Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat), a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” She publishes the newsletter Lucid on threats to democracy. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)”Florida is fighting back,” tweeted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Aug. 22. “We stand for the values of places like Destin, Dunedin and Deland – not Davos.”
Who is the enemy DeSantis is combatting? “Woke CEOs” and any “corporate power” that aims to impose “an ideological agenda on the American people” by championing values of “diversity, inclusion, and equity” in investment considerations and workplace policies.
Going after corporate America might seem a surprising move for a Yale-educated lawyer who will likely run for president in 2024 and is backed by more than 40 billionaire donors. But having traction as a Republican candidate in many cases means posing as a defender of freedoms threatened by political correctness and the machinations of “corporate cartel elites.” DeSantis apparently is fine with harming Florida’s reputation as a business-friendly state, if that’s what it takes to make his mark and impose his political will.
Yet businesses are pushing back. DeSantis has faced a “summer of litigation” that has complicated his efforts to mandate what businesses can and cannot say and do with their own employees. Florida is now a test case for the response of American business to government interference in the private sector.
His contrarian crusade in April to strip the job-creating giant Disney of its special self-governance status, regardless of the potential costs to Florida taxpayers, is one example. (DeSantis has insisted that taxpayers won’t shoulder any of the Disney World district’s debt.) The company became a target for speaking out against what critics call his “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans K-3 classroom discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation and allows parents to potentially sue school districts that engage these topics. The governor’s actions generated multiple recent lawsuits, which DeSantis and his state agencies have filed motions to dismiss.
And earlier this month, a Florida judge blocked parts of the Stop WOKE Act, which restricts discussions of race and racial discrimination in the education and business sectors.
DeSantis is by no means alone in this quest to discipline the private sector. Punishing corporations and organizations that take stands against Republican illiberal measures is now part of the GOP playbook, as Delta Airlines discovered, when it nearly lost a jet fuel tax break worth $35 million for expressing opposition to a new and highly restrictive Georgia voting law.
Yet DeSantis has arguably been the most activist governor, attempting to bully sports teams, state retirement fund managers that use environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria in choosing assets, and even the Special Olympics if their actions express a commitment to values and platforms he disagrees with — such as gun control, vaccine mandates or climate change.
That’s why businesses are striking back. A lawsuit brought by wedding registry Honeyfund.com and the diversity consultancies Collective Concepts and Whitespace Consulting argued that Florida’s “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act” (the Stop WOKE Act), which challenges the implementation of diversity training programs and exposes corporations that offer them to legal risks, is unconstitutional in its curtailing of free speech.
A Florida judge agreed, which is why he blocked the Stop WOKE Act. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker struck the law down and refused to issue a stay to keep it in effect during any appeals by the state.
“If Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society then let it make its case,” Walker wrote. “But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents.”
Free speech concerns also led to the defeat of much of a DeSantis measure to fine technology companies if they deplatform political candidates. While the governor leaned hard into the populist rhetoric, calling Twitter and other corporations “elites” and “Big Tech censors” pushing “the dominant Silicon Valley ideology.” Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, a Trump appointee, was having none of it.
“Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can’t tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” Newsom ruled, finding that social media companies are “private actors” protected by the First Amendment.
DeSantis’ actions against ESG investing suggest that Florida businesses are perhaps pawns in his ambitious plans to run for president. On Aug. 23, he passed a resolution that eliminates ESG considerations from Florida state pension fund investments.
“[It] will direct Florida’s fund managers to make sound investments on returns not woke ideology. Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) is dead on arrival in Florida,” the governor announced.
This strongman rhetoric hides the fact that the whole declaration was a performance. As Kent Perez, spokesman for the State Board of Administration that directs the pension fund remarked, Florida’s fund was not currently investing with ESG factors in mind. “We do not invest to make social statements,” Perez said.
Others appointed by Republicans are equally baffled.
“Sadly, [the law] moves us one step closer to authoritarian government,” says Marcos Daniel Jiménez, who served as a US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida during the George W. Bush administration. “Targeting the speech of private employers based on the beliefs and preferences of current lawmakers” places “American liberty” and “our system of free enterprise” in jeopardy, Jiménez concludes.
But that’s okay with DeSantis, whose message that Florida is a “free state” with respect to the federal government’s “authoritarian, arbitrary, and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions” covers up his own desire to police speech and behavior.
As DeSantis prepares to run for president as a strongman-style leader, he will undoubtedly escalate his attempts to domesticate the private sector. It’ll be up to businesses in Florida to lead the way in protecting their rights against autocratic overreach.