The situation in Florida clearly represents a threat to American democracy
This article by Maria J. Stephan was first published May 14 on Salon.
Florida has become the epicenter of a struggle between authoritarianism and those committed to freedom and justice for all. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, actively campaigned for election deniers, embraced divide-and-rule politics, and enacted extreme policies that gut fundamental freedoms enshrined in Florida’s and the US Constitution. These policies, grounded in racial resentment, misogyny, homophobia, and the punishment of opponents using state power, come straight from the global authoritarian playbook and are already spreading from Florida to other state legislatures across the country. Attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms are only likely to accelerate should DeSantis’ clear 2024 presidential ambitions be realized.
But Floridians are not sitting idly by.
Daily walkouts, sit-ins, marches and teach-ins led by students, teachers, parents, and other civic groups are happening across the state. People are sounding the alarm about the existential threat to US democracy DeSantis represents, while mobilizing around an alternative vision of a Florida for all. Stopping DeSantis’ march to the White House will take a united democratic front of movements, labor organizers, business and faith leaders, veterans’ groups, and exile communities both inside Florida and across state borders. Beyond that, addressing the deeper roots of authoritarianism in America will require an even bigger and bolder movement that makes the triumph of a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy a generational achievement.
Part I: The Authoritarian Playbook
Twenty-first-century authoritarian leaders follow a similar playbook: build power by demonizing the “other,” then use that power to punish any opposition and cut off any ways of threatening their power, typically by undermining elections, capturing democratic institutions, and neutralizing dissent.
Demonizing and dehumanizing the other is the first step. Would-be autocrats tap into people’s fears related to safety, status, and well-being, and create scapegoats among marginalized communities. They establish these “others” as irredeemable enemies and argue that state power is necessary to suppress their threat. This strategy both mobilizes autocrats’ supporters and suppresses their potential opponents.
After attaining and consolidating power through this divide-and-rule strategy of “othering,” autocrats seek to then ensure that no challenge to them can stand by using state power to punish opponents, undermine civil and political rights, and hollow out accountability institutions like independent courts or free and fair elections. This is often done subtly and legally, using democratic means to gut the very essence of democracy.
Attacking fundamental civil and political rights, such as the freedoms of assembly and speech, is a key part of this strategy. Often justified on grounds of “protecting law and order” and “preserving the peace”, anti-protest laws have been expanding rapidly around the world. Nicaragua’s dictator Daniel Ortega has passed “anti-terrorism” laws to target those who protest his regime, while Cuba’s newest criminal code expands the criteria for prosecution and increases the penalties for violations. Other autocrats have attacked free speech in higher education, a historic bastion of dissent. In Hungary, Victor Orban pushed out Central European University based on anti-Semitic far-right tropes. Similar attacks are occurring in Mexico, Turkey, and Nicaragua.
Meanwhile, restricting women’s reproductive rights is commonplace among authoritarian governments. In recent years a number of democratic backsliding countries have reduced or limited access to abortion, including Poland, Hungary, and Brazil.
Often, autocratic leaders will embrace or turn a blind eye to political violence. They will refuse to denounce conspiracy theories (such as the “great replacement theory” that leftists and minorities are out to strip whites of power, that the LGBTQ+ community is responsible for “grooming” or harming children, or that free and fair elections have been rigged) until those theories become mainstream and pave the way to political violence
Ron DeSantis has embraced all these elements of the authoritarian playbook. The eerie similarity to global autocrats is no coincidence. Like authoritarians around the world, DeSantis and the GOP leadership have been directly inspired by global autocrats, and have developed a particularly special relationship with Hungary’s far-right leader, Viktor Orban.
The impact of this relationship is clear in DeSantis’ particular politics of divide and rule. Nine months after Hungary’s government passed a law cracking down on LGBTQ+ rights, DeSantis followed suit. Orban described his country’s anti-LGBTQ+ law as an effort to prevent gay people from preying on children. Similarly, DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw described Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law (the “Don’t Say Gay” law), as an “anti-grooming bill,” referring to a common slur directed at LGBTQ+ people.
