State Governments

Stop Using Legislation To Virtue Signal

Both Republicans and Democrats are abusing states' police powers to achieve performative political goals. They should stop.


Officials in overwhelmingly Democratic California have long used state power to torment businesses they don't like for a variety of ideological reasons. The Newsom administration is, by its own admission, trying to put the entire fossil-fuels industry out of business because of the governor's stated concerns about climate change.

A succession of Democratic attorney generals—Rob Bonta, Xavier Becerra and Kamala Harris—used the state Department of Justice to go after gun manufacturers, insurance companies, and carmakers for transparently political reasons. Sure, they concoct legalistic justifications—such as claiming that pension funds' coal investments endanger the state's long-term fiscal health.

But they're really just misusing their police authority to achieve progressive policy goals. Republicans have been right in arguing that state Democrats should knock off the politics of virtue signaling, stick to the basics of governance and treat all citizens and businesses equitably. Having failed to rein in the Left, however, the Right now is mimicking its tactics.

In states where conservatives have power they are more aggressive than progressives in punishing companies they dislike—not just for the nature of their business, but for the operational decisions those companies make and the political views corporate leaders express. Like Democrats, they're doing real harm even if their efforts are all about posturing.

Florida is the prime example. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who is positioning himself as the Trumpiest candidate for the 2024 presidential race, wants to punish Twitter because its board thwarted Elon Musk's buyout attempt. I argued that his takeover would advance freer speech, but it's an appalling abuse of government power to intervene in that private dispute.

"We're going to be looking at ways that the state of Florida potentially can be holding these Twitter board of directors accountable for breaching their fiduciary duty," DeSantis declared at a recent press conference. He previously signed a First-Amendment-shredding tech bill that also is about posturing given that courts almost certainly will invalidate it.

Whenever a politician says "we," that politician really is saying "the machinery of government." Yet to the hosannas of conservatives who claim to be the upholders of limited government and the Constitution, DeSantis took things further by vowing to strip special state zoning rules that give Disney magical self-governing powers around its theme-park kingdom in Orlando.

It's fair to criticize the special privileges enjoyed by influential corporate players. This columnist and The Orange County Register editorial board have regularly slammed Disney's outsized political influence and subsidies in Anaheim. Cities ought to treat all businesses equally, although there's a serious case for exempting private enterprises from burdensome land-use and planning regulations.

But that serious debate is not the impetus in Florida. As Allahpundit explained in the conservative Hot Air website, DeSantis had no problem carving out a Disney exemption from his tech bill nor has he or Florida Republicans expressed principled opposition to Disney's fiefdom. Instead, DeSantis is punishing Disney because its corporate leaders vocally opposed his "Don't Say Gay" legislation.

"No one believes that Disney would be facing this reckoning if it had cheer-led the 'don't say gay' bill," the column opined. "Which means the action Florida is taking, although facially neutral, is textbook viewpoint discrimination by government. Likewise, if a governor conditioned welfare payments on the recipient signing a statement pledging that he won't criticize the governor's climate-change agenda, that would be—or should be—a problem."

I wish he hadn't given California officials ideas. Seriously, DeSantis' efforts aren't fundamentally different in principle from what California's woke progressives are doing—misusing state power to go after their corporate enemies. DeSantis' action is creepily reminiscent of when AG Harris tried to force some conservative nonprofits to reveal their donors, although probably worse.

Colorado's libertarian-ish governor Jared Polis's rebuttal was delightful. His Tweet: "Florida's authoritarian socialist attacks on the private sector are driving businesses away. In CO, we don't meddle in affairs of companies like @Disney or @Twitter. Hey @Disney we're ready for Mountain Disneyland and @twitter we're ready for Twitter HQ2, whoever your owners are." Touché.

Sadly, we now have two parties that are unabashedly authoritarian and socialistic – and use whatever authority they have to advance virtue-signaling agendas. While blue California impedes immigration enforcement, red Texas imposes enhanced border truck inspections—something Reason rightly called a "performative stunt" that led to massive border backups and "screwed over truck drivers."

California filed more than 110 mostly performative lawsuits against the Trump administration, which echoed Texas' 48 mostly performative lawsuits against the Obama administration. Despite both sides' inconsistent claims of 10th Amendment (states' rights) principle, we all know the reality. Ambitious partisan politicians simply are using government muscle to signal to their base that they are fighting back against (fill in the blank).

Owning the other side can indeed be great fun as long as your side is in power. It's safer for everyone's liberties, however, if both parties stayed within some guardrails.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.