by Solomon D. Stevens
Let’s get one thing straight: Ron DeSantis is not a conservative. He is often called that by supporters and opponents who don’t want to seem extreme. Still, his agenda pushes far beyond anything traditionally known as conservatism. And his War on Disney is a clear example of this.
The genius of the American Founders, drawing on the political philosophy of John Locke and others, was to create a limited government that respects a sphere of privacy into which government does not intrude. The invention of a written constitution is a symbol of that. To achieve this, separation of powers and checks and balances are defined in writing. And so is the Bill of Rights. Our Constitution exists to keep the government from doing whatever it wants. It is designed to limit governmental action.
This concept of limited government is expounded brilliantly by Justice John Marshall in the classic Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison (1803). He says that when the people established the Constitution, they chose to limit the powers of government. “To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may at any time be passed by those intended to be restrained? The distinction between a government with limited and unlimited powers is abolished if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed.”
Ron DeSantis is attacking businesses in Florida for one reason: They disagree with his opinions about social policy. This is not the action of a conservative. He is intolerant of the mere existence within his state of different perspectives. He doesn’t want to count on being able to persuade people to agree with him, so he resorts to economic and political force to achieve his goals.
The leaders of the Disney corporation support gay rights and the rights of others who identify their genders in ways that are not popular. But it is not the government’s job to root out opinions that political leaders consider bad. DeSantis is welcome to his opinions, but apparently, he does not believe that others are welcome to theirs. Disney has now gone to court to defend itself. We will see what happens.
Corporations should be allowed to operate according to their leaders’ or shareholders’ consciences. That means they should have the right to support gay rights and gender orientations that the governor rejects. And beyond that, corporations have the right to put their resources behind efforts to change the law. That’s what limited government is all about. And that is, in fact, what conservatives in the United States once championed.
In a recent speech in Charleston, S.C., DeSantis said: “A free state means you’re protecting your people from the left’s pathologies across the board.” But as Conor Friedersdorf points out in his excellent article in The Atlantic, this is not freedom. It is not the business of government to fight “woke ideology” or any other set of political opinions “across the board.” As governor of Florida, DeSantis can certainly work with the state legislature to affect government policies, but he has now stepped over the line in attacking Disney’s right to free speech. Limited government gives people the freedom to disagree and to promote their opinions passionately.
Freedom of speech is vital to limited government because it is crucial to protecting a private sphere from governmental action. The overturning of Roe v. Wade was one dramatic step in eliminating this private sphere, and the implications of this decision are being felt throughout the country. Now we are seeing an assault on an equally important part of the private sphere.
Freedom of speech is more than freedom to hold an opinion quietly to oneself. It is the freedom to say what you believe and say it loudly. And it is the freedom to work with all your might to promote your beliefs. The so-called war on woke that DeSantis champions is a frontal assault on freedom of speech, and it is disturbing that so many people fail to see this. We can only hope that Disney’s constitutional rights will be protected in court. If DeSantis succeeds here, where will it end? Do we really want to live in a country where unpopular political opinions are rooted out everywhere? I certainly don’t.
In Marbury v. Madison, Justice Marshall warns us that we will find ourselves threatened by unlimited government if governmental powers and actors are not held in check. DeSantis is embracing the idea of unlimited government. We have a word for that, and it is not conservatism. It is called totalitarianism.