Sun Sentinel Broward Edition
Fla. becoming a dangerous laboratory of autocracy
“There are no second chances. It’s well known you can’t go against him.
If you cross him once, you’re dead.”
This might be a description of a Mafia boss or former President Donald Trump. Instead, it’s how a former Florida legislator, speaking anonymously to Politico, describes the bullying leadership style of current Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s busy turning his state into an illiberal stronghold.
As the Republican Party adopts an authoritarian political culture and rejects democratic norms and ideals, the embrace of extremist ideologies has become a way for ambitious GOP politicians to stand out and capture media attention. Florida, Texas, and other Republican-governed states are becoming laboratories of American autocracy, passing legislation that institutionalizes homophobia and racism.
Yet DeSantis is a particularly dangerous individual. He may be up for re-election as governor in Florida, but he has designs on the White House as soon as two years from now. It’s not hard to see what he is doing in Florida as a rehearsal for illiberalism on a national scale.
He’s very popular within the GOP. And he’s following a playbook that prioritizes not public welfare, but rather the intimidation and polarization of citizens — the better to facilitate the accumulation of the leader’s personal power.
Trump’s relentless attempts to discredit our national election apparatus and the success of his Big Lie showed other unscrupulous politicians, DeSantis among them, the gains to be made through making fake claims of election fraud.
Cue the governor’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security, housed within the Florida Department of State. It will have 15 investigators to pursue election crimes, including those reported to a “voter fraud hotline.”
DeSantis also seeks to disempower and punish Floridians he sees as political enemies. This ever-expanding category of people includes Black voters (a new redistricting map would cut heavily Black districts from four to two); protesters (an April 2021 “anti-riot” law grants civil immunity to people who drive cars into protesters blocking roads); and the LGBTQ community. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” Bill limits K-3 classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation and allows parents to potentially sue schools or teachers that engage in these topics.
The authoritarian goals of censorship and encouraging citizens to turn on each other also motivate the various “anti-critical race theory” bills, like the Stop WOKE Act, that censor anti-racist content and workplace training. DeSantis calls such information “state-sanctioned racism.” Yet he refused to denounce actual Nazi activists who assaulted a Jewish college student in the Orlando area.
Democratic frames of reasoning don’t help us to understand decisions that fly in the face of good governance and heighten the possibility of harmful outcomes. Who benefits from increased polarization, from ideologues replacing experts, from turning citizens into informers?
A leader like DeSantis, who seems intent on creating his own mini-autocracy in Florida, to be scaled up in 2024. The governor is “essentially the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court right now,” says a sitting Republican state legislator, speaking anonymously.
DeSantis may cast himself as the savior of “freedom” in Florida, but the real meaning of his idea of liberty is clear. He wants to be free of any constraints on his ability to govern in ways that benefit the consolidation of his personal power. That’s how autocrats think.
His defeat in 2022, and if it comes to it, in 2024, is imperative for the future of American democracy.