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DeSantis’s “Freedom” Is a Force for Domination, Not a Key Form of Empowerment

We can’t let Ron DeSantis and the right wing co-opt the idea of freedom to legitimize the injustices they perpetrate.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Midland County Republican Party Dave Camp Spring Breakfast on April 6, 2023, in Midland, Michigan.

Part of the Series

We live in a time of menacing freedoms and the rise of fascist politics. Freedom in the current historical moment has turned ugly. The presence of “ugly freedoms” is not new, and its history is repeating itself with a politics that is as cruel as it is dangerous and widespread. This is an age inextricably defined by the question of who qualifies as a citizen of the United States and what kind of future the country is attempting to create. The U.S. has always had a tortured legacy regarding the kind of citizen it was trying to produce. Central to this history has been a struggle over the meaning of freedom, and which vision of freedom society should adopt. This historical and contemporary struggle has not escaped a contradictory and often poisonous appeal to politics.

The call to freedom has been not only invoked as a force for inclusion and justice, but also historically as a force for racism, exclusion, elimination — and, as the slogan “Work sets you free,” menacingly posted at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, made clear, death itself. Historically, its invocation in the service of justice has often been offset by its use to legitimize all manner of injustices. It has been used not only by advocates of social justice but also by those speaking in the name of a crude authoritarianism and brutal acts of violence. The appeal to dictatorial freedoms has resulted in acts of genocide against Native Americans, the unspeakable horrors of slavery, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the imposition of massive degrees of misery among the working class and unemployed. It has also been employed as a synonym for market values by a range of academics, including Milton Friedman, who defined it as a pillar of capitalism.

The appeal to unjust freedoms continues in the present era to legitimate and promote censorship and widespread persecution, as well as to enshrine white privilege, systemic racism and bigotry. And while the long struggle for democracy is inseparable from the struggle over the meaning of freedom, its record as a rationale for domination has often been suppressed, overlooked and ignored among educators, liberals, conservatives and the mainstream media. More recently, several historians and theorists have made clear how notions of freedom have been, and continue to be, rooted in a racist ideology that privileges white power, are central to white racial identity, and normalize a broader culture of vilification and inequality — particularly when it is used and abused by a number of far right politicians often aligned with white supremacy.

The language of freedom in the service of authoritarianism as it is developing in the United States poses a grave danger to the struggle for democracy both at home and abroad. It has become a cover not only for a range of anti-democratic policies, but also as a rallying cry for both a full-fledged attack on democracy and for a political, economic and educational force in support of an emerging fascism. It is possible to understand how freedom becomes fascistic by looking at the interests served and the rights destroyed.

DeSantis and the Hijacking of Freedom

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attaches the word “freedom” to almost every repressive policy in his political repertoire.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attaches the word “freedom” to almost every repressive policy in his political repertoire. His appropriation of the term is as disingenuous as it is authoritarian. He uses the term not only in the title of his book, The Courage to Be Free, but as a punch line in his campaign speeches. This false appeal to freedom also appears in his relentless self-congratulatory claim presenting himself as the “governor of the free state of Florida,” along with the laughable assertion that Florida is “No. 1 in education freedom … and No. 1 for public higher education.” Along with his flagrant misuse of the term “freedom” and how it contradicts the policies he promotes, he defiles everything from the First Amendment to a range of democratic rights and freedoms. As Branko Marcetic observes, regardless of DeSantis’s flagrant hypocrisy and falsehoods in using the term, he emblazons the word freedom without qualification on practically “everything he touches.”

Marcetic writes:

He really, really wants you to know he loves “freedom”: his budget this year is the “Freedom First Budget”; he urged Americans to “go Mach 10 for FREEDOM” as he hawked his Top Gun-tie-in merch; and he proclaimed this year that he’d made “Florida the freest state in these United States,” standing “as freedom’s vanguard” while “so many around the country have consigned the people’s rights to the graveyard.”

