The entire state of Florida, home to 22 million people, is currently being run as a giant Fox News campaign ad for the Ron DeSantis 2024 presidential campaign. As a method of crafting responsible public policy, this approach has a number of drawbacks. Yet when you set aside the politically archaic concept of “good governing,” it becomes clear that the DeSantis culture war strategy is highly effective air cover for the more substantive Republican project of class war. As he waves his hands and dazzles us with soundbites, he is trying to break the back of the Florida teachers union, which would rank as one of the most profoundly damaging blows to the labor movement in recent years. If the state’s incompetent Democratic Party can’t rally itself to cut through the torrent of performative bullshit and bigotry, we will soon wake up and find that this whiny, bullet-headed ex-jock has done to Florida’s workers what former Republican Gov. Scott Walker did to Wisconsin’s.
This week, DeSantis announced that he is proposing legislation designed to decimate the power of Florida’s teachers unions. It would prohibit dues checkoff, making it excruciating for the unions to collect dues, and outlaw teachers doing union work or handing out union materials on the job. He is also trying to undermine collective bargaining by creating a pot of money dedicated to giving raises to teachers — but setting an expiration date on it, and then claiming that unions fighting for better contracts are placing their members at risk of losing access to that money altogether. It’s not hard to see the logic. In a state where less than 5% of workers are union members, the teachers union is one of the only real bastions of Democratic-leaning labor power. As is always the case when Republicans howl about teachers unions, the pious pose of caring about parents is cover for a deliberate plan to destroy one of the few types of unions that are able to carry influence, even in red states. All of that studied concern for parents never seems to extend to the issue of providing a well-funded public education system for their kids.
People in Florida of all political persuasions often talk of Ron DeSantis as if he is a formidable juggernaut that Democrats can’t hope to restrain. This is false. He is a half-smart, washed up Ivy League baseball player whose defining characteristic is not cleverness or likeability, but overweening ambition. He has a goofy squeaky voice and palpable absence of warmth that will not translate well to the national stage. He is just as immoral as his rivals, but he lacks the polished presentation of Ted Cruz and the magnetic insanity of Donald Trump. Though, as a rule, I do not make electoral predictions, it would not be surprising to see him crash and burn when faced with a presidential campaign that depends, above all, on charisma. It is easy to imagine him as the latest in a long line of media-hyped red state governors whose self-importance crashed and sunk against the rocks of a competitive primary.
Nor is he some sort of king whose hold on Florida should be taken for granted. Florida is, in essence, a 50/50 state that should be extremely competitive in every election. So why did DeSantis win reelection last year by 20 points? Because Democratic turnout in the state plummeted by 20 points compared to the 2018 election, while Republican turnout increased. In 2018, Democrats ran Andrew Gillum, a progressive, younger candidate of color for governor, and almost won; in 2022, they ran a tepid old former Republican, and got whipped. When you don’t give people anything exciting to vote for, they don’t turn out to vote.
Like partisan redistricting, gerrymandering, and showy acts of racist voter suppression, DeSantis’s new salvo against teachers unions is an effort to turn a narrow, temporary advantage into a permanent one. Disenfranchise some Democrats, demoralize the rest, and demolish the few institutions that can sustain their statewide power. This is the DeSantis plan, and he isn’t shy about it. He doesn’t need to be. His base revels in it, and his opposition is weak, scared, and seemingly without a plan.
In Florida, all of the most important macro-issues of American politics are screaming out as we speak. The proud fascism that DeSantis embodies must be met with radicalism. Clinton-esque Democratic attempts to triangulate their way out of the problem are doomed to fail, and will only serve to drive home the untrue impression that Florida is a red state. You can’t equivocate with DeSantis. He puts Black people in jail at gunpoint for voting; he bans books and outlaws Black history teaching with a bluntness that would make George Orwell blush; he demonizes trans kids, perfectly happy to drive a few young people to suicide if it helps him solidify his own position. This guy is not some sophisticated mastermind — he’s an asshole. He is the embodiment of the worst 30% of Floridians, the ones who make the state a national punchline. And those who roll over for him, like the dozens of college presidents who publicly kowtow to his backwards “vision,” are cowards who will find themselves on the wrong side of history when the uncensored textbooks eventually get written.
That is one thing Florida proves: The absolute need for the Democrats to stop being weak and afraid of their own convictions. The second thing it proves is the absolute centrality of organized labor as a path out of the political quandary that afflicts America. Inequality has killed public faith in institutions, and modern media has entrenched national partisanship to a degree that some perceive as hopeless. Unions can roll back inequality. Unions can bring people of different political persuasions together in common cause in the workplace. Unions can show people an actual functioning democracy. Unions can lead regular people to political activism based on principles they learn by fighting for fair treatment for themselves. Unions can be strong enough to serve as a wall that stops the predations of opportunistic, hateful politicians like Ron DeSantis.
But all of that can only happen if many people are in unions. In Florida, as in the rest of the South, they’re mostly not. Unions need to spend much more money to organize new workers. Unions need to spend much more money organizing in the South. The Democratic Party needs to prioritize and enable this to a much larger degree — out of self-interest, if nothing else. Unions can change people, and they can change Florida, and they can change the country. But only if they rouse themselves out of their stupor and organize millions of people.
All of these things are connected. Working people and environmentalists together can unquestionably be a strong enough coalition to control the state of Florida, far stronger than the petty racists and boat-owning car dealers that make up the DeSantis base. Pulling this together requires a strong labor movement, and it requires the Democratic Party helping to build that movement. There is nothing impossible about any of this. The threat here is bigger than one teachers union, or one state. Ron DeSantis intends to make Florida a stepping stone that he will use to walk into the White House and prove that America is still a racist, oppressive nation at heart. Stop him before he gets there. As a native Floridian, I politely call on the Florida Democrats, unions, teachers, and people of all stripes who don’t prefer life in a dystopia: Get your shit together, before it’s too late.
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