Home » DeSantis’ latest Disney drama turns culture war into political gains

DeSantis’ latest Disney drama turns culture war into political gains

At the campaign-style event on Monday where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law revising Disney’s quasi-governmental status, one of the more telling details was the assortment of individuals who served as his opening acts.

John Shirey, president of Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters, which provides emergency fire service to the Walt Disney World Resort, praised the governor’s takeover as a move ensuring that public safety is a top priority in the district. Next, a self-described “parent who no longer trusts Disney” blasted the company for teaching children to “be comfortable with or participate with immorality.” (Her family has canceled their annual park passes and discontinued using Disney’s streaming service.) Finally, a former Disney employee who claimed to have lost his job due to the company’s vaccine mandate praised the governor for his “courage and good sense” to stand up to the company.

If you’ve been following the DeSantis-versus-Disney drama during the past year, you might notice that these complaints don’t have much to do with why this fight started. Initially, DeSantis was punishing Disney for criticizing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which limits the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. Rather than merely using state power to punish Disney and its former CEO for exercising their free speech rights, DeSantis has recast his actions as an effort to stem the tide of immorality in pop culture.

And by doing so, he’s using the culture war for his own personal and political gain.

Take another look at those three introductory speakers on Monday and you can see an update on Ronald Reagan’s famous “three-legged stool” of conservatism. In the 1980s, it was a fusion of Christian traditionalists, Cold War hawks, and fiscal conservatives. Those broad factions don’t meaningfully exist in contemporary politics, but DeSantis is probably correct that the GOP’s national coalition is best triangulated around public safety, conservative parents wary of cultural liberalism, and COVID reactionaries; with the last category ranging from people rightfully angered by how government and corporate elites handled the pandemic to anti-vax conspiracy theorists.

The new legs of the conservative stool are all sympathetic to DeSantis’ willingness to dispense with political checks and balances in order to slay a “woke” economic Goliath. DeSantis made that point more explicit in an op-ed published Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal: “When corporations try to use their economic power to advance a woke agenda, they become political, and not merely economic, actors,” he wrote. “In such an environment, reflexively deferring to big business effectively surrenders the political battlefield to the militant left. Having private companies wield de facto public power isn’t in the best interests of most Americans.”

If Monday’s press conference was a helpful illustration of the DeSantis political coalition—public safety plus parents plus lingering COVID anger—then another aspect of the new Disney law is a tidy summary of who stands to benefit from DeSantis’ riding the conservative populist tide.

First, we have to back up a little. The bill that DeSantis signed on Monday is in many ways more limited than the hasty and ill-conceived effort passed last year that would have eliminated the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RDIC). Under the new rules, Disney will keep its special tax status, will continue funding its own government services, and will be able to make development plans without needing approval from local governments. That addresses some of the unresolved issues in the earlier bill, which would have put taxpayers on the hook for some of Disney’s corporate debt.

The main change in the new law is that the five-member board charged with overseeing the RDIC—functioning effectively as the region’s quasi-government—will now be appointed by the governor of Florida rather than handpicked by Disney’s executives.

DeSantis argues that this is a pro-transparency change that will ensure Disney cannot do whatever it pleases without some semblance of state oversight. It could also be, as DeSantis critics like Jonathan Chait have argued, a move that will allow DeSantis to exert direct pressure over Disney’s content in the future. The board members won’t be able to write or reject plot arcs in future Disney films, of course, but an unhappy board could cause problems for the company’s development plans in and around its Florida theme parks.

It remains to be seen how all this will play out—though it might be telling that one of DeSantis’ nominees (subject to confirmation by the state Senate) is Ron Peri, chairman and CEO of The Gathering USA, a Christian nationalist group. Another nominee is Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota school board member and founder of the conservative group Moms for Liberty. Ziegler is married to the chairman of the Florida Republican Party, and she played an advisory role in DeSantis’s crafting of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that kicked off the feud with Disney.

A crucial part of politics has always been controlling patronage jobs within public or semi-public institutions. You want to have your guys running the Commerce Department or handling contracts for the transit system. The difference is that DeSantis is forcing that same dynamic into space that used to be wholly private—and doing it unabashedly.

“I think all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate,” DeSantis said Monday.

But why should Ziegler or Peri get to exercise control (even if only in a small way) over Disney’s private decisions? Simply declaring that private companies cease being private when they express political opinions should be an unsatisfying answer, even for conservatives cheering DeSantis. Indeed, that would imply that a Democratic governor should have the authority to place his or her own appointees to oversee Peri’s ministry group.

This is a nonsensical principle to use for governing, but DeSantis seems to have harnessed the political formula effectively—at least in Florida, where a Republican-dominated legislature is compliantly passing these ideas into law.

The most successful Republican populist politicians have struggled to move beyond the outrage cycle into substantive policy. That’s one reason why there are so many trolls and so few serious ideas within the so-called New Right. DeSantis’s fight with Disney separates him from keyboard warriors looking to make a buck. DeSantis is signing the New Right’s most authoritarian ideas into law, erasing the distinctions between the private and political realms, and rewarding supporters of his power grab with more extraordinary political powers of their own.

In the old days, conservatives would have viewed unelected officials being appointed to oversee corporate decisions as a worrying intrusion of state power into private affairs. DeSantis has figured out how to get them to cheer for it.


March 2023