Ron DeSantis Is a Test Case
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The fact that Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is favored to win re-election is a clear warning to those worried about declining support for democratic institutions and values in the United States.
The prospect of DeSantis’s re-election in November suggests that under certain circumstances the American electorate will tolerate, if not actively embrace, the abuse by domineering leaders of traditional political norms. A DeSantis victory would also demonstrate that the hostility of many mainstream voters to controversial liberal initiatives on social and cultural issues is strong enough to generate formidable backlash.
DeSantis has made no secret of his intent to use executive authority to the fullest extent. On taking office, DeSantis told a Hillsdale College gathering in Naples, Fla., last February, “The first thing I said to the general counsel was: ‘I want you to give me a binder of all the authorities of the governor. What can I do as a matter of constitutional right without anybody checking me?’ ”
On April 22, the DeSantis administration barred public schools from using 54 math textbooks, many of them on the grounds that they contained “social-emotional learning content” designed to build student confidence, according to a New York Times analysis by Dana Goldstein and Stephanie Saul. “The intention of social-emotional learning,” noted Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute — a DeSantis supporter — “is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology.” DeSantis told reporters that “math is about getting the right answer,” adding, “It’s not about how you feel about the problem.”
On June 3, DeSantis announced that he had line-item vetoed $35 million in state funds approved by the legislature for a new Tampa Bay Rays training facility after the baseball team publicly spoke out against gun violence through its Twitter account. DeSantis, an opponent of gun control, said it was “inappropriate to subsidize political activism of a private corporation.”
That same month, the DeSantis administration threatened to impose a $27.5 million fine on the Special Olympics if it continued to insist on a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for participants. The charity backed down and eliminated the requirement.
On Aug. 4, DeSantis announced that he had removed from office the elected state attorney of Hillsborough, Andrew Warren. DeSantis’s order cited Warren for signing a June 24 statement with other prosecutors declaring, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, that “we decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions.” In addition, DeSantis cited Warren’s policy against prosecution of “certain criminal violations, including trespassing at a business location, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication, and prostitution.”
There are many other examples of DeSantis’s at once calculated and provocative behavior, whether it concerns Disney’s special tax status in the state or the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill that took effect this summer and has roiled the beginning of Florida’s school year.
That DeSantis has pushed these boundaries is no surprise. What is surprising is the absence of strong, organized opposition in a purple state. Why? One answer is that his policies have substantial support.
From May 21 to May 30 this year, Hart Research Associates, a Democratic polling firm, posed questions on contentious education issues to 1,758 likely voters in seven battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — for the American Federation of Teachers, a pro-Democratic labor organization. The responses revealed the depth of the traditional attitudes DeSantis and numerous other Republican candidates are tapping into.
The voters Hart surveyed were asked to rank, on a scale of 0 to 10, the appeal of a Republican candidate who declared:
Too many schools today are focused on indoctrinating students with liberal political ideas, instead of educating them. Children are shamed because of their race and taught that some people are “privileged” because of the color of their skin. Students are taught that biological sex is a myth, and even young kids are exposed to radical ideas about gender identity. We need a change: schools and teachers should respect the rights of parents and teach children the skills they need for success.
A plurality, 37 percent, responded 9 or 10, or extremely appealing, and 19 percent ranked the message as a 7 or 8, fairly appealing. 14 percent were neutral at 5-6 and 30 percent were in the 0-4 range, not appealing.
The Hart survey found strong margins of support among voters for a Republican candidate who “believes public schools should focus less on teaching students about race and racism, and more on core academic subjects,” who “believes parents should have the option to decide whether their child receives instruction on gender and transgender issues,” who “favors legislation to prevent transgender students who were born as males from competing in girls’ athletics,” “supports legislation that prohibits teaching in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation or gender identity,” “says that schools should stop teaching young children that people can have more than one gender or no gender” and “says that white students should not be shamed over issues of race and racism.”
Support for a Republican candidate who takes these stands is not limited to Republican voters. Hart found that roughly a third of Democrats and half of independents said they would back such a candidate.
What would it be like living in this country in 2025 if Trump, DeSantis or one of their emulators wins the White House backed by Republican majorities in the House and Senate?
I posed this question to a number of experts and received a wide range of responses.
Arturas Rozenas, a professor of political science at N.Y.U. whose research “focuses on building theoretical models of authoritarian politics and testing them using natural experiments, field experiments, and machine learning tools,” replied by email to my inquiry:
Successful democratic backsliding requires careful management of the backlash that can occur in response to it. This is the case everywhere, but it is particularly important in the United States where democracy is fundamental to national identity. An optimal strategy for a government that attempts an authoritarian takeover would be to do so in a way that is not easily detectable.
