Ron DeSantis and the Politics of Ugly Freedoms

Photograph Source: Matt Johnson – CC BY 2.0

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

– Martin Luther King, Jr,

Better to die fighting for freedom then be a prisoner all the days of your life.

– Bob Marley

Freedom in the current historical moment has turned ugly.[i] The dark side of freedom as a call to domination and repression is with us once again; it no longer hides in the shadows; nor is it relegated to the margins of society. Americans live in an age when the summons to freedom is being falsely appropriated by the far-right to dominate, suppress, and exclude those considered unworthy, disposable, and excess. It is also being weaponized as a political tool to eliminate those institutions which provide support for those individuals considered enemies, or dehumanized because of their color, identity, politics, and ethnicity.  The poisoning of freedom is particularly obvious in the ideologically-driven politics and policies of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has used freedom front and center as a calling card and political theater to both promote his presidential aspirations and destroy those values and institutions that are foundational to a substantive democracy.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ political career is marked by an obsessive appropriation and relentless defense of those American freedoms that are false and illusory. In effect, he promotes a notion of freedom that fetishizes politics and promotes an authoritarian cult of violence. As a member of Congress, he was one of the founding members of the far-right Freedom Caucus. He defines himself as “governor of the free state of Florida,” and fills his public appearances with self-congratulatory references to freedom. He launched his presidential campaign with a tour promoting his book titled Courage to Be Free. Obsessed with presenting himself as a principled defender of freedom, he uses the term with reference to almost every policy he supports, every attack he launches, and every speech he presents. He shamelessly ignores his misuse of the term, while defiling everything from the first amendment to a range of democratic rights and freedoms.

In naming Florida as the freest state in the nation, DeSantis claims he is engaged in a movement for freedom. In doing so, he states repeatedly that in Florida “We’re No. 1 in economic freedom, No. 1 in education freedom, No. 1 for parental involvement in education…And we’re No. 1 for public higher education. So we lead in Florida, not merely with words.”[ii] In this rendering of freedom, DeSantis’s notion of freedom is not at odds with his unwavering acts of censorship, state-imposed indoctrination on public and higher education, and the use of state power to punish critics of his policies, among other issues. He refuses to acknowledge the contradiction between a notion of freedom that is liberatory and the use of freedom in the service of domination. His regressive notion of freedom not only mutilates any viable element of freedom, but it also creates the foundation for a fascist politics that serves as a cover for unaccountable power, authority, and violence. DeSantis’s fetishization of freedom as both political theater and as a vehicle to amass unchecked political power embraces a culture of cruelty, which panders to fear, bigotry, and dehumanization. In the end, DeSantis’ view of freedom is part of a coercive politics of destruction, disaster, and catastrophe. His deceitful appeal to the principles of freedom is evident in a range of policies that mangle human rights and exhibit powerful disdain for liberal democracy. In DeSantis’ decadent ideology, freedom becomes a monstrous and a vessel for a fascist politics.

DeSantis has become the sneering face for the suppression of freedom while proclaiming to be its foremost advocate. He reduces freedom to a throwaway and empty term, elevating it to the level of spectacle to conceal the contradictions between his bloated rhetoric and injurious policies, which are increasingly aligned with oppressive relations of power. DeSantis’s disingenuous and misguided commitment to freedom expels truth, justice, and human rights from society and becomes a signpost for fascist politics.  Freedom for DeSantis is divorced from civic culture, isolated in the regressive discourse of authoritarian values, manufactured ignorance, and iniquitous power relations. In the name of individual freedom, he bans books from classrooms and libraries, passes legislation forbidding teachers from bearing witness to slavery and racial injustice while defending his attacks on empowering forms of education based on the spurious notion of protecting young people from feeling uncomfortable and from being allegedly indoctrinated by Black history, critical ideas, and exposure to discussions of gender, sexuality, and systemic racism.

 Moreover, he uses state power to punish both his critics and those individuals and groups he suggests are unworthy of citizenship. He has waged a vicious attack against the civil rights of gay, transgender, and queer youth. Identifying transpeople as a threat to the nation, he has put into play bills that allow healthcare providers and insurers to discriminate against LGBTQ youth by denying them gender-affirming care.[iii] He has barred “trans girls from participating in girls’ sports programs in public schools,”[iv] and he has created a culture that instructs teachers to function as spies by reporting students who are “open about their gender identity.”[v] He has also passed bill that forbids school staff and students from using “pronouns that do not correspond with a person’s sex.”[vi]DeSantis’ targeting of LGBTQ+ people is more than political theater, it also promotes a language of intimidation and dehumanization that encourages hate and increases the risk of large scale violence against trans people, students and teachers. As Michael Bronski points out, DeSantis’s support for the far-right “accusation 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,” amounts to a call for “the complete invisibility of queer people,” or something worse. [vii]

DeSantis pollutes the space of civic culture and shared responsibilities. His use of   “ugly freedoms” connects more to tyranny than emancipation and serves to poison any viable notion of shared governance.[viii]  Not only do such freedoms justify anti-democratic practices, they also shape domestic politics and modes of governance, restricting human rights and producing widespread misery for economically and politically marginalized groups.   In other words, ugly freedoms not only restrict human rights, they also produce anti-democratic modes of governance. This is particularly true for Florida.