In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, DeSantis went on an “anti-woke” crusade, focusing on schools and higher education, which included passing the Stop W.O.K.E act to eliminate content related to structural racism, homophobia, misogyny, and classism, from classrooms; eliminating AP African American Studies classes from Florida high schools; and passing new education bills that would grant power to remove majors associated with critical race theory, prohibit public colleges and universities from spending money on programs focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, and make it easier to push out tenured faculty.
DeSantis has also expanded state power to target immigrants and undocumented people. Last September, he denounced liberal policies around immigration and the creation of “sanctuary cities” and arranged flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard for migrants. New legislation makes it a felony to “knowingly transport, conceal, or harbor illegal aliens”, affecting hundreds of thousands or even millions of Floridians.
Following other autocrats, DeSantis recently signed legislation that would ban most abortions after six weeks. This is despite the two-thirds of Floridians who support the right to abortion, as well as the numerous legal and voter initiatives to reaffirm these rights.
DeSantis has also embraced the second half of the authoritarian playbook. While keeping Floridians distracted by his actions towards demonizing “others,” he has sought to undermine the rights, protections, and institutions that could be used to challenge him. He has cast doubt on free and fair elections, for instance by elevating election deniers and not taking a clear public stand about Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. And he actively seeks to limit the franchise of potential opponents – most prominently through a law that bars returning citizens from voting unless they pay felony conviction fines. The law runs directly counter to a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most Floridians with past felony convictions, and disproportionately disenfranchises Black Floridians.
He has also aggressively sought to undermine the right to protest. In 2021 he signed into law a bill that enlarges the definition of “riot” and makes committing the crime a felony, which even the United Nations criticized for violating the fundamental human right of peaceful assembly.
DeSantis has aggressively used state power to punish opponents and critics, most prominently through his revocation of the Disney Corporation’s special tax status in Florida, and through signing a bill that punishes tech companies for moderating extremist right-wing rhetoric. The eerie autocratic parallel here is Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega, who recently canceled the legal status of 18 private sector organizations.
DeSantis has singled out government officials with opposing viewpoints with punishment. Last year, DeSantis suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, whom DeSantis accused of prosecuting cases under “woke ideology”. Similarly, prosecutor Monique Worrell is currently under investigation by the DeSantis administration. Nikki Fried, chair of the Florida Democratic Party and a state Senate Democratic leader were controversially arrested during a peaceful protest of the state’s abortion bill. Meanwhile, DeSantis has targeted local school boards, elevating groups like Moms for Liberty to go after opponents and boost pro-DeSantis candidates in school board elections. During the pandemic, he stripped local government agencies, including the state medical board, of the ability to make public health decisions. This bureaucratic capture has allowed DeSantis to further consolidate power.
Part II: The Authoritarian System
DeSantis’ authoritarianism in Florida, and its expansion nationally, is enabled by organizations and institutions that provide him with the resources to sustain his power. Organizational pillars including political parties, state governments, religious institutions, media outlets, corporations, and private donors. If support from these key pillars is withdrawn, or simply diminished, autocrats’ are weakened. This highlights why going on offense and engaging these pillars in pro-democracy movements is so critically important.
One of DeSantis’ strongest power sources is a GOP state and national party dominated by an authoritarian faction that thrives on conspiracy theories and election denialism, and cozies up to far right and white supremacist groups. Florida contains over twenty anti-government militias, including the heavy presence of Proud Boys, who have mobilized to support “anti woke” school board candidates. In contact with local Proud Boys, QAnon conspiracist and white nationalist General Michael Flynn has made Sarasota his homebase for militia action in support of DeSantis’ attacks on education and LGBTQ+ communities. Most moderate GOP politicians in Florida have either left office, lost primaries, or capitulated to DeSantis’ agenda.
DeSantis’ extremism is enabled by media outlets including Fox News, which provides free media amplification of MAGA authoritarianism, and bilingual outlets like Americano Media, described by its owner as “Fox News in Spanish.” Radio and TV outlets have been bought out by far-right groups that have turned them into vehicles for election and COVID disinformation, authoritarianism, anti-immigrant and anti-Black propaganda.
