Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Sheriff DeSantis & The New Right-Populism

Florida governor pioneering the next conservatism. The Left's narrative blinders makes it unable to see what's coming
Screen Shot 2023-02-09 at 6.12.40 PM

"There's a new sheriff in town," said Gov. Ron DeSantis, with reference to Walt Disney and its previously privileged status in Florida. Watch him say so here, in the news clip from which I did the above screengrab.

Smart piece by NYT liberal columnist Pamela Paul, about how the libs should not underestimate Ron DeSantis. Excerpt:


It would be easy to write DeSantis off as a cartoon culture warrior or as racist, homophobic, transphobic and xenophobic. He may well be all those things, and so may some of his constituents. But he may not be, and either way, it would be foolish to characterize all his followers as such. Assuming a stance of moral superiority will do us no good. (See: Hillary Clinton, “deplorables.”)

Finally, we shouldn’t let DeSantis co-opt positions on which Democrats have historical strength and a natural advantage: education, health care, jobs. There are reasons so many Americans are relocating to the Sunshine State beyond the balmy weather. This month, DeSantis released a budget plan that featured targeted tax cuts aimed at parents, salary increases for state employees, including teachers, and significant investments in schools, including programs in civic education.

DeSantis’s maverick approach to primary, secondary and higher education has brought widespread condemnation from Democrats, particularly from their more progressive wing. But we should pay attention to why his policies land better with voters than with progressive critics. A law like the Stop WOKE Act of 2021 (later partly blocked by a federal court), which limited the discussion of certain racial issues during diversity training sessions offered by private employers and in the classroom, may come with an incendiary name and some egregious efforts to curtail free speech. But it’s important to recognize that aspects of it appeal to Floridians tired of racial and ethnic divisiveness and the overt politicization of what’s taught in the classroom.

As many liberals will quietly acknowledge, the Parental Rights in Education Act, which DeSantis signed last year and which opponents nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, has reasonable and legitimate attractions for a broad range of parents who worry about the focus, efficacy and age appropriateness of what their kids are learning in primary and secondary school. Democratic leadership should worry, too. Keeping quiet or pretending those concerns aren’t real won’t make them go away.

I have little confidence that progressives, especially progressives in media, are capable of seeing what Paul sees. They are doing that thing that many Americans do, which is to see everything through hypermoralistic eyes, and fail therefore to recognize when factors in the real world are working against them. Aaron Sibarium's brilliant trick with the woke ChatGPT reveals how the progressive drone mind works:

This is why I am doubtful that the activist class that dominates the media and the Democratic Party will figure DeSantis and his appeal out.

Another fresh and encouraging thing about DeSantis is that he doesn't just bitch about the scourge of wokeness, but he actually does something about it. We are all used to Republican elected leaders who gripe but never take risks to stand up against the woke, probably because they are afraid of bad media coverage, or running afoul of the donor class of the GOP. DeSantis is the first one at his level to figure out that this is a losing strategy. Trump had his chance, and while he did some good things, he mostly whiffed, because he would rather tweet to applause than govern to effect. Thank you for your service, sir -- but it's time to move on.


Every day, it seems, some news breaks about DeSantis forging a new path in conservative politics. He's about to get new powers to do something every Republican before him would have been loath to do: put a Woke Capitalist bully in its place. DeSantis has absorbed the lesson that Big Business is anti-conservative on social issues. It has been wholly captured by the woke. The anti-government, pro-business stance of Reaganite conservatives simply does not make sense in an era when private sector elites have gone woke, and the only means conservatives have of fighting back against their bullying is through elected officials.

Some conservatives warn that the Right is not going to like it when the Left gets control, and does to us what DeSantis is doing to them. Jennifer Frey said so with regard to DeSantis's anti-woke campaign in Florida's public universities. But Princeton political scientist Keith Whittington pushed back strongly. Excerpts:

"Power switching hands" in the university context means power shifting out of the hands of left-wing students, administrators and professors and into the hands of right-wing politicians. We are currently witnessing what happens when the power switches hands. Frey pitches her point as a warning about the future, but she would have been better served by making that point in the past. The future is now.