For DeSantis, freedom is used as political theater to incite his base, attack human rights and exhibit a contempt for democracy. In his ideology, freedom becomes a propagandistic instrument for a fascist politics. Many of his policies wrapped in the rhetoric of freedom are closer to the model of authoritarianism displayed by the racist demagogic Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán (famous for his disdain of “race-mixing”) — policies that are closer to fascism than democracy. The historian Heather Cox Richardson argues, “The political career of Florida governor Ron DeSantis is the epitome of Orbán’s ‘Christian democracy’ come to the United States. DeSantis has imitated Orbán’s politics, striking at the principles of liberal democracy with attacks on LGBTQ Americans, abortion rights, academic freedom, and the ability of businesses to react to market forces rather than religious imperatives.” Zack Beauchamp in an article for Vox goes into more detail about the close resemblance between Orbán and DeSantis’s ideology and use of state power. He writes:

Broadly speaking, both Orbán and DeSantis characterize themselves as standing for ordinary citizens against a corrupt and immoral left-wing cosmopolitan elite. These factions are so powerful, in their telling, that aggressive steps must be taken to defeat their influence and defend traditional values. University professors, the LGBTQ community, “woke” corporations, undocumented immigrants, opposition political parties — these are not merely rivals or constituents in a democratic political system, but threats to a traditional way of life. … There is no doubt that Hungary, an authoritarian state in all but name, is becoming more and more important in the American right-wing imagination. … This makes the echoes between DeSantis’ agenda and Orbán’s especially notable — with the “Don’t Say Gay” law, and the ensuing fight with Disney, being the most glaring examples.

DeSantis’s weaponization of politics and culture coupled with his punitive policies of punishment stand in dire opposition to his claim as a principled champion of freedom — a claim that should be forcefully addressed as a violation of civil and human rights.

Freedom’s Nemesis

DeSantis has implemented an avalanche of policies that negate his claim to be expanding freedom. His appeal to freedom, however, rings hollow when set against his abuses, and it serves largely as a cover for producing an ongoing set of fascist tactics. In his quest to outperform Donald Trump as the standard bearer of white supremacy and an upgraded fascist politics, he openly embraces the spirit of authoritarianism while exhibiting an unbridled contempt for the institutions and rights fundamental to a viable democracy. Relatedly, DeSantis is oblivious to history, historical memory, and analogies that provide crucial lessons regarding the abuse of freedom and its dangerous consequences — which he readily reproduces. For instance, he is silent, if not disturbingly complicitous, about how his attacks on Black power and “wokeness,” the censoring of the history of slavery, his honoring of Confederate monuments, and his voter suppression policies (designed to ostracize people of color from politics) echo a disgraceful period in U.S. history in which freedom was used to justify systemic racist oppression.

One example would be his seemingly lack of awareness regarding how his “campaign against wokeness” (read: egalitarian portrayals or treatment of Black, gay and transgender people) resembles the same racist rhetoric and white supremacist language asserted by the late governor of Alabama, George Wallace. It is worth remembering that in his 1963 inaugural address, Wallace infamously proclaimed in the name of freedom, as part of his war against racial justice, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Beneath DeSantis’s lack of historical consciousness is what Jefferson Cowie rightly calls a “dark and visceral current of freedom as the unrestrained capacity to dominate.” At work here is DeSantis’s impulse not only to forget but also to further suppress any understanding of freedom that serves as a cover for oppression. His abuse of freedom is most evident in a range of polices that strikingly reveal how oppression and freedom can mutually inform one another. Freedom has always been a contested term. But DeSantis has radically promoted it as a force for domination rather than a crucial form of empowerment. Under the banner of right-wing demagoguery, he has weaponized and emptied freedom of any critical substance and stripped it of its historical connections with struggles for social justice and policies designed to further democratic equality. There is more at work here than the corruption of language. There is also a lesson in how freedom can be hijacked as a platform for regimes of bigotry, hatred, censorship, unchecked self-interest and the celebration of unbridled power. Consider, for instance, the goal and impact of his polices in undermining the social contract, stifling dissent, producing “unjust relations of domination,” and imposing a culture of indoctrination, misery, cruelty and mass suffering.

