Sunday, March 19, 2023

Red-state authoritarianism

Think about the many fronts in the war on individual rights and freedoms in Florida and other red states:

  • vague but harsh limitations on what teachers can teach in K-12 and public universities (link)
  • faculty members fired for teaching about the racial history of the United States (link, link)
  • widespread book bannings in libraries and public schools (link)
  • a complete takeover of a liberal-arts public college by right-wing extremist trustees and a new president, forced by the governor (link
  • vigorous, total attacks on reproductive freedom and women's rights to self-determination of their own health and bodies (link)
  • state prohibition of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs at public universities (link)
  • banning of LGBTQ flags but endorsement of the Confederate flag (link)
  • mobilization of far-right and white supremacist groups based on "anti-Woke" attacks by government (link)
  • repressive restrictions on health care provision to trans-sexual individuals (link)
  • creation of an armed force at the command of the governor (link)
  • proposed legislation to require political bloggers to register with the state (link)
  • firing by the Axios news organization of Ben Montgomery, an experienced reporter, for contents of an email to the Florida Department of Education (link)
These examples provide clear evidence of right-wing extremism in Red-state America. They represent a sharp turn towards authoritarianism, involving restriction and abolishment of constitutional liberties. There seems to be no limit to the extremes that politicians like Ron DeSantis will go to in order to pursue their right-wing, anti-constitutional agenda. Shame!

    Almost all of these examples are forms of state authoritarianism. The governor and legislature in Florida are creating legislation and regulations that systematically reduce the liberties of all Florida citizens -- students, teachers, librarians, doctors, school administrators, and ordinary citizens. The first-order effects proceed through (illegitimate) legislation -- for example, legislation banning DEI programs. The second-order effects come through fear of sanctions -- loss of employment in particular. And third-order effects are normative; these actions reflect a complete disdain for traditional US constitutional values of individual liberty and limitations on the power of the state. DeSantis is in the process of normalizing state actions that would have been seen as clearly out of bounds in earlier decades.

    How many Florida teachers have already been intimidated from teaching honestly about racial history by the actions of state agencies and bureaucrats? How many libraries have withdrawn books from library shelves that they fear may elicit repression by the state? How many textbooks and curriculum documents have been revised  to avoid mention of “uncomfortable” subjects like racism and LGBTQ rights? How long will it take for DeSantis's "war on Woke" to edit, change, and sanitize the informative and honest websites that currently exist in Florida state government and public universities on racist atrocities like the Rosewood and Ocoee massacres? How can it be that textbook publishers would alter their telling of the Rosa Parks story to avoid mentioning her race or the segregation of public facilities against which she was reacting (link)?  This doesn’t sound like freedom in America — it sounds like Austria in the 1930s (link).

    Governor DeSantis, how can children and young adults learn to confront the hatred and discrimination that exist in contemporary society if they are deprived of the opportunity to learn about the history of these social realities over the past century and more? 

    How much further can this slide towards authoritarianism go -- in Florida or in other US states? The tyrannies of the twentieth century depended on physical violence, murder, groundless arrest, political prisons, and concentration camps. But "soft" authoritarianism doesn't need to go to these extremes in order to extinguish the reality of a constitutional republic of free and equal citizens. The threat of economic ruin (through termination of employment), prosecution on the basis of harsh laws passed by authoritarian legislators, and rising levels of force used against peaceful demonstrators all have similar effects: to intimidate and coerce ordinary citizens into complying with an increasingly right-wing extremist state.

    It could have been different. In an alternate universe Florida might have had a centrist governor who actively and eloquently endorsed the pluralism and diversity of the third largest state in the country. “All of us — black, white, brown, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, straight, and gay — all of us constitute the dynamism and creativity of our state. Our history has sometimes been ugly, and acts and practices of racism are part of that history. We need to honestly confront our past, and we need to move forward with commitment and confidence in the strength of a diverse society. As your governor I will work every day toward ensuring equality, dignity, and participation of every member of our society. That is my pledge to you, my fellow Floridians.” This is a winning formula for democracy, and it is a winning formula for a political party. In this alternate universe, Florida could play a key role in creating a democratic and dynamic south. But sadly, no red state seems ready for this transformation of their politics and culture.


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