 DeSantis’ failed model of governance is particularly obvious in the contradiction between his claim that Florida is the freest state and the wave of repressive policies that make up his so called anti-woke agenda. In the name of freedom, he has instituted a 6-week abortion ban, restricted transgender bathroom access, “banned gender-affirming care for minors,” signed bills that go after drag shows, attacked businesses such as Disney that disagree with his policies, waged an assault on public and higher education, imposed a culture of fear and censorship, and expanded a range of authoritarian policies that turn liberty into a weapon of retribution and punishment.[ix]

DeSantis’ ugly freedoms become glaringly obvious when looking at how they serve the citizens of Florida. His appeal to freedom exposes its dark side when his miserable record of governance is revealed. As several journalists have pointed out, Florida is close to the bottom of state rankings for health care, school funding, teachers’ salaries, and employment benefits. In addition,  it is one of ten states that refused to expand Medicaid [12 percent of Floridians have no medical insurance], while refusing to raise the minimum wage at the same that DeSantis lowered taxes on the rich and corporations.[x]

If freedom is to be rescued from the MAGA extremists, it is crucial for progressives to challenge the notion that democracy and capitalism are synonymous and that the free market translates to personal freedom. Capitalism has captured freedom because, in part, it defines freedom within a politics that collapses the political into the personal and renders government powerless as a public good.  Not only does DeSantis’ restricted notion of freedom elevate self-interest over social needs and the common good, it also prevents individuals from connecting private troubles to broader systemic considerations. In this instance, freedom isolates the self from larger social issues and concentrates power in the hands of the ruling class, depoliticizes individuals, and destroys public goods and public space.

 Under this neoliberal conception of freedom, selfishness becomes a defining attribute of freedom just as any nod towards compassion and social responsibility on the part of the government is equated with weakness and a form of unfreedom. What is absent from this MAGA notion of freedom is a collective emphasis on freedom from want, fear, and domination. DeSantis is at the forefront of his fascist party in rejecting this notion of freedom.  Freedom as an empowering concept must be connected to economic justice, economic rights, and a notion of social responsibility that connects it “to the right to live free from socioeconomic insecurity, or from the threat of environmental disaster, or the hazard of preventable injury and disease.”[xi]

Neoliberal and fascist notions of freedom must be challenged by making clear that democracy and economic inequality are inseparable. More to the point, democracy and capitalism are mutually antagonistic. Against the notion of capitalist freedom is the radically democratic belief that freedom not only focuses on personal and political freedoms, but also economic freedom. People cannot make meaningful choices in their lives when laboring under staggering forms of economic inequality. Under such circumstances, the freedom to act and live a decent life is reduced to simply learning how to survive. Choice is paralyzed by hardship, lack of health care, poverty, unemployment, lack of housing, low wages, and other constraints that deny true freedom. When time becomes a burden for people rather than a luxury, freedom becomes an empty abstraction, and democracy dies. The call to a radical vision of freedom is inseparable from the call for expanding rights, life enhancing essentials, fundamental social provisions, the expansion of the welfare state, and the end of social, political, cultural, and economic domination.[xii]

 A radical conception of freedom must challenge and work to overcome staggering levels of inequality in wealth and power, the poisonous legacy and practice of white freedom, gangster capitalism, and relations of domination. The neoliberal fascist notion of freedom embraced by DeSantis and the Republican Party does not promote freedom; it promotes massive inequality, a politics of disposability, and unimaginable degrees of suffering. Michael Tomasky is right in claiming that  “The Republican Party is an anti-freedom party.” He writes:

…the Republican vision of freedom has left millions struggling, even in many cases in misery. Freedom is not freedom if you work full-time and live in poverty. Freedom is not freedom if a single medical crisis can drive you to bankruptcy. It is not freedom if childcare is too expensive for you to hold a job, or if you are born poor and at every turn are blocked in your rise: by underfunded schools, overpriced colleges, and usurious college loans. Not to mention women’s right to reproductive freedom, which the Supreme Court has just snatched away in its Dobbs decision (and the court’s right-wing majority is of course not stopping there). Or the right to go out in public without being gunned down: The first right of all, in many ways, is the right to be secure in one’s person. These are absolutely freedom issues.[xiii]

DeSantis and the fascist wing of the Republican Party have kidnapped freedom, removing it from the discourse of democratic equality and social justice, distorting its potential as a crucial category of radical politics, and reducing it to political theater. This far-right vision of freedom has become a venue for catastrophe that expels truth, justice, and human rights from the world. Power is always more threatening when it is invisible. One of the biggest fears faced by the MAGA fascists is the visibility of a notion of freedom that exposes how they have undermined fundamental rights such as the right of Black people to vote, women’s control over their reproductive rights, and the right of all people to live a meaningful life. Furthermore, it is crucial for progressives and the broader left to expose how far-right politicians have engineered with their maligned lies, power grabs, and disavowals, the destruction of any sense of social responsibility, as well as  their role in producing the widespread violence most people face in their daily lives.

