The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The new Republican statism

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed several bills on Thursday, including one that imposes new restrictions on classroom discussions. (Jeff Amy/AP)
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When a Republican state legislator unashamedly announces that his intention is not only to ban books from school libraries across the state but to burn the offending books, you know something has changed.

That’s what happened in Tennessee, during debate over a shocking bill that wound up passing the State House. It would require every book in every school library to be approved by a state commission whose members are appointed by the Republican legislature and the Republican governor.

When a Democrat demanded that the sponsor of a key amendment say what he plans to do with newly banned books, the Republican, Rep. Jerry Sexton, said, “I don’t have a clue, but I would burn them.”

There might not be state-sponsored book burnings in Tennessee in the near future (but who knows). Perhaps more profound than even the fury of the new right-wing culture war is the way it appears to be completely reconfiguring what we understood American conservatism to be.

It’s manifest in the ongoing wave of speech-restricting gag laws being passed by Republican states, but that’s not where it’s going to end.

Those laws are being passed at a furious pace. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a group of laws on Thursday to restrict what teachers can say about race, gender and sexuality, as well as forbidding transgender children from playing sports. Yet, as one report noted, Republicans “can’t point to any instances of transgender high school girls competing in girls sports in Georgia schools.”

In Kentucky, the GOP legislature overrode the Democratic governor’s veto of a bill that would mandate that teachers describe slavery and Jim Crow as kind of historical whoopsies that had nothing to do with the founding principles or current reality of the United States.

And of course, there’s everything that’s happening in Florida.

The immediate subject of these moves might be conservative preoccupations over race and sexuality. But what they have in common is that everywhere you look, Republicans are trying to redirect power upward, to consolidate and centralize authority in their hands.

This is an outright rejection of the way conservatism in America has described itself for decades. Conservatives have always said they are philosophically opposed to the centralization of power: They want “local control” of schools, they love unfettered free markets, they wax rhapsodic about the decentralized wonder of federalism and the dangers of the government’s heavy hand.

At least that’s what they used to say. But you aren’t hearing that kind of talk much lately from Republicans. What they’re advocating now is nothing short of a new statism.

Which is why it would be a mistake to see these conflicts as just about the culture war. The new right-wing thirst for authoritarianism crosses policy boundaries; it’s no accident that this comes even as many right-wing intellectual types are seeing a model in Hungarian dictator Viktor Orban’s use of culture-war fearmongering to justify the consolidation of economic and political power. While they praise his anti-gay efforts, it’s also his authoritarianism that thrills them.

So when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) punishes Disney for objecting to his "don’t say gay" law by going after their tax status, he’s not just fighting the culture war. He’s using the culture war (step 1) as a justification for economic punishment of those he sees as his enemy (step 2) to suppress political opposition to his rule and agenda (step 3).

You could argue that this isn’t really new, that Republicans never believed their rhetoric about local control. Just witness the “preemption” laws they’ve passed for years, in which Republican state governments forbid city or county governments — i.e. ones run by Democrats — from advancing liberal goals. These have included raising the minimum wage or requiring sick leave for workers, regulating guns, banning natural gas in new construction, or reducing police budgets.

So their belief in local control and decentralization was always conditional: It’s a principle conservatives kind of held, so long as they liked what localities or states did with the power they had. What’s different now is that they’re moving more aggressively than ever to shift power upward, and have stopped even paying lip service to the idea of decentralization.

Which leads to this question: What happens the next time Republicans have control in Washington?

They will eventually. It could be after the 2024 election, or perhaps the 2028 election. Having updated their philosophy with this new statism, will they be able to resist the temptation to completely abandon federalism as well, the idea that power should lie as much as possible with the states and not the federal government?

For instance, it’s very likely that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade this year, which will allow Republican-run states to outlaw abortion completely. But in Democratic states, abortion will still be legal. Will Republicans find it intolerable that blue states defy them, and move to pass a national ban on abortion?

The pressure to do so from their base will be considerable. And if any Republican says, “We shouldn’t do that, because a true conservative doesn’t think Washington should make the rules for everyone,” they’ll be laughed out of the room. They’re all statists now, and once they have power, they’re going to use it.