If power switches sides in the Florida statehouse, the worst that can happen from a conservative perspective is that things go back to the way they are RIGHT NOW. Universities are already in the worst case scenario from the perspective of many conservatives. No place to go but up. That is how you get Flight 93 elections and conservatives rallying behind Donald Trump, and it is how you get DeSantis higher education reforms. I do not think we are yet to the crisis point, but plenty of conservatives do. If you share their assumptions, then they think it is about time to even the playing field on campus.

think my disagreements with the DeSantis response to the troubles on college campuses are pretty clear. I have been beating that horse for awhile now. I think the end result of this conflict will be bad for universities and free inquiry. But Frey's argument won't cut any ice with conservatives. The potential bad outcome of this, for conservatives, is not that Democrats in the future behave like DeSantis. The potential bad outcome is that universities continue down their current path. I've also been warning the left on campus that if they did not clean up their own house there would be a day of reckoning from the political right. That day is arriving faster than I expected, and I'm hardly happy about it.

That's exactly it. The Left in power has been behaving in an illiberal fashion because they never imagined that they would have to be accountable for their actions, or that they would get any pushback. This has been a safe assumption for many years, because Republican governors and state legislators observed the taboo that says politicians shouldn't get involved in the running of universities -- this, even though state universities depend on taxpayer funding. Finally -- finally! -- an elected GOP official is saying, "Enough!" When the GOP presidential primaries come around, Gov. DeSantis is going to be amply rewarded by grateful conservatives -- and if he gets the nomination, a lot of centrist folks, including Democrats, are going to vote for him, because they know he's serious. It never seems to occur to the progressive activists and their allies in the Democratic Party that there are a lot of, say, Latino voters who would normally vote Democratic, but who don't want their children to be propagandized for trans ideology in public school, and know full well that the Democratic Party is 100 percent behind the queering of America's children.

In her SOTU response the other night, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders nailed what should be a winning line for Republicans going forward: "The dividing line in America is no longer between the Right and the Left. It's between Normal and Crazy." But here's a leading voice of the liberal commentariat's response:

"Full nutballs." Okay. We'll see how many Americans outside the bubble agree. DeSantis is going to make sure of that.

Along these lines, here's a great City Journal essay by Martin Gurri offering thoughts about an effective populist-right agenda. Gurri begins by talking about the progressive mob's vision of tearing down institutional power and remaking it in its own image of controlling the impure and the recalcitrant. So far, they've managed to co-opt the center. Hence the Biden administration's balls (ahem) to the wall on pushing wokeness on sex, race, and gender, and the capture of private sector institutions by the woke. Excerpt:

Because of this odd marriage of convenience, we find ourselves governed by an establishment that preaches antiestablishment doctrines, authorities who repudiate authority, and keepers of a constitutional order who reject the historical legitimacy of that order. The impulse is to strip society down to wise guardians, shepherding masses of protected victims. “Deplorables” who dissent will be taxed, regulated, prosecuted, and shamed into embracing victimhood. The abiding nightmare is of a peasant revolt from the right. Above all considerations, the aim, therefore, is to retain control. Yet the burden of paradox is too great. In the hands of the bipolar, reactionary-progressive Biden administration, the arrangement appears to be breaking apart.

And the Right? Gurri says that even DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin have not yet articulated a principled right-populism, and are still stuck in the reactive stage to left-wing overreach. Gurri suggests that a principled right populism would be built around three basic principles: Sovereignty, Equality, and Obligation. I encourage you to read the piece to see what he means by that (his idea of "equality" does not sound a thing like the privilege that leftist "equity" grants to favored classes). More:

If I were to guess at the New Jerusalem looming in the mind of the right populist, it might look something like this. The government’s hand weighs lightly on the citizen, but the law is strictly enforced. The circle of personal freedom is as wide as can be consistent with social order. In a nation of equals, all fulfill their duty to family, community, and country. Social relations have returned to “normal,” with two sexes instead of 72 genders, and enterprise and innovation favored over eco-doom and pro-identity theater. The past is once again populated with heroes and sages our children should aspire to emulate. The future is an open frontier.

And further: the United States is strong enough to deter aggression but loath to plunge into debilitating military adventures. Alliances and transnational forums like the United Nations aren’t a stage on the way to a “rules-based” world order but frameworks to advance our national interest. Born of a revolt against the domestic politics of control, right populism is not about to ask permission from the global iteration of the extreme center.

Sounds good to me. The Left is a prisoner of its extremist narrative, in which anybody who disagrees with them is a bigot. But as Gurri understands, we on the Right can't be simply reactionary, in the sense that we allow the woke Jacobins to set the agenda. Yes, we have to fight them, and yes, we have to fight them effectively. But Gurri offers a basic framework for a positive right-populist agenda.