This Is How America’s Culture War Death Spirals
Why Disney vs. DeSantis is the future of politics
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The drama in Florida between Governor Ron DeSantis and the Walt Disney Company has taken so many unusual turns in so little time that providing a truly straightforward account of what’s transpired is not easy. But here is the simplest summary I can give.
Florida passed a law: Florida introduced House Bill 1557—a.k.a. the Parental Rights in Education Act, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—which prohibited classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity before fourth grade or in any classroom “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” This vague language upset LGBTQ activists and, more generally, liberals and libertarians who viewed it in the context of other states’ attempts to discourage the discussion of LGBTQ issues and lifestyles in schools.
Disney said they didn’t like the law: Executives at Disney, Florida’s largest private-sector employer, initially declined to comment specifically on the bill. But following an outcry among staffers, which concentrated attention on Disney’s iffy record with representing same-sex relationships onscreen, CEO Bob Chapek finally swung hard in the opposite direction. He criticized the law and even publicly called out DeSantis.
Florida passed another law, punishing Disney for saying it didn’t like the first law: In retaliation, Florida Republicans, led by DeSantis, whipped up a new law that removed Disney’s special tax and regulatory autonomy in Disney World. Technically speaking, they dissolved a “special improvement district,” which had allowed Disney to build stuff as it saw fit and tax itself to provide services, like firefighters if the rides burst into flames.
Pausing here, we can already make out a few details that are somewhat unusual. Florida’s original bill was alarmingly vague, leaving all sex-ed and gender-identity instruction open to potential lawsuits from litigious parents. Disney’s about-face was a reminder of the power of the liberal professional class, which pushed the company’s reluctant CEO into the political arena against his initial judgment. And then there’s the ethical pretzel of DeSantis, who enjoys talking about his support for free speech, but also punished Disney for the sin of speaking freely.
But a review of events only gets you so far. The author Tom Wolfe once said of avant-garde art that you can’t truly see it until you have a theory of what it’s trying to say. This Florida debacle might not be art, but it’s certainly avant-garde. And I don’t think we can see what’s really happening here until we identify the cultural narratives simmering below the surface.
1. Republicans fear cultural disempowerment.
The past decade has seen a total collapse of institutional trust on the right. A majority of Republicans say they disapprove not only of colleges but also of big companies, the entire entertainment industry, and tech firms. While more than 60 percent of Democrats say they trust various mainstream news sources (such as The New York Times and CNN), there is no media company that more than 60 percent of Republicans say they trust (no, not even Fox News).
What’s happening here? An explanation that’s not generous to conservatives is that the right is animated by hateful grievance politics. An explanation that’s generous to conservatives is that the professional managerial class really has become anti-conservative. Organizations such as the NBA respond to conservative laws they dislike by pulling their business out of a state. Major tech companies hail causes such as Black Lives Matter, whose positions—on policing, for example—are far to the left of the typical American’s. Of course we’ve turned against America’s institutions, a conservative might say. They’ve turned against us!
Right-wing distrust of big companies is awkwardly embedded in a party whose leadership outwardly loves big companies. The most important economic legislative achievement under President Donald Trump was a multitrillion-dollar tax cut for the same corporate class that the rank and file dislikes.
But regardless, right-wing antipathy to just about every American establishment that doesn’t employ cops, priests, or soldiers is real and growing. That’s how you wind up with DeSantis, a pro-business conservative, beating up on Disney, the largest business in his state. He is acting out the anti-institutional impulses of his base.
2. Democrats fear political disempowerment.
If you’re a conservative wondering where all this Millennial corporate activism is coming from, try to see things from the liberal perspective. Trump is a wannabe authoritarian who desperately tried to overturn a democratic election. He failed, but his clownish followers still stormed the seat of government, apparently thinking they could accomplish by force what the president couldn’t accomplish by law. State-level Republicans are purging bureaucrats who refused to go along with Trump’s attempted cancellation of the election. Meanwhile, Republicans have moved ever further to the right on LGBTQ issues; they are empowering citizens to enforce severe anti-abortion laws in Texas and many other states; and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority may soon overturn Roe v. Wade.