If the ideological and material conditions that fuel gangster capitalism and fascist politics are to be defeated, it is essential for progressives and activists to ask what freedom would mean in the service of a socialist democracy, and how to radically rethink it as a central political and educational category. In addition, it is essential to develop strategies to act on that understanding in forming a mass struggle for a radically democratic conception of freedom—one that enables people to reject the scourge of domination and live a meaningful and just life. DeSantis’ hijacking of freedom not only raises crucial questions about whose freedom is at stake in a time of tyranny, but also how to fight for a version of freedom that is as expansive as it is just—one that furthers rather than destroys the promise of a radical democracy.  Under such circumstances, we need not only a new definition of freedom, but a notion of impatient hope rooted in the burning imperative of collective resistance. Resistance is no longer one choice among many; in the age of fascism, it has become an urgent necessity.

Notes.

[i] Elisabeth R. Anker, Ugly Freedoms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022); (Elisabeth R. Anker, “The Exploitation of ‘Freedom’ in America,” The New York Times, [February 4, 2022]. Online:  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/04/opinion/ugly-freedom-discrimination-racism-sexism.html

[ii] Jennifer Conn, “Summit County Republicans hear Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis talk education, immigration, the economy,” Spectrum News (July 9, 2023). Online: https://spectrumnews1.com/oh/columbus/news/2023/04/13/summit-county-republicans-hear-florida-gov–ron-desantis-talk-successes-in-education–immigration–the-economy. For a more expansive version of these claims, see “Governor State of the State Address,” released by DeSantis’s Office on March 7, 2023. Online: https://www.flgov.com/2023/03/07/governor-ron-desantis-delivers-state-of-the-state-address/

[iii] HRC Staff, “Gov. DeSantis Signs Extreme “License to Discriminate” Healthcare Bill.” Human Rights Campaign [May 11, 2023]. Online: https://www.hrc.org/press-releases/breaking-gov-desantis-signs-extreme-license-to-discriminate-healthcare-bill

[iv] Alice Markham-Cantor, Britina Cheng, and Paula Aceves, “28 States, 71 Bills, and an Education System Transformed,” New York Magazine(May 8, 2023). Online:  https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2023/05/us-education-state-school-laws.html

[v] Branko Marcetic, “Ron DeSantis’s “Freedom” Branding Is a Laughable Sham.” Jacobin [July 12, 2022]. Online: https://jacobin.com/2022/07/ron-desantis-freedom-branding-rights-education-abortion

[vi] Joseph Contreas, “Trans people, students and teachers are besieged by DeSantis’s crusade. But he’s not done yet,” The Guardian (April 13, 2023). Online: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/apr/13/ron-desantis-transgender-education-laws-florida-woke-act

[vii] Michael Bronski, “Grooming and the Christian Politics of innocence.” Boston Review [May 3, 2022]. Online: https://bostonreview.net/articles/grooming-and-the-christian-politics-of-innocence

[viii] Elisabeth R. Anker, Ugly Freedoms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), p. 3.

[ix] Margaret Sullivan, “Now’s the time to think about just how bad a DeSantis presidency would be.” The Guardian [May 25, 2023]. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/may/25/ron-desantis-florida-record-presidential-campaign

[x]  For instance, see David Smith, “Fewer pronouns, more guns: Ron DeSantis’s plan to turn the US into Florida.” The Guardian [April 10, 2023]. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/apr/10/ron-desantis-florida-blueprint-usa and Margaret Sullivan, “Now’s the time to think about just how bad a DeSantis presidency would be.” The Guardian [May 25, 2023]. Online: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/may/25/ron-desantis-florida-record-presidential-campaign

[xi] Sandro Galea, “Freedom  ‘to’ vs. Freedom ‘from’,” Boston University School of Public Health [March 19, 2017]. Online: https://www.bu.edu/sph/news/articles/2017/freedom-to-vs-freedom-from/

[xii] Mark Paul, “America’s Other Freedom.” Democracy Journal [June 30, 2023]. Online: https://democracyjournal.org/arguments/americas-other-freedom/

[xiii] Michael Tomasky, “Economics, Democracy, and Freedom: It’s All One Argument.” The New Republic [September 6, 2022]. Online: https://newrepublic.com/article/167607/economics-democracy-freedom-democrats-argument

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014), The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2018), and the American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (City Lights, 2018), On Critical Pedagogy, 2nd edition (Bloomsbury), and Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education in a Time of Crisis (Bloomsbury 2021). His website is www. henryagiroux.com.