DeSantis’s notion of freedom views compassion and notions of governance that embrace social provisions and the common good as enemies.

DeSantis has implemented numerous policies that destroy both the spaces where freedom can appear and where the civic connections to freedom can be enacted. His attack on public and higher education amounts to a far right effort to turn them into indoctrination factories. He has outlawed classroom discussions of race, gender and sexuality in all grades in Florida’s public education system, and has imposed draconian measures on teachers’ speech, especially discussions regarding sexuality and gender identity, “effectively forcing children and teachers alike to stay silent about their families and lives, under the threat of lawsuits,” as Moira Donegan notes. DeSantis has instituted policies aimed at silencing “Black voices and eras[ing] the full and accurate history and contemporary experiences of Black people.” He has “banned schools from teaching a newly created advanced placement high-school course in African American Studies.” Under law HB 1647, he has censored books, and initiated a process that allows parents to object to certain books so they can be removed from classrooms and libraries. His Stop Woke Act is not simply about banning ideas, it is also about producing ignorance and learned helplessness in young people as part of a broader attempt to both depoliticize and deprive them of becoming critically engaged agents and citizens. As Barbara Ransby notes, DeSantis’s attack on critical education cannot be removed from his broader “full-on embrace of white nationalism and authoritarianism.” At work in DeSantis’s attack on public and higher education is a defense of ultranationalism, the crushing of dissent, and a version of repressive education that was implemented in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Pinochet’s Chile. Appropriate here is Freud’s equating of fascism with what he called a “brutalizing education” and a “retrogression into all but prehistoric barbarism.”

Expanding his racially targeted attacks, DeSantis has also gone to war against LGBTQ people. He has enacted bills that deny them gender-affirming care, “bar trans girls from participating in girls’ sports programs in public schools,” and turn teachers into spies, urging them to report students who openly embrace their gender identity. As Michael Bronski points out, DeSantis aligns himself and his policies with far right groups that falsely claim “that queer people are ‘grooming’ children to be gay [or] that even teaching children that queer people exist is tantamount to an act of pedophilia,” amounting to a call for “the complete invisibility of queer people,” or something even worse.

DeSantis’s war on the First Amendment is not limited to public schools. Pursuing a pedagogy of unfreedom and repression, he has also attempted to impose speech codes on university professors, eliminate tenure, demand loyalty oaths, restrict what can be taught in the classroom, and jettison any program dealing with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. With the passing of HB 999, DeSantis manages to “eliminate college majors and minors in ‘critical race theory, gender studies or intersectionality’.” Michelle Goldberg states, “it is a shocking piece of legislation that takes a sledgehammer to academic freedom.” Amna Khalid, a history professor at Carleton University, calls HB 999 one of the worst attacks ever waged on higher education. She writes:

HB 999 is an abomination. It’s the most comprehensive attack on academic freedom we’ve seen. From banning concepts and theories that can be taught to limiting faculty and student speech outside the classroom to the erosion of tenure and faculty involvement in hiring decisions, this bill, if passed, will turn Florida colleges and universities into state propaganda factories and intellectual wastelands.

As part of his claim to destroy leftism in higher education, he is waging a war on academic freedom, reminiscent of the McCarthy period in U.S. history — though, as the historian Ellen Schrecker argues, the current attack on higher education is much more dangerous and terrifying. Campuses today have become “sites of mistrust and fear” aimed at accelerating “the debasement of higher education [while] subordinating independent learning and critical thinking to the ‘adoration of a mythic [fascist] past’.” DeSantis’s indoctrination bandwagon makes a claim to academic freedom when in reality it is an unadulterated grab for power that destroys rather than elevates intellectual freedom and civil discourse at all levels of education.