If Republicans have reasons to feel paranoid about liberal companies stomping on their values, Democrats certainly have reasons to feel paranoid about conservative lawmakers flirting with authoritarianism as revenge. Looking around at their political leadership, Democrats are bereft. The president is feckless, the Senate is pathetic, the House of Representatives is powerless, and the courts are strewn with Republican appointees. What lever of power is left? The cultural lever. This is the context in which LGBTQ Disney employees find it necessary to urge their executive team to act as their proxy army in Florida politics.
3. Bipartisan paranoia is creating a war of words about words.
To review, today’s culture-war death spiral is being accelerated by reactive polarization on both sides. Republicans, freaked out by what they see as cultural disempowerment, are yanking politics right; Democrats, freaked out by what they see as political disempowerment, are pulling institutions left.
I know that by typing the words both sides in the previous paragraph, I have summoned the ancient curse of a thousand tweeted screenshots by media watchers. So let me state something as clearly as possible. As a liberal Millennial, I don’t think liberal Millennials urging companies to take political stands is remotely as bad as Republican activists urging politicians to, say, ban math books on the grounds that cartoons of gay parents amount to sexualized “grooming.” Personally, I find the former defensible and the latter detestable. But as a political observer, I ought to note plainly that both of these things are extraordinary appeals to power, that these appeals to power are effective, and that liberals’ effectiveness moving companies left and conservatives’ effectiveness moving state politics right are two forces turning in a gyre of unyielding grievance. The possibility that the right is polarizing harder and for worse reasons than the left doesn’t change the fact that both sides are polarizing.
America right now is not exactly devoid of problems: We have a housing crisis and an energy crisis; climate change is becoming more severe; the pandemic is not yet over. When historians look back on this period in a few decades, they may be a touch surprised to discover what we argued about. Huh, so they spent 2022 fighting about sex-ed policies? And the treatment of Reconstruction in history classes? My point isn’t that these things don’t matter, but rather that some weeks, they appear to be the only things we talk about. Wokeness, anti-wokeness, cancel culture, safe spaces, free speech, corporate speech—that’s politics now. Words about words about words.
The political scientist Ronald Inglehart famously wrote that as societies get richer, voters care less about economic (material) issues and more about social and cultural (post-material) issues. With rising material well-being, we climb Maslow’s hierarchy to the top of the pyramid, get woozy with altitude sickness, and start ranting at each other about language. This is how we get Florida setting its economic and tax policy by first looking at which companies are saying the right words.
Who is allowed to say what? In the post-material future coming into focus, this is the only political question that matters. It is certainly the question that matters in the Disney-DeSantis showdown. “I am the most free-market person on the right … I think more freedoms for businesses are good,” the conservative personality Ben Shapiro said recently on his popular podcast, about the Florida fracas. “However,” he said to Disney, “if you decide to just become a woke corporation that does the bidding of your Democratic taskmasters, don’t be surprised if you get clocked by a legislative two-by-four. Eff around and find out.”
What a refreshingly blunt statement: Freedom of speech is good, but my political enemy’s speech is punishable by law. This is right-wing economic policy for a post-material age: Conservative companies are allowed to talk, and leftist employees are invited to listen.
Years ago, Republicans were critical of college-campus Democrats for their embrace of “safe spaces.” But maybe the right wasn’t contemptuous of safe spaces, just envious. Why merely a safe room, or a safe campus? Mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bit bigger, darling. Why not an ideologically safety-proofed corporation? Or state? Why not fire the entire federal bureaucracy, as Ohio’s Senate candidate J. D. Vance proposed, and make the government a safe space for right-wing populism?
You might think I’ve strayed from the crux of the Disney-DeSantis mess. But I think we’re at the heart of it. The specific events of this political crisis are less important than the moral of the story. Who is allowed to say what? Disney effed around and found out for itself: Post-materialism rules everything around us.