Business has also been a key pillar of support for DeSantis. He has received millions of dollars in campaign donations from conservative business leaders Ken Griffin, Robert Bigelow, Jeffrey Yass, Bernie Marcus, and Jude and Christopher Reyes. Large corporations, such as Amazon, Walmart, AT&T, and Comcast are directly or indirectly tied to funding DeSantis’ campaign. Smaller businesses fund DeSantis’ campaigns and receive a multifold increase in government contracts from the DeSantis administration. Major think tanks such as the Club for Growth, the Manhattan Institute, the Claremont Institute, and Heritage Foundation provide the policy framework for DeSantis’ politics. In sum, these pillars of support supply the financial and intellectual scaffolding for DeSantis to consolidate and expand his power.
Together, these pillars of support have enabled DeSantis to out-organize the Democratic party in recent years, particularly with Latinos. DeSantis won reelection in 2022 by a 19-point margin and was the first Republican gubernatorial candidate in 20 years to win predominantly Hispanic Miami-Dade County. He received 58% of the Latino vote, including 68% of Cuban Americans and 56% of Puerto Ricans. Republican victories across the state gave the GOP a super-majority in both chambers of the state legislature.
Yet these widely touted electoral results mask a deeper weakness in DeSantis’ far-right agenda. Many of DeSantis’ actual policies are deeply unpopular. While DeSantis may currently have high approval ratings, a robust and well-resourced pro-democracy movement to expose his extremism and anti-democratic proclivities and weaken his pillars of support could rapidly turn the tide in Florida against him.
Part III: The pro-democracy movement
There is significant pro-democracy organizing across Florida to build upon. Florida students led statewide protests against the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in 2020. They have joined forces with parents, educators, and civic groups like Equality Florida and the ACLU to file a federal lawsuit against DeSantis and the state’s Board of Education. Groups formed after DeSantis’ hostile take-over of New College of Florida, including the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, Families for Strong Public Schools, and the Novo Collegian Alliance, have also been organizing students, teachers and alumni across the state, while organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice have been organizing white Floridians to push back against DeSantis’ policies.
Several multi-racial organizations, including Florida Rising, have organized “Wake-Up Wednesdays“during the 2023 legislative session to mobilize people in Tallahassee to protest harmful bills and advocate for an alternative vision of Florida for all Floridians. Earlier this month, at the conclusion of the legislative session, members of the Dream Defenders, an activist group set up following Trayvon Martin’s killing in Sanford, FL in 2012, staged a singing-filled sit-in in DeSantis’ Capitol office, with 14 accepting arrest.
In addition to grassroots organizing, engaging key institutional pillars is critical to successful pro-democracy movements. Historically, labor unions and professional associations have been one of the most important of these pillars. They possess robust networks and powerful organizing tactics which can pressure governments, as seen recently in India, South Korea, Israel, and France.
The success of the Fight for $15 campaign in Florida is a great example of how effective labor organizing, backed by other key pillars, can outmaneuver a heavily resourced opponent. The campaign used a combination of media interviews, digital organizing, phone banking, and direct action, including strikes, to connect with Floridians across the political spectrum, including many small business owners. The campaign appealed to fiscal conservatives by arguing that low wages forced people to rely on food stamps and mobilized many Republicans among the working poor as well.
More recently, teachers’ unions have been at the forefront of resisting DeSantis. Teacher unions have spoken out against DeSantis’ policies and are currently leading a lawsuit against the state education department.
Businesses are a key pillar of support for authoritarian regimes, providing them with important financial, economic, and ideological resources. When businesses withhold that support from autocrats, as we’ve seen in South Africa, the Philippines, and most recently in Israel, this significantly diminishes their power. Key groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers pushed back against Donald Trump and his GOP enablers’ attempt to prevent a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election.
