The Great Media Freakout About Ron DeSantis
There's more to media worries about DeSantis than his likely 2024 Presidential Run
As Trump eventually fades from the scene — perhaps overtaken by Ron DeSantis — the democracy question, far from disappearing, might instead sharpen.
A glimpse into this future came recently when I proposed on Twitter that DeSantis is “a deeply authoritarian figure.” The incredulity and rage of the conservative response this summoned was captured by a Fox News story headlined “NY Mag writer wrecked for calling DeSantis ‘a more competent authoritarian’ than Trump: ‘Hysterical’.”
What’s revealing about this episode is how it has put on display the belief on the right that to call DeSantis a threat to democracy is not only wrong but self-evidently absurd. Conservatives are defining out of existence the idea that the party itself, rather than one man, could be a threat to democracy.
It is a very bizarre argument from Chait, one that Chait goes out of his way to not really address at all. This is as close as Chase gets to it:
DeSantis is a flawless sample of this belief system. The conservative argument that democracy is dangerous lies so close to his heart that he wrote an entire book dedicated to the precept that “when the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” After the election, DeSantis floated a plan for legislatures to appoint pro-Trump electors, negating the election results. (The Supreme Court is ruling on the legality of this method, which may well be the cutting-edge conservative tool to negate elections.) In office, he has engineered a series of disturbingly illiberal schemes to entrench his own power, from instituting a poll tax to disenfranchise some million mostly non-white Floridians to punishing firms that dare to oppose his agenda, among many other steps.
The only one of these that anybody could take seriously as a “threat to Democracy” would be any cockamamie plan to have legislators negate election results through the appointment of illicit electors.
But as far as what the rest of Chait suggests? It’s either not “undemocratic” as Chait calls it or falsely interpreted by Chait to make a point.
“The precept that “when the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic” is a basic tenet of Republican government. It’s how you wind up a massive welfare state as you do in parts of western Europe and as many on the left in America dream of. It’s one of the reasons that the national debt is out of control and why the size and scope of government at all levels continue to explode.
Chait’s problem is not with DeSantis’s definition of a problem. He just thinks that the people voting for a bloated government is a good thing. And such a bloated government often far exceeds the allowable scope of Constitutional governance.
Chait then turns to the Parental Rights in Education Act, pejoratively named the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill actually:
Prohibited classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from K-3 in Florida public schools
Prohibited instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not "age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students" in any grade
Prohibited schools from restricting parental access to their student's education and health records.
This isn’t some sort of weird authoritarianism, as so many on the left want to pretend it is. It’s merely the restoration of common sense in public education and getting instruction on sexuality beyond the reproductive process out of schools, where it has no business.
A measure that received less attention than either, but has enormous significance, is one DeSantis signed with little fanfare. In 2018, nearly two-thirds of Florida voters approved a ballot initiative to allow former felons to vote. Felon disenfranchisement is a relic of the post-Reconstruction era, when white southern states used it, in combination with laws heavily targeting Black men, as a tool to limit voting. The referendum granted eligibility to more than a million Floridians.
DeSantis, who was elected governor at the same time the initiative passed, acted quickly to nullify it once in office. Republicans pushed through a law requiring former felons to pay off any outstanding fines or court debt before they could vote. At least three-quarters of eligible voters owe court debt, and of those, the vast majority can’t pay it back.
Now admittedly, this seems a little odd. Most states that allow felons to vote don’t require fines to be paid to my knowledge. But the fact remains that the fines or court debt are part of the sentence that needs to be repaid to the state and/or society. That does not make it a poll tax in any way similar to a poll tax as banned by the Constitution.
What’s telling about Chait’s complaints about DeSantis is what he doesn’t complain about. He does not complain about DeSantis’s attempts to restrict how social media companies operate. He does not complain about the removal of the Reedy Creek Improvement District’s tax status done solely for the purpose of speaking out about the Parental Rights in Education Act.
Chait does not complain about these, because it preserves the overreaching power of the state. Chait’s problem is not with DeSantis’s “Orban tendencies”; he has a problem with a Republican being in a position to act upon those tendencies.
Do I think that Ron DeSantis is far too much of a statist for more liking? Absolutely. But I also think that liberal critiques of DeSantis like this one speaks more to liberal hypocrisy than it does anything else. Their complaints are not with DeSantis, much in the same way that all of their complaints about Donald Trump weren’t about Trump.
They don’t care about Presidents wielding illiberal power. They care only about who is wielding illiberal power.
While undoubtedly a lot of Chait’s angst (and others in the media) is about the fact that Ron DeSantis is the likely Republican nominee for President in 2024, there’s a deeper concern on behalf of these liberals than that.