I have been watching State of the State speeches since Lawton Chiles delivered his 1995 speech (in which he made reference to his former US Senate colleague from Mississippi John Stennis, just to make sure we were paying attention). These are generally very straight forward affairs loaded with policy talk and feel-good rhetoric. Jeb Bush and Rick Scott usually used the speeches to talk about education or business. In fact, the previous three years, Ron DeSantis took a similar tact.
But yesterday was different. Governor DeSantis speech was an acidic, angry set of ramblings highlighting the grievance culture on the right. A few weeks ago, we dubbed DeSantis Florida’s “Great Divider” ,and that rhetoric became overheated on Tuesday at the Capitol.
The Governor continues to identify cultural flash-points in the classroom, in our neighborhoods and within our families and use them to further divide us – turning Floridian against Floridian, parent against their child’s teacher, neighbor against neighbor, worker against employer, and ultimately many Florida residents against the media, “elites,” immigrants, and “outsiders”.
It’s largely useless to go line-by-line in DeSantis presentation because it was such a loaded speech, the nuance and detail may take away from the overall point – in this State of the State, DeSantis didn’t highlight positive stories that bring Floridians together or tout the wonderful nature of our state beyond highly-ideological and partisan-charged themes (I concede, some would consider those positives but they’re divisive in the way he executes them).
In a similar vein, unlike Bush and Scott who faced significant push-back from their own parties legislators, DeSantis holds an emperor’s like trace over the members of the GOP in the House and Senate. Make no mistake that term limits and lack of expertise and experience among many GOP legislators contributes to this – Bush for example had to deal with a number of highly-experienced, confident State Senators who were Republicans but concerned about the state first and foremost. This led to a fair amount of compromise, and Bush’s more crazy ideological efforts being stopped – more often than not by fellow Republicans.
DeSantis faces no such hurdles. He is the King, the Emperor, the Maestro, the Leader rolled into one. Whatever he says or does becomes the GOP’s ideology in the state even despite the obvious ideological inconsistencies and contradictions. President Trump being off social media, has left a void of leadership in the GOP which DeSantis has adroitly filled. Despite the some elements of the national media and elite Democrats continued “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” it is DeSantis who commands the audience now, it is DeSantis who is the leader and represents a level of threat that the largely unfocused and lazy Trump didn’t (this is not to minimize the Trump threat of 2015-21, it’s to clearly state DeSantis represents a GREATER threat).
Florida is now officially a laboratory for the most insane cultural whitewashing efforts in a generation. We’re seeing the impact as COVID-19 spreads like wildfire in the state (though in fairness to DeSantis and every other state Governor, let’s wait until the pandemic concludes to definitively declare winners and losers) and the things that mattered most to us in the past including our collective identity as Floridians gets chipped away at and our local governments are rendered helpless and subservient to the Governor.
We’re seeing the reaction of parents who claim their children who aren’t quite learning the sanitized, slanted history they did, are being taught something called “Critical Race Theory.” They’re not by the way, they’re learning real history. We see how residents snarl at those of us so concerned about the health and safety of them and their loved ones we wear a mask and social distance in public places.
Governor DeSantis didn’t create these flash-points but he sure did exacerbate them.
It’s a dark time, and unfortunately I’m here to report it’s getting darker.
The Free State of Florida
In his State of the State Address, the Governor of Florida, Ron Desantis is said to have used some form of the word freedom 12 times during the 35 minute speech. The last time we heard such a pean to freedom it would have been delivered by someone complaining that an overreaching federal government was going impinge on the right of some to own others. Perhaps we should begin to call the Governor DeCalhoun.
Freedom as a value has an interesting history in this country. The word has always meant roughly the same thing, to act without hindrance or restraint as well as the absence of foreign domination or despotic governance. It can be thought of as the ability to do as one pleases or to not do as instructed by others. At the time of our revolution, it was a very relevant concept and necessary to our becoming an independent country. Liberty and freedom have been used to mean the same things in our political discussions.
The use of the words liberty and freedom have changed over time. Originally the republican values of equality and freedom were twin pillars of revolutionary thought. Those who believed in popular sovereignty – the consent of the governed, rule of the people, had to point out that no person or group should be seen as having the right, by birth or social position, to rule over others. So, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins with a statement on equality. Liberty comes in the second sentence of that paragraph, in a list of rights, after life.
By the time of the Constitutional Convention, some 12 years later, the country had become less revolutionary and less republican. The elite farmers, merchants and those who had attended college in Scotland, there were several, now were immersed in the liberalism of the Scottish enlightenment. For them the protection of property, land, stock (capital), and the freedom to do with it as the owner wished, was paramount. Unity replaced equality as a value and some became more equal than others. Those with the gold would rule.
This did not go uncontested. Prior to 1879, as northern states were developing state constitutions, issues of equality often were strongly pursued, debated and at times caused civil disturbance. Limits to the amount of land or income were proposed and done so on the basis of freedom. Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Pennsylvania government have the power to redistribute land so assure equitable shares. It was said that freedom was threatened when some controlled to much of a community’s wealth and the lack of land (capital) decreased the independence of the common person. The “better minds of better men” prevailed, of course, and these republican attempts at egalitarian government were reduced to seldom seen footnotes in history books.
This contest between the liberal conservators of privilege and egalitarians continued in other forms, often with religious origins as in the great awakening. The most striking of course was the work of the abolitionists in the 19th century who rebelled against the continuation of the slave power in our country. The were complimented by the Free Soil Party who wanted new states free of slavery so that yeoman farmers would not have to compete with slave holding farmers. New Republicans arose to speak for them in political forums. After the Civil War the value of equality quickly dropped again and within about 12 years from the end of the war, free trade and commerce again made some more equal than others, more free than others.
The new deal was an attempt to bring some economic equality back to the political system of the day. It was overcome by the second world war. Soon after that conflict, we entered into a second gilded age in which wealth added to wealth and the power and freedom of the common people was secondary to the wishes of the drivers of industry and commerce. Popular Sovereignty was traded for plutocracy and meritocracy, minority rule of the “better persons”.
Revolutionary republicans valued commonwealth, that all members of society share responsibility for the good of the group, the rule of all the people, recognition that power concentrated denied power to the people and that without power there is no freedom. Governor Desantis, like John C Calhoun, wants to nullify the acts of the federal government. He does not demonstrate a belief in shared responsibilities or shared power. He nullifies at both ends. The federal government holds no sway with him and he stifles the local control of the people and their local governmental bodies so that his political thinking will rule at all levels, unity over freedom to choose.
The United States is said to be a nation of laws not of men. Governor Desantis says that Florida is a “law and order state”. He then explains a whole list of things that people cannot or should not do in Florida. Freedom, Freedom! Enforced laws requires people to do a thing whether they want or not or require that they restrain from doing something. For Desantis, freedom should be available to those who agree with him and withheld from those who do not.
It appears to me that freedom, as expressed by many Americans today, is an adolescent form of freedom. I hear, in the background, a red-faced teen shouting “you are not the boss of me”. We no longer see ourselves as responsible for harm to others that comes from the things we do or refuse to do. We no longer see that we should share the burden of the community in assuring it provides a decent life for all its members. We are free of citizen responsibility.
What is the result? Freedom to ignore a climate catastrophe, Freedom to not do our part to prevent the spread of a vicious virus, freedom to support a huge war machine built in the interest of global trade that may get us into an unwinnable global war, and freedom to concentrate wealth, income and power in the hands of a few whose interests include those very same deplorable freedoms. Florida is the state of this kind of freedom. Come on Down!!
Patrick J. Fowler