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Ron DeSantis is leading the charge for a more coercive conservative administration


While a member of the House Freedom Caucus, Ron DeSantis espoused a classic conservative argument about the threats to American freedom from government regulation of the Internet.

“If you want government to exercise a power that you like now, someone else can come in and exercise that power in a way that you don’t like,” he said to applause at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2017. don’t we just deny the government the power to do it, and let the American people have free internet and make their own choices?

Just a few years later, DeSantis reversed himself as governor of Florida, claiming that technology companies and their political views had become the real threat to freedom. Far from government being the problem, as former President Ronald Reagan famously argued, DeSantis offered a new law as the solution. He signed a bill imposing fines of up to $250,000 a day on social media companies that deface candidates for office in his state for any reason.

The move was just part of his broad embrace of the government’s often coercive power to push back private decisions by corporations, banks, colleges and the national media. He has argued that these institutions now form an “anointed” regime of elite thinking that threatens the country, and that Silicon Valley companies are operating in ways that were “probably unforeseen by the founding fathers”.

“Thus, elected officials must exercise authority in a way that protects individuals from these powerful institutions,” he wrote in his new book, “The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.” “In this context, elected officials who do nothing but get out of their way are essentially giving these institutions the green light to continue their unimpeded march through society.”

It is a political view that directly clashes with the tendencies of the pre-Donald Trump conservative movement, which associated most government regulation of the private sector with authoritarian regimes in the Soviet Union and China. It has also put DeSantis on a collision course with other potential presidential candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who have expressed concern over the Florida government’s decision to penalize companies for their business decisions .

“The danger facing the Republican Party is that we have leadership and voices that are effectively trying to beat the Democrats at their own game of big government solutions,” Sununu said in a recent interview, when asked about the DeSantis model. “Not only will we never beat the Democrats at that game, but we should never be playing that game in the first place because we’re conservative, or we should be… The government isn’t here to fix culture.”

DeSantis advisers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

DeSantis, like Trump before him, still embraces the rhetoric of limited government. He approvingly quotes James Madison’s 1788 warning to Thomas Jefferson: “Where the real power lies in a government, there is the danger of oppression.” But he has also established himself as a wartime leader in a time of crisis. He opened his book with a quote from Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War II, about courage.

Speaking in California on Sunday, DeSantis compared his crusade against “the wake mind virus” to Reagan’s confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Reagan, he argued, had offered a clear model.

“He understood that if they could just get the government out of the way and let free people innovate and invest, the economy would improve, and it did,” DeSantis said. “He also rejected the idea that Soviet communism was something we just had to live with. No, his policy was very simple: we win and they lose.”

As governor, DeSantis explicitly punished the Walt Disney Company by removing his power to govern the land around Walt Disney World in Orlando itself because the company’s leadership publicly opposed one of its education policies in Florida elementary schools. He has further suggested that a new board he has appointed to oversee the company “would like to see the kind of entertainment that all families can appreciate” – suggesting a state interest in the company’s content.

He has also separately advocated expanding the right of private action against media organizations, complaining that under current legal standards there is too much protection for reporters who use anonymous quotes in their reporting.

When cruise lines tried to lure passengers back by requiring vaccines on board their ships, which were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks, DeSantis signed a law banning the health measures, successfully arguing in court that the requirement amounted to discrimination against unvaccinated people. He has also proposed a law that would prohibit banks and financial institutions from taking customers’ political, religious or social beliefs into account when deciding whether to extend credit, bank accounts or loans.

Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, who has long advocated a “leave us alone” brand of conservatism, sees in DeSantis’s actions an echo of the George W. Bush administration’s embrace of extraordinary government police powers after the sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, which many conservative activists later regretted. He argues that most Republican elected leaders continue to see the danger of statist solutions to social challenges.

“There are times when people react and think that government action can be a shortcut to getting things done,” he said. “State power is like the hand grenade. It’s pretty good for killing people, not much else. There is a danger that the state will be used to fix things. At the same time, I see this as understandable expressions of frustration.”

Scholars at the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute were equally critical of the DeSantis drift, with compare senior colleague David Boaz DeSantis’ decision to sentence the Disney World Florida board of directors to “Xi Jinping confiscation,” a reference to the Chinese leader. In a 2022 report on the “limited government” records of the nation’s governors, CATO ranked DeSantis 18th in the nation, behind Democrats such as North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.

But others in the conservative movement, influenced by the Trump presidency, have applauded the conservative evolution DeSantis announced. As president, Trump had no qualms about trying to use state power to punish private industry, signing an executive order urging the loss of liability protections for tech companies he accused of censoring conservative voices and repeatedly targeting Amazon. threat after he publicly quarreled with its founder Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post.

Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation, an intellectual anchor for conservatism during the Reagan presidency, said the shifts in the movement have been positive. He describes evolution not as a betrayal of past principles, but as the incorporation of new values ​​in response to the changing landscape.

“We use the state to advance the public good,” Roberts said, noting that Heritage has been a vocal advocate of regulating tech companies and preventing conservative institutions from getting financial services. “Between all these competing commodities — the free market, human flourishing, and freedom of expression — government must step in and make sure we have institutions like the family and that we protect the innocence of children.”

For DeSantis, the new wartime position marks a striking contrast to his previous positions. When he first ran for Congress, he was outspoken in his belief that the government should not dictate its views to the private sector. Like most conservatives at the time, he associated such efforts with liberal outreach.

“I am in favor of not requiring Catholic hospitals to provide services related to abortion,” he said in 2012 during debates over the scope of the Affordable Care Act. “I don’t think the government should order them to do that.” As a member of the House, he described himself as “sick of the government always telling us how to live our lives” by regulating what kind of health care or light bulbs people could buy. He was outraged by revelations in 2013 that the IRS had targeted some conservative nonprofits for greater scrutiny, though investigations later revealed progressive groups were also targeted.

“I don’t think the government should get involved in speech policing in general,” he said at a 2014 House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing.

In his 2019 inaugural address as governor, he pledged to be guided by Abraham Lincoln’s admonition to the 166th Ohio Regiment in 1864, when he brought up the Civil War during his re-election efforts as a struggle for a “free government” that would have a ” open field”. and fair opportunity for one’s industry, enterprise, and intelligence.”

Brooke Rollins, the president and CEO of the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute, said there has been a marked shift in conservatism since she led the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market think tank, during George W. Bush and Obama. She said the right is beginning to learn from the tactics of liberals, who have historically been more aggressive in using the courts and government to force social change.

“I think the time has come for people to step forward and say that this is not what the country is about. And we need to be able to use those same tools to take our land back,” Rollins said.

But she also acknowledged that the changes remained controversial within some parts of the Republican coalition, a rift likely to surface in the upcoming 2024 Republican presidential race.

“I’m actually really encouraged. I think we’re going to have a very vigorous, healthy family debate over the next year. There will be difficult moments,” she said. “At the end of this, I think the right, the conservative movement, and the American-first movement will be stronger because of this.”

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