What 'Freedom' Means to Ron DeSantis
There are some jarring contradictions in the Florida governor's pitch to voters.
About 40 minutes into a whirlwind speech, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed to stumble upon something resembling a thesis statement for his vision of conservatism.
"We understand that freedom is not just about the absence of restrictions," DeSantis said. "We have to understand that the threats to freedom are not simply a result of what happens in legislatures. Yes, you gotta win those fights, [but] the left is trying to impose its agenda through a wide range of arteries in our society, including corporate America."
DeSantis talks a lot about freedom, and even more about the supposed threats to it. For the governor, those seem to lurk everywhere, from drag shows to Disney and from undocumented immigrants to corporate "diversity, equity, and inclusion" efforts. In his new book, titled The Courage To Be Free, and in speeches like the one he gave on April 1 to a crowd of local elected officials and conservative activists in central Pennsylvania, DeSantis portrays Florida as a place that's been able to withstand the myriad assaults on freedom because he's been willing (and eager) to deploy the power of the state.
But he rarely offers much in the way of a definition of freedom, preferring instead, one assumes, to let everyone in the audience define the thing for themselves. When he does get into specifics, it's usually to draw some telling distinctions.
"For years, the default conservative posture has been to limit government," he writes in the new book. That idea must be discarded, he adds: "Elected officials who do nothing more than get out of the way are essentially green-lighting these institutions to continue their unimpeded march through society."
This is no small thing. For ages, conservatives have often echoed the libertarian idea that government is the greatest threat to Americans' freedom. DeSantis postulates a different idea: What if it isn't?
Judging from the reactions of those few hundred conservatives who gathered on April 1 in the ballroom of the Penn Harris Hotel in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, this is an appealing message. DeSantis got a warm reception and earned several extended ovations—the longest and loudest, by far, coming after he promised to support legislation in Florida to revoke medical licenses from doctors who perform gender-affirming surgeries on minors.
At the risk of stating the obvious, that's a limitation on Floridians' freedoms. Imposing such limits has been a recurring element of DeSantis' term. He is now pushing for even more, including felony charges for anyone who shelters or employs undocumented immigrants and a new ban on abortion after just six weeks of pregnancy. It's a tricky thing to sell this impulse to regulate individuals' choices as a campaign to protect freedom. But that's what DeSantis is trying to do at events like the Pennsylvania conference.
At this stage of his still-unofficial campaign, such events serve as an opportunity to run through the material that will eventually find its way into a regular stump speech—like a comedian trying out new bits in a small comedy club to see what lands and which punch lines need more work. This isn't the polished, final version of DeSantis' argument to voters, but it's a prototype for stump speeches that he could be giving by year's end.
And some of it is clearly in need of reworking. DeSantis' pitch for a conservatism that wields the state's power against such perceived threats might sound workable in sound bites and bumper stickers, but it causes some jarring contradictions when spelled out in more detail.
That's most apparent when DeSantis talks about education. Take, for example, this section from DeSantis' speech in Pennsylvania. Please note that there are no ellipses.
Every parent in Florida has a right to send their kid to the best school that they can, and so we have universal school choice in Florida. We have 1.3 million students in choice programs. I signed legislation on Monday which is going to expand that, and so we've not only done more for school choice than anybody in the history of Florida, we've had the largest expansion of school choice on my watch of anybody in the history of America and probably anybody in the history of the world, if you think about it.
We're proud of doing that, but we also want to make sure that our schools are focused on what matters, and not going off on ideological tangents—and so we have banned critical race theory in our K-12 schools.
This in a nutshell is the terminal problem with DeSantis' understanding of freedom. You can have the freedom to send your kid to any school you'd like in Florida—as long as it's a school that teaches a curriculum the governor approves.
That's not merely redefining freedom to mean something other than the absence of restrictions. It's an affirmative argument for those restrictions, wrapped in a promise that the right kinds of people—those who agree with DeSantis about what should be taught in schools—will continue to enjoy freedom even while it is denied to others.
This same problem pops up when DeSantis talks about immigration. He's happy to tout Florida's status as a refuge from "Faucian dystopia" during the pandemic, and he has no trouble recognizing that the state's population boom has translated into positive economic growth. "We've served as the promised land for Americans who have been disenchanted with left-leaning government," he said in his Pennsylvania speech before rattling off a list of Flordia's impressive economic indicators.
It's clear to DeSantis that more people moving to Florida has been great news.
Minutes later, he turned his attention to national immigration policy. "We've been very tough on immigration," DeSantis said. Then he rattled off another list, this time of ways in which Florida has cracked down on undocumented immigrants, including his 2021 stunt that involved flying a few dozen of them from Texas to Martha's Vineyard.
If more people moving to Florida is great for the state, why didn't DeSantis fly those immigrants to Jacksonville or Miami instead? The unspoken but implied answer—like the answer to the broader question about who gets to enjoy freedom—seems to be that it depends on who is coming to the state. The right kinds of people are fleeing COVID authoritarianism and overbearing governments in blue states; the wrong kinds of people are fleeing authoritarian governments in other parts of the world. The crucial distinction has to do with the nationalities on their passports, or perhaps with their skin color or native language.
It's at least a little ironic for DeSantis to draw lines based on such characteristics. His great-great-grandmother arrived in America just months before the Immigration Act of 1917 would have banned her entry to the country, according to an investigation by The Tampa Bay Times. Though she could not read or write at the time, her great-great-grandson is now contemplating a run at the White House.
That's the value of freedom. It's something that DeSantis ought to spend some time thinking a little more deeply about before he makes it the centerpiece of a possible presidential campaign.