DeSantis has attacked Disney and other large corporations that he accuses of “woke capitalism.” In response several corporations have signed a petition opposing anti LGBTQ+ legislation, while Disney announced that it will host a LGBTQ workplace summit in Florida with several other Fortune 500 companies. Since DeSantis thrives on the perception that he is an underdog taking the fight to big corporations, targeting Florida businesses that are providing economic and ideological support to DeSantis, and drying up financial support from national-level figures like Ken Griffin and Bernie Marcus, could be particularly effective.
The business community has also pushed back against DeSantis’ anti-immigrant policies. After the governor announced his legislative plan to counter illegal immigration, business leaders issued a joint statement opposing it. The statement highlighted both the human and economic cost of these policies for ordinary Floridians, and condemned DeSantis for sacrificing Florida’s interests for the sake of his presidential ambitions.
A strengthened pro-democracy alliance between business and faith communities in Florida could be particularly potent. Faith communities have been bedrock actors in movements for rights and freedoms in the United States and worldwide. Black churches’ role during the civil rights movement, and more recent pro-democratic organizing by chaplains and religious leaders are cases in point.
DeSantis is a practicing Catholic who has portrayed himself as a faith and family warrior battling the evils of abortion and LGBTQ+ culture. While DeSantis’ anti-abortion and anti-woke policies have been popular with many Catholics and Evangelicals in Florida and around the country, there is evidence that he has gone too far, even with these communities.
In February 2022, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski harshly criticized DeSantis for comments he made regarding the influx of unaccompanied children at the US-Mexico border. More recently, DeSantis attracted the ire of Florida’s Catholic Church, including the influential Conference of Catholic Bishops, when he voiced support for expanding the death penalty in the state. Other denominations, including Evangelicos for Justice, have joined Catholic leaders in denouncing DeSantis’ embrace of the death penalty.
The small but influential Latino evangelical community has found itself at odds with DeSantis’ anti-immigrant policies. Last February, after DeSantis took punitive action against those sheltering unaccompanied migrant children, more than 200 faith leaders and pastors of Spanish-speaking churches traveled to Tallahassee to protest the governor. Some leaders said they would be willing to engage in civil disobedience against the law if it’s enacted. One of those leaders, Carlos Carbajal, who leads an immigrant evangelical congregation in Miami, said that “allowing politics to interfere in the decision-making of congregations would be a betrayal of the gospel.”
The recent statement by the Florida Immigrant Coalition, together with business and faith leaders condemning DeSantis’ “draconian” immigration measures is a key building block for future organizing. DeSantis’ refusal to denounce neo-Nazis in Florida, prompting outrage from Jewish and Muslim communities, highlights another crack in his edifice of support. The effort by a group of clerics to sue DeSantis over his abortion law, on grounds that it violates religious freedom, highlights the power and potential of cross-faith, cross-denominational organizing in defense of democracy.
Veterans and military families, which have guarded against autocratic encroachment in numerous countries, are another key pillar for the Florida pro-democracy movement. Military members take a vow to defend against enemies foreign and domestic, and the respect society gives them provides a unique opportunity to speak out against anti-democratic practices. There are nearly 1.5 million veterans in Florida.
DeSantis has used his own military service to propel his political career, and references to that service are core to his political narrative. For this reason, voices of dissent from veterans’ groups and military families are particularly important to challenging his narrative. A well-coordinated campaign by veterans to challenge his authenticity and reveal the ways in which authoritarian creep is antithetical to the values of military service would hold much promise.
Veterans made some of the earliest criticisms of DeSantis during his first gubernatorial run against Democrat Andrew Gillum. After DeSantis made comments about Gillum that were widely interpreted as racist dog whistles. Members of VoteVets (alongside other organizations) rallied in downtown Tampa. At the rally, Jerry Green, the Florida Outreach Director of VoteVets said: “…this kind of vile racism makes all of us veterans look bad. And Ron DeSantis, when he uses these dehumanizing racial terms to describe a Black man betrays us and what we fought for.”