He suggested that the best strategy is the adoption of “the ‘salami tactic’ ”:
You take a small step, the consequences of which to democracy are ambiguous — change election laws, voter-registration rules, increase partisan control of the Civil Service, or weaken the independence of the judiciary. Many of the changes will be too gradual to cause a reaction, but in aggregate they will confer enough advantage for the incumbent to make it impossible for the opposition to win.
Equally crucial, Rozenas continued:
Each slice of this ‘authoritarian salami’ would be dressed as a reform toward more democracy, not less. When the Polish government tried to curtail the powers of the Constitutional Court, their argument was that the court is impeding the government’s ability to implement the will of the people — so its powers are undemocratic. Similarly, Hugo Chavez obtained sweeping powers and killed Venezuelan democracy through a series of referendums in the name of popular sovereignty. The paradox is that the procedure of authoritarian takeover will appear quite democratic.
Rozenas described a shift toward authoritarian governance as a slow, evolutionary process in which politicians would go out of their way to avoid abrupt disruption that could activate opposition: “If anything, the government will try to avoid a clear benchmark that would signify the death of democracy. It would proceed by stealth, using a piecemeal approach, more likely through executive action than legislation.”
Political elites will notice the changes, he noted, but
most people would continue with their lives as normal. Slowly, people would notice that politicians are not disagreeing as much as they used to, that the press has become less combative, and there are far fewer protests and demonstrations. On the shallow surface, politics would start to appear more peaceful. Many would probably welcome this artificial harmony after the age of conflictual partisanship we’re living through now.
Would there be a tipping point?
The point at which “the average person” would start perceiving that their lives are now different would be when it is too late to do anything about it. One day you notice that your kid’s textbook has a picture of the president on the opening page, that the government started a war that you dislike but no one in the media is criticizing it, that the leadership is making one incompetent mistake after another, but it is not removed from office, that Civil Service employers check the historical party registration records to make sure that you are not going to be a ‘difficult’ employee who at some points sympathized with the ‘wrong’ party, that you find yourself in a disagreement with the government that is costly for you to express. At this point, it will be clear that ‘things are different now,’ but by then, it will take heroically more effort than now to do anything about it.
There are others who foresee immediate changes taking place if Republicans win full control of the federal government in 2025.
Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, wrote in an email that “if a Trump Republican becomes president in 2025, I am less worried about church-state relations, or a federal ban on abortion, the passage of extremely illiberal national legislation, and so on.”
Instead, Diamond said, “I am worried about the extreme politicization and abuse of federal government power, the targeting of political enemies, and the mobilization and emboldening of the violent, well-armed, extremist fringe of Trump followers — who, even though they may represent a small percentage of Trump supporters, are in absolute numbers significant.”
If Trump wins, Diamond continued, he will initiate the removal of government officials believed to be disloyal, including those currently protected by Civil Service regulations:
He would stack the upper reaches of government with absolute loyalists who would follow his wishes on domestic policy, foreign policy, and abuse of power, rather than try to delay, obstruct, or undermine his anti-democratic impulses. He would fire Christopher Wray at F.B.I. and install a loyalist to politicize that crucial agency. He would also install individuals he could trust to follow his authoritarian orders and sympathies to head other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and he would purge career professionals in numerous government departments and agencies suspected of disloyalty to him personally.
Richard Hasen, a law professor at U.C.L.A., argued in an email that should Republicans prevail in the 2024 election, the crucial question will be how victory was achieved: “It is important at the outset to differentiate between a Trump (or another candidate’s) legitimate win and one that would come through some form of election subversion.”
If Trump fails to win legitimately but finds a route to being installed as president, Hasen wrote, “then at that point the United States ceases to be a democracy. Such a move to steal an election would likely be followed by other means of solidifying and maintaining power, such as control over the military and reformulation of election rules so that the regime would be self-perpetuating.”
Such a scenario, in Hasen’s view,
would no doubt lead to massive street protests, and these could well be put down with violence. Such violence could then deter people from speaking out in media. There could also be soft or harder controls over the media. There would be tremendous uncertainty over what a post-democracy period would look like in the United States. People would not feel free to speak out against the regime, much like there are penalties for doing so in other repressive societies.
Conversely, Hasen wrote,
If Trump (or another candidate like Trump) legitimately wins office in 2024 then I think we would not likely see all of those things I mentioned, including a takeover of the military or massive disenfranchisement or electoral manipulation. Instead I think we would see much of what we saw during Trump’s first term, only more extreme. He would put more of his loyalists in key places in the government, and push the limits of what is allowed in terms of taking power and changing society toward his desires.
