Republicans can't erase diversity or history, but they're trying so hard it hurts
Gov. Ron DeSantis and his allies have pushed me into new territory. After decades of visits to Florida, I've decided not to go there for a while.
Corrections & Clarifications: This column has been updated to correct the first name of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Once upon a time there was a pretend country where pretty much everyone was Christian, heterosexual and healthy. Nobody needed to worry about catching a disease like COVID-19 or spreading it to someone it might kill. Nobody had a transgender child who needed medical treatment. And nobody ever needed or wanted an abortion – not even for a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy.
No children had to put up with unpleasant history lessons, nobody had trouble voting, nobody unarmed got shot by police, and nobody needed protests or science.
Sounds crazy, right? But it’s clear from proposals many conservatives are pushing that this is the kind of country a lot of Americans want. It’s as if they’re trying to erase entire groups of people, big chunks of history and reality itself.
Florida's back-to-the-future culture war
Thankfully, for those of us who believe diversity makes this nation great, that will never happen. Still, it’s disturbing and hurtful that these are their goals and they have the power in some places to achieve them.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has obvious designs on the White House, is pioneering this back-to-the-future culture war. His approval rating in Florida is above 50%, and Politico has just proclaimed Florida “ground zero” for culture warriors.
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There are plenty of them in other states (Have you heard about the Missouri Republican who wants to prosecute women crossing state lines to have an abortion, like they're runaway slaves? Or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's order to investigate parents of trans kids, or his state's six-week abortion ban?), but Florida stands out for the volume and speed of its activities, along with DeSantis' high national profile and simpatico legislature.
On tap, passed or signed already this year are a ban on abortions after 15 weeks; a “don’t say gay” bill restricting discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools; the Stop W.O.K.E. Act limiting discussion of race in schools, colleges and workplaces; a new police unit to investigate election fraud claims; more voting restrictions and new congressional district maps – including an aggressive DeSantis entry that eliminates two majority-Black districts.
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Last year, in addition to a first round of voting restrictions, the governor signed an anti-riot bill that Vanity Fair headlined: "FLORIDA’S TRUMP-LOVING GOVERNOR JUST MADE IT OK TO HIT PROTESTERS WITH YOUR CAR." A judge soon opined that the law, a response to Black Lives Matter protests, violated the constitutional rights of free speech, free assembly and due process, and put it on hold.
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DeSantis has tried (and so far failed) to dictate to cruise lines whether they can require proof of COVID-19 vaccination. His hand-picked surgeon general has criticized vaccines and masking, proven to be effective, while backing hydroxychloroquine, proven to be ineffective. The governor spreads misleading information about COVID and even told University of South Florida students to take off their masks. "Honestly, it’s not doing anything and we’ve gotta stop with this COVID theater," he said at a campus event. "So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.”
Did he know for sure that none of the students had a medical condition, or lived with an elderly or vulnerable relative? Of course not. It was all about politics and optics.
“In Florida, we reject the biomedical security state,” he explained to a cheering audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando last month, after a reverent introduction from CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp: “You name the topic, and with his steady leadership, he has been a voice for the entire country.”
That’s overstating the case by at least half the country. In fact, Florida has pushed me and my husband into a first: After dozens of visits, we just said no to Florida.
My grandparents lived in Florida, one of my kids got his first job there, and my own job took me there to cover politics. Lately it's been our go-to state for breaks from work and cold weather. We were last there in March 2020 when the World Health Organization officially announced the coronavirus pandemic. By then, we had already heard from a Ringling Circus Museum docent about a man who walked into the visitor’s center, lifted a huge vat of hand sanitizer off its stand and carried it out the door.
Those were the days when Florida was merely weird in its Florida-man way. Which brings me to where we are this week: Georgia.
An irresponsible role model
With its terrible voting law and its copycat "Don’t Say Gay" bill, Georgia is a mixed proposition for sure. But it elected two Democratic senators, went for Joe Biden in 2020 and – very important – its Republican governor and secretary of state never caved to Trump’s Big Lie that he had won their state and the presidency.
On a personal level, I don’t want to risk contracting COVID-19 or getting mocked over masks. I don’t want to boost the DeSantis economy or presidential prospects with our tourist dollars, paltry as our four nights in a chain motel might be.
Robert Li, chair of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple University, made a strong argument to me that while individual consumers obviously have freedom of choice, “if we’re talking about tourism boycotts as a social phenomenon, it’s my position as a tourism scholar to remind people that they may hurt folks they don’t intend to hurt.”
This week, as a consumer, I've made my choice. I know that many vacationers will be as intentional in visiting Florida as we have been in avoiding it. But to me, DeSantis is role-modeling irresponsible leadership that's harmful to all kinds of people. I can’t get past that, and I can't pretend it doesn’t matter.
Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock." Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence