Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida is drifting toward authoritarianism

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference in West Palm Beach on Jan. 6.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference in West Palm Beach on Jan. 6.

Drawing upon a famous phrase, those who hold dominant power tend to exercise it dominantly.

Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, with the steadfast loyalty of a GOP-dominated legislature, governs like an authoritarian. His blustering, bullying style seeks confrontation, where none exists, and favors edicts, where none are needed. Whether he’s promoting an unproven treatment for COVID-19, bad-mouthing masks and mandates, or dictating what should be taught in public schools, Ron knows best.

Nothing better illustrates his governing style than a series of actions he’s championed that explicitly chip away at fundamental democratic rights.

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Let’s start with Florida’s 2021 election law — making it harder to vote by mail, harder to find an accessible drop box and harder to assist others in submitting a legitimate mail-in ballot. Now, the governor wants a new, special police force dedicated to investigating election crimes. Because there’s absolutely no evidence to support this hare-brained scheme, the idea is little more than a crass political calculation to intimidate certain voters while pandering to radicals who falsely equate voter suppression with election integrity.

It's obvious, preserving democratic freedoms is not a priority of the DeSantis regime. Why else would they enact — in direct response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests — an “anti-riot” law that strikes at the heart of the First Amendment right to “peaceably assemble”? Not only does the law uniformly increase penalties (turning previous misdemeanors into felonies), it makes blocking traffic a third-degree felony and allows more indiscriminate dragnets of non-violent protesters (owing, largely, to its vague and overly broad language).

Ballot initiatives remain one of the few avenues available for citizens to petition the government (another right enshrined in the First Amendment). Yet, Florida’s recent history is marred by numerous efforts to severely restrict that right: by raising the voter percentage for passage (from a simple majority to 60%); by steadily raising the number and nature of signatures needed to get an issue on the ballot; and, generally, by making the collection of signatures more complicated and costly (including imposing a funding cap).

This effort to marginalize a vital check on those holding power is right out of the autocrat’s playbook. So, too, are efforts to demean and discredit unfriendly media, and to control speech in public schools.

A functioning democracy requires a “free press” to perform two essential roles: informing the general public and holding elected leaders accountable. So, it’s no surprise that budding autocrats almost always attempt to downgrade media.

DeSantis, in particular, relishes mocking media and treating Florida reporters with disdain (or outright exclusion). Last summer, he even blamed media “hysteria” — not the COVID-19 delta variant — for the raging health emergency the state then faced.

With such a firm grip on power, is it any wonder that DeSantis would eventually seek to inculcate public schools with his own political ideology? Of course not. It’s already happening. Concerned that Florida’s teachers are “indoctrinating” students with inappropriate material, Richard Corcoran, DeSantis’ education commissioner, recently declared that “you have to police them on a daily basis.” DeSantis himself describes schools as “indoctrination factories.”

If new curriculum guidelines are any indication, what this administration really wants is to instill a highly sanitized teaching of American history — devoid of personal views and negating anything negative (certainly anything critical of race or race relations). Moreover, obsessed with the need to promote “upright and desirable” citizens, they demand that classroom lessons be strictly pegged to America’s founding documents and heavy on “patriotic values.”

In short, an administration deeply concerned about “indoctrination” in public schools is perfectly fine if the “indoctrination” is government-mandated.

Meanwhile, DeSantis proudly points to a new law requiring an annual assessment of “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” at public colleges. Convinced that higher education may be “stifling” speech by conservatives, he’s clearly aiming to force more political balance in academia. Would anyone be shocked if the results of such “assessments” are eventually used to threaten state funding to universities perceived to be falling short of “viewpoint diversity?”

Democracy doesn’t necessarily end with a bang. More likely it ends after a long, slow chipping away of key citizen freedoms.

Sadly, Florida’s current leadership seems more focused on limiting, not enhancing, citizen rights — which should leave all Floridians with a strong sense of foreboding.

Carl Ramey, a retired Washington communications attorney and monthly columnist for The Sun, lives in Gainesville.

Carl Ramey
Carl Ramey

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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Carl Ramey: Under DeSantis, Florida drifting toward authoritarianism