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How Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wages his culture wars

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signs a bill this month banning critical race theory. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/AP)

Perhaps no politician has been as effective at waging today’s culture wars as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

As he prepares for a reelection campaign this November — and a potential 2024 presidential run — he has recently signed legislation banning critical race theory, certain LGBTQ teachings or conversations in schools, and abortions after 15 weeks without exceptions for rape or incest. He’s punished Disney for opposing some of this legislation. On Monday, he also signed a law creating the nation’s first election police force.

This is all happening in Florida, a state that’s closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. But while controversial, many of his stances seem to resonate with some mainstream voters. DeSantis’s approval ratings are actually in the mid-50s, and he looks in a strong position to win reelection in November.

So how does DeSantis frame causes that are popular on the right in a way that appeals to a broader political base? Here’s a look at how a leading conservative is talking about critical race theory, LGBTQ issues and other culture wars right now.

He defends opposition to critical race theory, and casts it as a mainstream concern: DeSantis acknowledges that critical race theory is not part of public school curriculum in Florida. Though it originated as an academic construct that argues that racial inequality is woven into society and its systems, the term has become a catchall on the right for teachings or discussions about race that conservatives oppose.

He also directly takes on the left’s allegations that this focus is inherently rooted in White grievance. Here’s how DeSantis described the aims of his policy this month, as he signed a bill banning critical race theory teachings in the state:

“It’s required in Florida statutes to teach about all segments of American history, where you have to teach about the Holocaust. You must teach about African American history. You teach about the institution and the abolition of slavery. You teach about the failure of the post-Civil War amendments to take hold and how you needed to fight for civil rights. We teach all of that because it’s real history and it’s important. But what we will not do is let people distort history to try to serve their current ideological goals. … [W]e will absolutely teach all aspects of history that are true.”

The vagueness of DeSantis’s objections to what’s being taught in schools is notable. For example, DeSantis invited a parent to speak at this bill signing who said her eighth-grader was asked to choose a pronoun, which she felt was inappropriately “woke.” Defining what is or isn’t “woke” is a near-impossible task, since it’s in the eye of the beholder. That puts educators and Democrats on the defensive to prove they’re not seeking to teach that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” in the words of the law.

Alongside this moderate framing, DeSantis also regularly uses terms that mirror the language of more extreme politicians on the right. Like “indoctrination”: “We believe in education, not indoctrination,” he said.

For example, Kristina Karamo, a far-right candidate for secretary of state in Michigan, used that same language to disparage what sounds like all public education: “That’s what our schools have turned into — government indoctrination camps.”

Banning books on history or race is largely unpopular, according to a February CBS News poll. (After DeSantis banned critical race theory, Florida educators removed some math textbooks from popular publishers because they said it touched on race in a way that violated the law.)

That same poll showed that even the term “critical race theory” is largely confined to Republican circles. More conservatives say they’ve heard of it than liberals, and 86 percent had negative views of critical race theory. Independents who had heard the term were split in their views.

In his fight against 'woke' schools, DeSantis tears at the seams of a diverse Florida

He closely ties critical race theory to LGBTQ culture wars: At the April signing of that critical race theory bill, DeSantis briefly pivoted to LGBTQ issues: “I mean, when you start telling people that men can get pregnant, I mean, give me a break. But that’s what you’re seeing around the country. They crowned the champion swimmer … was a guy that competed for three years as a man, then switches as a woman and wins the championship, and denied opportunities for these other women.”

DeSantis was referring to Lia Thomas, a collegiate transgender swimmer who recently won the NCAA’s women championship. Shortly afterward, DeSantis had issued a proclamation declaring the runner-up the winner, which had no impact on the NCAA. Polls show the issue of transgender athletes and fairness in sports divides Americans, depending on how the question is asked. Here, DeSantis folded it into his effort to cast his policies as moderate.

Yet standing by DeSantis at the event was an activist from the conservative Manhattan Institute, Christopher Rufo. He helped the term “critical race theory” catch fire on the right and this week told the New York Times that he thinks conservatives should ramp up the fight over what he calls “gender ideology”: “The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues.”

DeSantis is at the forefront of that. A month earlier, he signed a bill that limits instruction or classroom discussion about LGBTQ issues in classrooms. Other states soon followed with their own wave of bills.

He frames these culture wars as vital battles for the country: After global protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, using the term “critical race theory” became a way for conservatives to push back against the left’s movement to change names of schools and memorials because they honored White men with controversial pasts on the subject of race.

DeSantis invoked these concerns when he signed his bill banning it:

“They’re tearing down statues of Thomas Jefferson and Lincoln and taking George Washington’s name off schools. That is what they want to do. There’s a reason why they want to do it. They want to erase history and delegitimize our institutions and the founding of this country, and they want their woke ideology to be the foundational ideology of our country. This country would be destroyed if we ever let that happen.”

And he uses rather apocalyptic language to make his point, positioning himself as a defender of freedom: “Some people say don’t get involved in this and what are we supposed to do?” DeSantis said. “Just let these ideologies overtake our entire education system?”

DeSantis frames this in a populist light: He and other conservatives don’t just go after schools and educators. DeSantis has managed to turn conservatives’ ire against the biggest corporation of them all in Florida, Disney. After Disney’s CEO publicly disavowed the LGBTQ bill (following an outcry from employees), Florida Republicans stripped Disney of a special tax status that it had held for decades, potentially severing their once-cozy relationship with the corporation.

Going after Disney is a political slam dunk for DeSantis, said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida. It’s a natural continuation of the party’s turn toward populism. “With the tea party, the Republican Party began acquiring an anti-establishment streak,” he said. “The 2016 Trump campaign and presidency solidified the GOP as a counterculture, anti-establishment political movement.”

“Disney is the ultimate establishment that has recently embraced a more progressive agenda,” Curbelo said.

DeSantis emphasized that the ban on critical race theory also applied to employers and cast the law as protecting workers against large corporations. “Walt Disney corporation, of course, claimed that America was founded on ‘systemic racism’ and encouraged employees to complete a ‘White privilege checklist,’ ” he said, as the crowd booed. Under the new law, he said, this would be considered a civil rights violation.

DeSantis roots all of this in classic conservative ideology: Specifically, he emphasizes the notion that in America, people of all races can succeed if they try hard enough. “We are not going to tell some other kids they are oppressed based on their race,” DeSantis said. “Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t succeed in this state.”

DeSantis’s arguments for banning certain race and gender teachings in schools echo how conservatives pushed back against a national reckoning on race a few years ago: “It’s now fashionable to say that America is racist,” said Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador under the Trump administration and a potential 2024 presidential contender. “That is a lie. America is not a racist country.” Speaking at the 2020 Republican National Convention, Haley said the issue had personal meaning for her, given her parents’ immigrant background. “We faced discrimination and hardship, but my parents never gave in to grievance and hate,” she said.

DeSantis, perhaps more than any other Republican politician right now, frames himself as an everyday American, someone who will protect the public — especially children — from liberal extremists he says are trying to change America’s character.