officials have pointed out a provision in the original legislation that might leave neighboring counties on the hook for a billion-dollar bond debt, should the company lose that status—but the underlying intentions that it produced will remain. We will almost certainly see more clashes like this in the future. To an extent that the GOP seems to have scarcely considered, prosecuting the culture wars can result in unexpected collateral damage. And the worst wounds will undoubtedly be self-inflicted.

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