Op/Ed

Editorial: DeSantis, culture wars, and politics perpetuating grievance

ANGELO LYNN

It’s hard to ignore Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican firebrand and likely presidential candidate leading the nation’s third most populous state. His keen sense of timing when championing cultural issues is as impeccable as it is distracting. That’s on purpose.

His latest move this week to have the state’s Department of Education reject a pilot Advanced Placement African American studies course from being offered in Florida’s public high schools is another example. It goes along with the governor’s recently passed “Stop WOKE” law, which seeks to prevent the study of the full-range of experiences of African American and LGBT people in the classroom — in K-12 as well as state-funded higher education and to essentially “whitewash” the teaching of American history.

These politically calculated moves mesh well with the “politics of grievance” initiated by ex-president Donald Trump, who used the culture wars to build a solid white-majority fan base in his 2016 campaign.

In Florida, DeSantis is also riding a white wave of conservative support. By vowing to prevent the indoctrination of Florida students into political activism, as DeSantis claims such courses would do, he taps into the resistance of a state that is 79.5% White and Hispanic, and 17% African American. And because many Hispanics are conservative on social issues, they often support anti-WOKE legislation.

While the “Stop WOKE” law is being challenged for its unconstitutionality and opponents have won a preliminary injunction blocking Florida’s Board of Governors from enforcing its “unconstitutional and racially discriminatory provisions at public universities,” the outcome of the case is serious — some 15 other conservative states have filed similar policies which limit the teaching of the nation’s black history. It’s a movement that must be fought. Politically, however, the main benefit is transitory. DeSantis merely seeks to keep his name in the national spotlight as the new hero of America’s conservative elites and a thorn in the side of the liberal agenda. He is, in today’s highly partisan political theater, the conservative who can “stick it to the Democrats.”

In an insightful column in today’s New York Times, Jamelle Bouie notes how DeSantis has used this issue—as well as being among the first to be openly hostile to vaccine mandates, masking requirements, LBGT issues and anything or anyone deemed woke—to seize the right flank in the Republican presidential primary. 

“There is a reason DeSantis has made these issues, and virtually nothing else, the platform from which he hopes to build national power. By leaning into high-profile battles as a culture warrior par excellence for the most reactionary segment of the American public — last year, to give another example, he picked a fight with the Disney corporation — DeSantis has made himself the hero of conservative elites and the bête noire of liberals and Democrats without so much as mentioning his radical and unpopular views on social insurance and the welfare state.”

Why is this important for Vermonters? Two reasons resonate: to be grateful our own Republican governor doesn’t dive to such low political means; and to understand the thrust behind cultural issues that may seem completely out of touch to many Vermonters, who may be thinking: Is it really necessary to wage an all-out battle to reject a new pilot textbook for a single AP high school course that seeks to teach African American studies in a new way? 

It works only because it inflames the far-right fringe of the Republican Party, while distracting from DeSantis’s political stands that are highly unpopular. 

Bouie goes on to highlight DeSantis’s ultra conservative agenda on the nation’s main issues — primarily the wholesale slashing of government-run programs like Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. 

As a congressman for three terms from 2013 to 2018, when he ran for governor and won (he just won his second term in Nov. 2022), he led the effort to shut down the government over funding for the Affordable Care Act in 2013, and that same year, Bouie notes, “voted to pass a budget resolution that would have cut more than $250 billion from Social Security and Medicare over a decade. In 2017, he voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to cut taxes on corporations, high earners and wealthy heirs.” 

In his 2011 book bashing the Obama presidency, “Dreams From Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama,” DeSantis writes that the founding fathers “strived to construct a system of government that prevented government-mandated wealth redistribution.” 

In today’s economy, that misconstrued take-away is a sure-fire recipe for widening a wealth gap that has already created an unhealthy society of the ultra-rich versus a growing majority of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.

Bouie’s point is plain enough: American voters, and political opponents, should refuse to play his game on his turf (the culture wars) and, instead, press him at every instance to explain how his policies impact the issues that most affect Americans’ livelihoods and pocketbooks. And, as importantly, challenge his ideology that would create an ever-larger segment of lower- and middle-income Americans unable to afford a quality of life their parents and grandparents enjoyed. 

That policies DeSantis champions perpetuate the grievances of so many White Americans are not lost on Republican politicians. The culture warriors, like DeSantis, distract their supporters with emotional issues, while quietly passing bills against their economic interest. 

Angelo Lynn

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