What “freedom” means to Ron DeSantis

What "freedom" means to Ron DeSantis

About 40 minutes into a whirlwind speech, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis seemed to come across something that looked like a thesis statement for his vision of conservatism.

“We understand freedom is more than the absence of restrictions,” DeSantis said. “We have to understand that threats to freedom are not just the result of what happens in legislatures. Yes, you have to win these fights, (but) the left is trying to impose its agenda through a wide range of ‘arteries in our society, including corporate America.’

DeSantis talks a lot about freedom, and even more about the alleged threats to it. For the governor, these seem to lurk everywhere, from drag shows at Disney and undocumented immigrants to corporate “diversity, equity and inclusion” efforts. In his new book, titled The courage to be free, and in speeches like the one he gave on April 1 to a crowd of local elected officials and conservative activists in central Pennsylvania, DeSantis describes Florida as a place that has been able to withstand countless onslaughts against the freedom because he was willing (and willing) to deploy state power.

But it rarely offers much in terms of defining freedom, preferring instead, it is assumed, to let everyone in the audience figure it out for themselves. When he goes into detail, it is usually to make revealing distinctions.

“For years, the default Conservative posture has been to limit government,” he writes in the new book. That idea needs to be pushed aside, he adds: “Elected officials who do nothing more than step aside are essentially giving these institutions the green light to continue their unfettered march through society.”

It’s not nothing. For centuries, conservatives have often echoed the libertarian idea that government is the greatest threat to American freedom. DeSantis posits a different idea: what if not?

Judging by the reactions of those few hundred conservatives who gathered April 1 in the ballroom of the Penn Harris Hotel in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, it’s an appealing message. DeSantis received a warm welcome and won several extended standing ovations – the longest and loudest, by far, after he promised to support legislation in Florida to revoke the medical licenses of doctors who perform gender-affirming surgeries on minors.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is a limitation on the freedoms of Floridians. Imposing such limits has been a recurring feature of DeSantis’ tenure. He is now pushing for even more, including felony charges for anyone harboring or employing undocumented immigrants and a new ban on abortion after just six weeks pregnant. It’s tricky to sell this impulse to regulate people’s choices as a campaign to protect freedom. But that’s what DeSantis tries to do at events like the Pennsylvania conference.

At this point in his still-unofficial campaign, such events are an opportunity to wade through the material that will eventually find its way into regular stump talk — like a comedian trying out new tunes at a small comedy club to see what lands and which punchlines need more work. It’s not the polished final version of DeSantis’ pitch to voters, but it’s a prototype stump speech he could deliver by the end of the year.

And some of them clearly need reworking. DeSantis’ rhetoric for a conservatism that wields state power against such perceived threats may sound workable in sound bites and bumper stickers, but it provokes jarring contradictions when stated in more detail.

It’s most evident when DeSantis talks about education. Take, for example, this section of DeSantis’ speech in Pennsylvania. Please note that there are no ellipses.

Every parent in Florida has the right to send their child to the best school possible, and so we have universal school choice in Florida. We have 1.3 million students in programs of choice. I signed legislation on Monday that will expand that, and so not only have we done more for school choice than anyone in Florida history, we’ve had the biggest expansion of school choice school under my watch from anyone in America’s history and probably anyone in the history of the world, if you think about it.

We’re proud to do this, but we also want to make sure our schools focus on what matters and don’t go off on ideological tangents – and so we’ve banned critical race theory in our K-12 schools.

This in a nutshell is the terminal problem with DeSantis’ understanding of freedom. You can have the freedom to send your child to any school you want in Florida, as long as it is a school that teaches a governor-approved curriculum.

It is not simply a question of redefining freedom to mean something other than the absence of restrictions. It is an affirmative argument for these restrictions, wrapped in a promise that the right kind of people– those who agree with DeSantis on what should be taught in schools – will continue to enjoy freedom even if it is denied to others.

This same problem arises when DeSantis talks about immigration. He’s happy to tout Florida’s status as a haven from “Faucian dystopia” during the pandemic, and he has no trouble acknowledging that the state’s population boom has translated into positive economic growth. . “We have served as a promised land for Americans who have been disillusioned with leftist government,” he said in his speech in Pennsylvania before rattling off a list of Flordia’s impressive economic indicators.

It’s clear to DeSantis that more people moving to Florida is great news.

A few minutes later, he turned his attention to the national immigration policy. “We’ve been really tough on immigration,” DeSantis said. Then he made another list, this time of ways Florida cracked down on undocumented immigrants, including his 2021 stunt that involved flying a few dozen of them from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

If more people moving to Florida is good for the state, why didn’t DeSantis send those immigrants to Jacksonville or Miami instead? The unspoken but implicit answer—like the answer to the larger question of who can enjoy freedom—seems to be that it depends on who comes into the state. THE good kind of people flee COVID authoritarianism and authoritarian governments in blue states; the wrong kinds of people are fleeing authoritarian governments in other parts of the world. The crucial distinction has to do with the nationalities on their passports, or perhaps with their skin color or mother tongue.

It’s at least a little ironic for DeSantis to draw lines based on such characteristics. Her great-great-grandmother arrived in America just months before the 1917 Immigration Act barred her from entering the country, an inquest has found Tampa Bay weather. Although she could not read or write at the time, her great-great-grandson is now planning to run for the White House.

This is the value of freedom. It’s something DeSantis should think a little deeper before making it the centerpiece of a possible presidential campaign.

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