The lesson to be drawn from the second Trump impeachment, according to Hasen, “is that Republicans who challenge Trump will be drummed out of the party. That means Trump would be able to get away with a lot more without Republican pushback.”
Richard Pildes, a law professor at N.Y.U., based his emailed comments on the premise that “democratic backsliding is not about ordinary policy conflict, but an attack on the mechanisms and values that sustain democracies.”
In the United States, Pildes wrote, “one might imagine the party in power during unified government would seek to dramatically expand the number and size of the federal courts, then fill these new positions.” Trump, Pildes noted, has already indicated that “one of the first things he’d do if re-elected would be an executive order reassigning tens of thousands civil servants into ‘Schedule F’ positions — which would mean they would lose their Civil Service protections and could be fired and replaced with new appointees the President would choose.”
Instead of censorship, Pildes wrote, an authoritarian-leaning president would seek to control the media
through exacting economic leverage against it or delegitimating it by calling it “fake news.” As they insulate themselves from accountability, these governments then use their discretionary powers over grants, licenses, and the like to pressure businesses and others to extract “donations” to political campaigns, toe the party line, or at least not to challenge it publicly. We saw a glimpse of this during Covid, with President Trump saying he would provide desperately needed equipment to governors who were “nice” to him, not “nasty.”
Donald Moynihan, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, described in an email how democratic backsliding would alter or affect different constituencies and demographic groups.
“For many, life would go on as normal. These are groups with more conservative beliefs that have little reason to worry that their rights are at risk,” Moynihan wrote. Conversely, he continued, “certain groups would be more vulnerable. These include historically marginalized groups, who might find new restrictions on voting. Or members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community who are treated as second class citizens.”
Government workers, Moynihan noted, are likely to bear the brunt:
Because US democratic backsliding has been accompanied with a conspiratorial anti-statist flavor, the risks extend especially to public servants. Over the last few years, specific groups of public officials — election officials, public health personnel, schoolteachers and library workers — have been subject to wild conspiracy theories and unfounded accusations and given less professional autonomy to do their job.
DeSantis, Moynihan wrote, is “a better representation of these threats than Trump,” because the Florida governor
has passed bills that monitor the political ideology of faculty and students. Higher ed institutions have censored faculty, barring some from testifying against state redistricting proposals, and constraining how they talk about issues like race. The DeSantis administration has encouraged students to monitor and report on professors whose views are “not acceptable,” a practice akin to what happens in China.
DeSantis, Moynihan added,
has signed bills that limit discussions in the classroom, or the ability of people to protest. His administration stymied the right to vote for former felons, making it not just much harder to reclaim that right, but refusing to provide information to those seeking to know what they needed to do to vote, and prosecuting citizens who mistakenly voted because of confusion. He has attacked L.G.B.T.Q. groups, and his press spokesperson has labeled anyone that opposes their “Don’t Say Gay” bill as “groomers.”
DeSantis’s re-election bid, along with his future national prospects — along with those of Trump and the politicians who imitate him — will be a test of the direction the United States is poised to take at a time when, to quote the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, “The world’s economic-political order appears to be at an inflection point, with its future direction hanging very much in balance.”
The combination of racial and ethnic tension — and the continuance of economic dislocation unfairly distributed across the nation — has turned the United States into a testing ground for right-wing populism. The anger of the white working and middle classes that Trump and DeSantis capitalize on had its origin in two major developments over the past six decades.
The first of these grew out of the continuing absorption into the political system of the racially driven partisan realignment that began decades ago at the height of the civil rights movement. As described by Ilyana Kuziemko of Princeton and Ebonya Washington of Yale,
The entire 17 percentage-point decline in Democratic Party identification between 1958 and 1980 is explained by the 19 percentage point decline among Southern whites with conservative racial views. Extending the post-period through 2000, 77 percent of the 20 percentage-point drop is explained by the differential drop among Southern whites with conservative racial views.
The second development originates in the enduring dislocation engendered by the 2008 financial crisis:
“The years after the crisis saw sharp increases in political polarization and the rise of populist movements on both the left and right in Europe and the U.S., culminating in Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump here — by some measures the country’s most polarizing president ever,” wrote Gautam Mukunda, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “Even the economic recovery experienced by the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Britain, is not enough to neutralize the long-term political and social effects of the collapse.”
Charlie Crist, the current Democratic nominee for governor in Florida and a former Republican governor of the state, will test the vulnerability of contemporary right-wing populism in the nation’s third largest state — population 22 million. Crist has already made it clear that he intends to make the election a referendum on DeSantis, adopting the slogan “Defeat fascism, defeat DeSantis,” a theme that dominated his first general election ad.
In fact, the Florida election will be a referendum on democracy, and the odds do not look good."