It is worth noting that while most critiques of DeSantis’s educational policies focus on his embrace of censorship, persecution of trans students and the erasure of African American history, he has also zealously embraced the ongoing corporatization of higher education. He has repeatedly argued that education is largely about preparing students for the workplace, and that faculty and staff are nothing more than government employees. DeSantis has cut programs and academic fields that deal with important social issues, such as gender studies and Black studies, while investing millions in boosting vocational and technical education. His instrumentalized vision of education represents a form of ramped-up neoliberalism — focusing largely on merging workforce development, career education, ideological indoctrination, and the shutting down of intellectual and academic freedom. Not only does he collapse education into training, he covers over his hollow “anti-woke” model of education with a celebration of the values inherent in his appeal to (and reverence of) the Western canon and its humanist tradition. In actuality, this is code for a reactionary appropriation of the classical liberal arts, used in the service of a far right project. The appeal to classical education by DeSantis is, in actuality, a political power play employed to further ideological conformity and manifested pedagogically as a strict regime of standardization and memorization, rather than engaging the canon as an object of critique, dialogue, revision and examination. It is also a model for imposing a coercive notion of Christian education whose aim is to rid public and higher education of alleged Marxists, socialists and advocates of LGBTQ rights. For DeSantis and his Republican Party allies, education is feared as the one site capable of challenging their call for ideological purity, “intolerance, conformism, and other values and behaviors authoritarians require.”

DeSantis’s war on freedom extends far beyond public and higher education. Under the banner of spreading freedom, he uses state power to attack any speech he does not like along with the institutions that are critical of his politics and policies. The latter is obvious in DeSantis’s attack on Disney and other corporations that publicly condemned his hateful rhetoric against LGBTQ people. Additionally, there is his use of repressive state power to curb free speech, including laws that attempt “to gain control over social media sites [seeking] to control what major companies can say and what speech they can broadcast.” He has attempted to weaken defamation laws, specifically the New York Times Company v. Sullivan decision, making it more difficult for “journalists to investigate and criticize public figures without fear that an unintentional error will result in [devastating] financial penalties.” DeSantis has also supported voting restriction laws, passed a draconian anti-abortion policy, and put into play the “Combating Public Disorder Act,” which restricts and targets the right of individuals to engage in free speech and assembly. Though temporarily blocked by the courts, the law was passed after a wave of racial justice protests took place in the U.S. and around the globe in 2020. The law was specifically designed to broaden prohibitions against civil disobedience.

Equally troubling is DeSantis’s attempt to use his authority to fill judicial, economic, corporate and educational positions with individuals willing to support his war on free expression. This policy is on full display in DeSantis’s takeover of New College of Florida as a prototype of far right leadership and pedagogy. He appointed new trustees, including the notorious anti-woke warrior, Christopher Rufo; fired the president of the college; and vowed to transform what was a progressive college into what amounts to a far right laboratory for forcing a dogmatic conservative Christian education on students and faculty.

DeSantis’s policies are as cruel as they are undemocratic. They not only undermine any viable notion of freedom, but they also produce conditions that inflict great harm and suffering on women, young people, Black and Brown people, and undocumented immigrants. Moreover, his denial of climate change, support for offshore drilling, lowering of water pollution standards, and his weakening of environment protections is matched by his willingness to accept money from the fossil fuel industry and ignore the threat of ecological collapse and the potential suffering and death of millions. DeSantis’s response to the dangers of climate change is as spurious as is his self-appointed role as an advocate of freedom. When asked in a Fox News interview about hurricanes and climate change and how it is affecting Florida, he said that he “rejected the politicization of the weather.” The irony is hard to miss, Oliver Milman points out, since he has repeatedly politicized the threat of climate change by implementing “bills banning Florida’s cities from adopting 100% clean energy goals, and barred the state’s pension fund from making investment decisions that consider the climate crisis due to what he called a corporate attempt to ‘impose an ideological agenda on the American people.’ He has also attacked the U.S. military for being ‘woke’ for warning about the national security risks posed by climate impacts.” The Sierra Club has given DeSantis an F for his environmental record, citing, in part, “his attitude toward climate change and general ‘mismanagement.’” Reporting in Time Magazine, Jeff Vandermeer points to some of DeSantis’s dreadful policies, all of which, when taken together and understood in relation to his white supremacist views, amount to a form of ecofascism.

