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What's Happening in Florida
The Disney-DeSantis feud is symptomatic of the death of small-state conservatism
In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton proclaimed that “the era of big government is over.” More than a quarter-century has passed since Clinton said those words, but in a way, it feels like even longer. For sure, Democrats have gone back to embracing the power of government. But the more eyebrow-raising development has been that increasingly, Republicans are doing so, too.
Many conservatives and Republicans believe that the left has come to dominate our culture and institutions—and that they must fight this trend through a more active use of government. Among GOP leaders, Donald Trump started this shift in favor of big-state conservatism, setting up the GOP as a party concerned with the needs of the working class rather than a commitment to free-market principles.
But the biggest piece of evidence of this evolution in favor of bigger government is the use of state coercion to fight “woke-ism.” It’s quickly become a central element of the GOP agenda—legislating against the use of race and gender identity topics in lesson plans, for example, or targeting companies backing progressive views. The most high-profile battle against “woke” is the one between The Walt Disney Co. and Florida Gov. (and 2024 Republican presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis. So far, there’s been only one clear winner in the fight—and it’s the power of the state.
With around 75,000 employees, Disney is one of the largest employers in the Sunshine State. And up until recently, it had a great deal of control over its own affairs.
In the late 1960s—at the behest of Walt Disney himself—the state of Florida passed a law creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special district over which Disney had its own governing authority. Under the law, the Reedy Creek district was created from almost 25,000 square miles of land in central Florida, with the goal being to give the district a greater ability to take on recreation and tourism projects.
The district, governed by a five-member board of supervisors chosen by the district’s landowners, was subject to minimal outside government involvement. The district’s board basically had the same power that a county government would—providing firefighters and police, for example, and imposing taxes on residents. As the district’s largest landowner, Disney had a major hand in determining the makeup of the board of supervisors, and in turn, influence over the governing body of the district.
Given Disney’s large presence in the state, it’s hard for Florida’s political class not to pay attention when the company speaks. Last year, it did just that, when it vocally opposed the DeSantis-backed Parental Rights in Education Act, which banned Florida public schools from providing classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity through the third grade.
Disney’s size and its importance to Florida’s economy didn’t save it from a backlash from the state’s Republicans—DeSantis foremost among them. He signed a repeal of the law that created Reedy Creek, replacing it with a new district called the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. Another law signed this year replaced the five members of the district’s board of supervisors with five directly named by the governor.
But the battle was far from over. At the end of April, Disney filed a lawsuit against DeSantis, maintaining that the company is at the center of a “targeted campaign of government retaliation—orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.”
Days later, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District countersued Disney, this time over a number of development deals the Reedy Creek district board had attempted to secure in the months before the new board came in. For example, back in February, one Disney subsidiary that provides utility services to the district negotiated a deal with Reedy Creek to extend its contract through 2032. In addition to the lawsuit against the deals, DeSantis signed a law that allows any independent special district with a newly remade governing body to disregard development agreements made up to three months before the law’s enactment. While framed in general terms, Republican lawmakers admitted it is designed to specifically target deals previously made with Disney by Reedy Creek.
And the slugfest doesn’t look like it’ll be coming to an end anytime soon: At the end of last month, Disney nixed plans for a new $1 billion employee campus in Florida that would have relocated more than 2,000 California-based Disney employees to the Sunshine State. We should expect things to get even uglier as DeSantis steps up to the national stage as a presidential candidate.
In the early 1970s, Saul Alinsky wrote “Rules for Radicals,” a playbook for leftist community organizers like himself. The book has long been criticized on the right for helping to make politics much more toxic. However, more and more Republicans have adopted this guidance over the past decade. Indeed, the final and most famous of the 13 rules—“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it”—could accurately describe the current situation between DeSantis and Disney.
To be clear, many politicians, including Republicans, have long believed that giving Disney preferential treatment in the state was a bad move. But the timing of DeSantis’ actions—starting with the dissolution of the Reedy Creek district immediately after Disney stood up to the governor over the parental rights bill—makes it clear the governor is almost certainly singling out Disney as part of his wider crusade against woke.
DeSantis explicitly stated this in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed: “The regrettable upshot of the woke ascendancy is that publicly traded corporations have become combatants in battles over American politics and culture, almost invariably siding with leftist causes.... In this environment, old-guard corporate Republicanism isn’t up to the task at hand.” Adhering to free-market conservatism is political suicide in this day and age, the governor adds. “Reflexively deferring to big business effectively surrenders the political battlefield to the militant left.”
No matter what you think about this shift, it’s unequivocal that we’ve come a long way from the days of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Many Republicans, including presidential nomination frontrunners Trump and DeSantis, are increasingly finding it a point of pride—and a rallying cry to supporters—to use and enhance the powers of the state to try to move society in a more “conservative” direction. For now, at least, the era of small-state conservatism is over.
A version of this essay first appeared in the online magazine Persuasion.