The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats can thwart DeSantis by adopting the GOP’s original playbook

Parties win when they paint themselves as the engine for using government power to advance freedom

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) visits Las Vegas in November. (Wade Vandervort/AFP/Getty Images)
6 min

Is it too soon to start thinking about the 2024 presidential race?

Not if you are Ron DeSantis. In recent weeks, the Republican governor of Florida has been boasting about how his state is the freest one in the Union. He has also just a released a new campaign-style memoir titled “The Courage to be Free: A Blueprint for America’s Revival,” a clear signal that he’s probably going to make his campaign a referendum on the idea of freedom and style himself as freedom’s protector.

For the Democrats to have success, they need to have a plan — not necessarily for combating this message, but rather for how to co-opt it and make it their own. Drawing distinctions, after all, is what successful campaigning is about, and Democrats will need to make a case that they — not DeSantis, or another GOP challenger — are the true protectors of American liberty.

Ironically, the historic roots of the Republican Party offer perhaps the best blueprint for how to pull this off.

Today’s Grand Old Party — a term coined after the Civil War — owes its origins to the famous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which designated each as federal territories on a track to statehood. The problem was that the bill reignited the issue of slavery’s status in the West. The bill’s author, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas (D-Ill.), then threw accelerant on an already expanding flame by declaring that slavery’s status should be decided by what he called “popular sovereignty” — meaning the people should decide.

The plan, however, explicitly repealed the terms of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, an almost sacred compact in antebellum America, which allowed Missouri into the Union as a slave state but then outlawed slavery north of the 36-30 parallel, or basically Missouri’s southern border. Americans had lived with this arrangement for close to 35 years. But by suggesting that slavery could in fact exist north of that line if the people in the territories decided so, the Kansas-Nebraska Act rendered the old compromise null and void, potentially opening up avenues for slavery to encroach into the north and west.

Northerners wanted to keep the West a land of free labor and free soil, and a new Republican Party grew out of a constellation of “anti-Nebraska” parties formed throughout the Midwest after the bill’s passage. Their message was simple: freedom was national and slavery was sectional. If protected as a land of free labor and free soil, as Republicans like Abraham Lincoln argued, the West would likewise become a land of free men. In a battle over slavery and freedom, the upstart Republicans of the 1850s successfully defined themselves as the party of freedom.

Even more significantly, early Republicans didn’t just define themselves as the party of freedom, they argued that government could and should act as a mechanism for preserving freedom. Indeed, underlying the Republican messaging on the Kansas-Nebraska bill was the idea that the federal government had an explicit right — indeed a responsibility — to legislate on slavery where it had jurisdiction, a claim Southerners flatly rejected.

This Republican vision — a vision predicated on using the levers of government to maximize freedom — carried over into the Civil War and influenced policymaking on issues unrelated to slavery. In fact, the 37th Congress with its Republican majority did just that when it passed three of the most transformative bills in American history in 1862. The Homestead Act facilitated settlement by providing potential homesteaders with cheap western lands; the Pacific Railway Act offered federal loans and land grants to companies willing to build a “transcontinental” railroad; and the Morrill Land-Grant Acts provided government funding for the creation of colleges and universities dedicated to the agricultural and mechanical arts. In each case, the running assumption was that the U.S. government had a role to play in the general welfare of its people and that national governments worked best when advancing the freedom and prosperity of their citizens.

The zenith of this Republican vision came after the end of the war when Congress passed three constitutional amendments known collectively as the Reconstruction Amendments. The first — the 13th Amendment (1865) — abolished slavery for good. The second — the 14th Amendment (1868) — defined the rights and privileges of American citizenship. And the third — the 15th Amendment (1870) — protected a citizen’s right to vote by banning infringements “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Each of the three amendments dealt with the two paramount issues of the period: the abolition of chattel slavery and the integration of African Americans into the national body politic as free and independent people.

Each of these amendments also reflected the GOP’s founding ideology. The 13th Amendment literally made freedom national. The 14th Amendment gave Congress the power to enact laws meant to protect the rights of citizenship, changing the Constitution from a register of things Congress shall not do to one that also determined what Congress shall do. And the 15th Amendment used the power of the Constitution to protect the right to vote, even though voting was and always had been an issue determined at the state level. Alive in each of these amendments, in other words, was a faith in government as a great medium for expanding one’s freedom or protecting one’s rights, a message that is anathema to today’s Republican Party and especially DeSantis.

Yet one party’s anathema is another’s opportunity, and Democrats would do well to remember that they’ve been here before. Take the Democrats of the New Deal as an example. Led in large part by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s skill as a leader and communicator, during the 1930s, Democrats successfully defined themselves as the party of freedom by becoming the party of federal action. To be sure, Roosevelt’s New Deal programs provided relief from the desperations of the Great Depression, but at bottom, they were also aimed at providing Americans the most basic freedom of all — a freedom from want. By the end of the Roosevelt era, this basic freedom — along with freedom of speech, freedom of worship and a freedom from fear — would form the core “Four Freedoms” that Americans carried into World War II and which became tenets of American policymaking for the next quarter-century.

All this is to say that for Democrats in 2024, the best how-to guide for dealing with a potential DeSantis candidacy is history itself and copying a page out of the Republican origins story.