Freedom, when driven by capitalist values, easily aligns itself with hate, bigotry and violence, finding its endpoint in fascist politics — exemplified in the MAGA reign of the Republican Party.

Florida trails many states with decades-old energy efficiency guidelines while a recent DeSantis line-item budget veto disqualified the state from receiving $346 million in federal funds from a program meant to improve energy efficiency across the country. DeSantis also signed legislation taking clean energy decisions away from local government; has yet to ban certain kinds of fracking; allowed exploratory oil drilling in the ecologically sensitive Apalachicola River Basin; and, despite 2018 campaign promises, failed to lodge an objection to recent federal permits allowing drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Freedom as Unfreedom

Modern ideas of freedom do not always guarantee liberty or serve the cause of justice. Not only have diverse appeals to freedom been used to suppress the rights of people of color, marginalized women, and workers, they have also been used to shred the social contract, deaden the promise of democracy, and cause large-scale, untold misery and suffering. As Elisabeth Anker notes, these are “ugly freedoms” far removed from principled ideas, connected more to tyranny than emancipation, and which reproduce impoverishing and punishing modes of governance that have put into play policies that entrench poverty, reproduce staggering levels of inequality, reward the financial elite, and condemn public life to the ruthless laws of the market. DeSantis’s notion of freedom becomes synonymous with a politics of unfreedom as is evident in his denying of abortion rights, and his use of the power of the state to punish anyone who criticizes his policies, including teachers, librarians, politicians and even Disney. Under such circumstances, not only is DeSantis’s illusory claim to freedom delegitimized, it becomes a template for a range of disastrous social, political and economic policies. Moreover, his claim to be the high priest of freedom collapses into a public and social space that is morally obscene and politically fascistic. In a scorching indictment, William Kleinknecht lays out DeSantis’s miserable record of governance, making clear that he “starves programs geared toward bettering the lives of ordinary citizens so he can maintain low taxes on the wealthy and corporations.” It gets worse. He is worth quoting at length:

Omitted from the public debate about DeSantis’ policies is almost any discussion of his actual record of governance — what exactly he has delivered to the citizens of his state, especially those without seven-figure incomes and lush investment portfolios. Even a cursory dip into the statistics of social and economic well-being reveals that Florida falls short in almost any measure that matters to the lives of its citizens. More than four years into the DeSantis governorship, Florida continues to languish toward the bottom of state rankings assessing the quality of health care, school funding, long-term elder care, and other areas key to a successful society. Florida may be the place where “woke goes to die” — as DeSantis is fond of saying — but it is also where teachers’ salaries are among the lowest in the nation, unemployment benefits are stingier than in any other state, and wage theft flourishes with little interference from the DeSantis administration. In 2021, DeSantis campaigned against a successful ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage, which had been stuck at $8.65 an hour. Under DeSantis’ watch, the Sunshine State has not exactly been a workers’ paradise.

Socialist Democracy and the Project of Freedom

As Michael Tomasky has noted, “the concept of freedom … is one [that] has almost completely ceded to the right.” In addressing the notion of freedom, liberals and mainstream Democrats have more often than not failed to stress how staggering levels of inequality, wealth and political power not only weaken democracy but place strangulating limits on freedom, especially for people of color, and the working and middle classes.

If freedom is to be restored to its rightful role in legitimating and safeguarding ongoing struggles over political, individual and economic rights, it must challenge the notion that capitalism and the free market are the ultimate expression of freedom. Moreover, personal freedom must be expanded beyond its self-serving notion of the self at odds with a broader relationship to the common good. Progressives and the broad left cannot allow the notion of freedom to be defined in terms of self-interest and the logic of the market. Not only does this distorted notion of freedom subordinate social needs and the common good to the restrictive notion of self-interest, it also conceals how private troubles connect with broader systemic considerations. In doing so, it both reduces social problems to matters of individual character and personal responsibility while depoliticizing individuals by limiting their sense of agency to the regressive space of subjective blame; it collapses the political into the personal.