DeSantis also passed legislation to reinforce false claims around voting security, especially vote-by-mail ballots. These measures hurt U.S. service members who frequently vote by mail. Several organizations attempted to challenge voter restrictions following the 2018 election. Veterans like Justin Straughan have joined others in criticizing the legislation, noting how important it is for service members to have robust mail-in ballot infrastructure.
Finally, given the strength of Latino exile communities in Florida, including many that have fled authoritarian regimes, the creative use of Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese-language media to draw attention to DeSantis’ authoritarian policies could significantly advance the pro-democracy movement. Creative and culturally-informed language is critical. For instance, the term “progresista” has a negative connotation for many Hispanic exile communities, who associate the term, along with symbols like clenched fists with socialist dictators like Castro and Chavez. DeSantis and his backers use this to paint the opposition as far-left extremists, furthering their politics of divide and rule.
Gun violence prevention is important to the many Floridians who have escaped violence in their country of origin, as well as non-Hispanic Black and Brown communities who experience the worst forms of gun violence in the US. The fact that 61% Floridians and 71% Hispanic voters oppose permitless carry, which Governor DeSantis recently passed into law, highlights another issue that could galvanize pro-democratic organizing.
There are many existing nodes of pro-freedom, pro-democracy organizing in Florida, as well as support from within key pillars – the key is strengthening coordination between them.
Part IV: The Way Ahead
The situation in Florida clearly represents a threat to American democracy. The way DeSantis and the Florida legislature are operating is comparable to autocrats worldwide. While the situation is urgent, much can be done to mitigate the effects of DeSantis’ harmful policies in Florida and across the country, while preventing his authoritarian march to the White House.
First, there is a deep need for greater support to frontline organizing, both in terms of funding and technical support, to allow organizers to compete against heavily resourced far-right groups. While most funders have shifted attention to other, more “winnable” battleground states, this is shortsighted. Funding shortfalls should be rectified, particularly as DeSantis prepares to announce his presidential run.
Second, it is critical to build connective tissue between grassroots groups and other key pillars including business, faith organizations, labor unions, professional associations, veterans’ groups, and military families. Forging strategic alliances around a shared interest in defending fundamental freedoms and preventing further democratic backsliding would bolster the collective effort against DeSantis and his enablers. The growing number of dissenting voices amongst members of the business, faith, and veterans’ communities in Florida, combined with highly energetic youth mobilizing and strengthening efforts to prevent gun violence, hold great promise. Given the history of successful ballot initiatives in the state, a referendum focused on protecting abortion access, which proved successful in conservative states like Kansas and Kentucky, could be an effective mobilizing tool in Florida.
Third, the pro-democracy movement must expand beyond progressive communities by demonstrating the attractiveness of a pluralistic, multi-racial democracy and offering a message of a positive future of belonging for all Floridians. Organizing within conservative communities is particularly important to encourage principled and self-interested stands against DeSantis’ authoritarian policies. With conservative funders, including the influential Koch network, vowing to support anti-Trump GOP candidates, they will need to decide whether they find DeSantis’ authoritarian posturing equally disqualifying.
Fourth, significant support should be dedicated to developing and executing creative and compelling narrative strategies that expose DeSantis’ extremism, demonstrate how out of touch he is with Floridians and the American people on issues that matter most, and offer a positive and hopeful alternative vision for the state and the country. Multilingual (English, Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese) radio, TV, billboard, and social media strategies that make the stakes clear to Floridians and the American public, and that center joy and humor, which have historically been particularly effective against autocratic leaders, are key to countering DeSantis’ fear-based divide and rule strategy.
Finally, there is a need for national coordination and cross-state democratic solidarity to direct resources and technical support to those on the front lines. Such efforts should prioritize service to local and state-led organizers who know how to navigate the complex communities in Florida and other states facing the most severe forms of authoritarianism. Meanwhile, given the extent of transnational authoritarian learning, with Florida being a hotbed of far-right collaboration (including related to the January 9th insurrection in Brazil led by disgruntled Bolsonaro supporters, many of whom were camped out in FL), supporting cross-border learning, skills-sharing, and solidarity between pro-democracy actors in Florida and other countries would be a worthwhile investment.