This highly individualized notion of liberty refers to the wish to live free of constraints, obstacles and barriers. This potentially progressive notion of freedom, often defined as “freedom from,” has largely been adopted by conservatives to justify a regressive notion of freedom, defined as freedom from government interference against the interests of capital and forces of oppression. In this instance, the more emancipatory possibilities of freedom, such as freedom from domination and fear, are ignored. Instead, MAGA Republicans, including DeSantis, argue that a hollowed-out government is synonymous with more freedom. In other words, government constraints or regulations, especially those aimed at the market, are defined as the enemy of freedom. On the other hand, a more expansive notion of freedom, often labeled as “freedom to” emphasizes the ability of the individual to control one’s life, embrace self-determination as fundamental to agency and create the conditions to control one’s destiny. In this conception of freedom, government takes on a different role: it has a duty to provide at least the minimal conditions for people to live with a degree of dignity and agency. Despite their differences, both conceptions of freedom have been hijacked by the far right in order to attack the conditions necessary for a strong welfare state, state interventions that regulate markets, and the development of those public institutions that embrace the democratic fundamentals of equality and social justice.

DeSantis’s notion of freedom is devoid of any sense of social responsibility and justice. It views compassion and notions of governance that embrace social provisions and the common good as enemies. As such, the emancipatory elements of various approaches to freedom are either nullified or emptied of any substance. For example, what is absent from the seemingly contradictory definitions of “freedom to” and “freedom from” is a notion of freedom that stresses liberation from poverty, fear and oppressive relations of power. When freedom is removed from economic justice, economic rights and a notion of social responsibility, it is easily translated into a range of ugly freedoms that undermine the public’s “right to live free from socioeconomic insecurity, or from the threat of environmental disaster, or the hazard of preventable injury and disease.”

Under neoliberal and fascist notions of freedom, matters of agency, choice and dignity are incapacitated by a lack of health care, ruinous poverty, long-term unemployment, low wages, lack of housing, lack of free time, and other constraints that deny true freedom. Freedom, when driven by capitalist values, easily aligns itself with hate, bigotry and violence, often finding its endpoint in fascist politics — clearly exemplified in the presence of Trump, DeSantis and the MAGA reign of the Republican Party. A radical conception of freedom must first and foremost address the staggering levels of inequality in wealth and power, the poisonous legacy of systemic racism and an anti-intellectual culture that turns reason monstrous. That is, the left and other progressives must make clear to the U.S. public what the poet Adrienne Rich called the “concrete reality of being unfree, how continuous and permeating and corrosive a condition it is, and how it is maintained through culture as much as through the use of force.”

The broad left needs to promote a notion of freedom as an emancipatory force, one that connects policies, education, power and politics to the realities of everyday lives. This should be a language in which people can both recognize themselves and use it to fight against the ideological and economic conditions that strip them of control over their lives and democracy itself. We cannot let neoliberal fascist politicians such as DeSantis reduce the meaning of freedom to the lethal forces of free markets, white freedom and the politics of disposability. As Rich observes, “Where capitalism invokes freedom, it means the freedom of capital.” Freedom is a crucial category to be used in the fight for justice and equality. Ugly freedoms have now moved from the margins to the centers of power on both the national and state levels; they must be exposed and fought at every political level and with all the political and educational tools that are available. With the spread of fascism in the U.S. and across the globe, this is no longer one political undertaking among many. It is a necessary and fundamental project that should create the conditions for bringing together diverse and often fragmented elements on the left in order to create a mass, multicultural working-class movement in the struggle for a socialist democracy. The threat of fascism is too great and dangerous. The future depends on that struggle winning.

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