Florida Governor Ron DeSantis assumed office in early 2019 and has quickly come to dominant both state and national level politics. From his harsh resistance to COVID-19 restrictions to his blatant discrimination against minority communities, DeSantis has grown a large group of supporters as well as adversaries during his short time in this position of power. However, DeSantis worked in the political realm long before his election to office in 2019. He first became a Florida Congressman in 2012 but wasn’t a major political figure until the Trump-era. In 2018, Trump gave DeSantis the support and endorsement he needed to win the Republican gubernatorial primary. Since then, DeSantis has continued to lurch further toward right wing extremism and populist authoritarian tendencies.
The following article by Patricia Mazzei summarizes a recent piece of legislature that DeSantis signed on March 28, 2022. This bill prevents classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in Florida public schools for children in kindergarten through third grade – which is why opponents have named it “Don’t Say Gay.” While he received backlash from big corporations like Disney as well as local Democrats and President Biden, DeSantis remained firm in his decision claiming he was, “protecting children and supporting parents” (Mazzei). Beyond this issue, the bill will allow parents to prohibit their kids from utilizing school counseling services and directly sue school districts for any violations. DeSantis leadership in Florida threatens the stability of the American democracy because his policies, such as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, amplify social inequalities and increase support for right-wing political parties.
Dominant Group Status Threat
Extreme inequalities in a society lead to democratic erosion. The United States is currently experiencing drastic demographic change in which minority populations are growing rapidly. For the first time, white Americans are facing the threat of being a minority group. As racial and ethnic groups diversify, other marginalized populations become empowered – such as the LGBTQ+ community. Today, one in five Generation Z Americans who have reached adulthood identify as LGBTQ+. The empowerment and support built on social media platforms by younger generations of queer people feels threatening – especially to older generations of Americans who dominate the political system.
Diana Mutz’s idea of Dominant Group Status Threat can be applied to this scenario. When members of a dominant group feel threatened, they regain a sense of dominance by turning toward social and political policies that reflect the social order of the past. This explains the growing support for DeSantis “Don’t Say Gay” Bill that limits LGBTQ+ rights in Florida and reflects past homophobic legislature of the 1960s and 1970s. The most recent US Census found that nearly 21% of Florida’s population was over the age of 65 – ranking as the highest in the United States. This large demographic drastically influences the democratic process in the state, especially concerning LGBTQ+ issues. To combat the threatening success of younger generations of LGBTQ+ Americans, older Floridians turned to Ron DeSantis because he positioned himself closely to Floridians’ views on status threat-related issues.
The Dominant Group Status Threat Theory represents a change in the social hierarchy, typically for individuals who are economically and socially secure. Seymour Martin Lipset explains that, during times of prosperity, dominant groups become frustrated and angry because minorities are empowered. Therefore, they tend to be more vulnerable to extremist rhetoric and ideas – such as those of a populist authoritarian leader.
The Silent Revolution
The Dominant Group Status Threat brought on by DeSantis “Don’t Say Gay” bill puts stress on democratic institutions due to the window it provides for the radical right to emerge. During periods of economic growth, people have the freedom to focus on issues related to quality of life – such as the Florida public schools’ curriculum.
Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris describe this shift as the Silent Revolution, or the shift from materialism to post materialism. Materialists tend to hold traditional values because they want to preserve the status quo. These people tend to be religious, anti-immigration, pro-life, and hold very conservative views. In Florida, this community is represented largely by the older, white population. Post-Materialists tend to be more secular and hold rational views. They are open to immigration, tolerant of gender equality and LGTBQ+ minorities, pro-choice, and supportive of self-expression values. The Floridians that fit this profile tend to from younger generations and well-educated populations – the two groups that give rise to the Silent Revolution. Eventually, generational replacement occurs as old cohorts of society die and are replaced by their children who are better educated and have enjoyed a more privileged life. In Florida, the strong support of gay rights by Generation Z represents this shift that Norris and Inglehart are discussing.
While there is a slight correlation between materialist or postmaterialist values and political parties, Inglehart and Norris conclude that age is one of the strongest demographic predictors of electoral behavior. DeSantis recognized this fact, and appealed to the traditional values of Floridan parents – claiming this bill allows them to continue playing an essential role in their children’s education, healthcare, and wellbeing. They conclude that the attraction to populist authoritarian movements is a form of cultural backlash among older, less educated populations who hold traditional values, meaning they oppose LGBTQ+ rights. Therefore, it is the reaction to modernism and modern values which causes the appeal to populism so strongly among Florida’s older, conservative communities.
The populist-authoritarian tendencies exhibited by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis indicate that the radical right is slowly coming to dominant the state’s politics. The recently enacted “Don’t Say Gay” bill amplifies the inequalities and discrimination faced by Florida’s LGBTQ+ communities. Dominant Group Status Threat as well as the Silent Revolution explain how these inequalities lead to democratic erosion and the emergence of right-wing extremism. As the DeSantis pursues re-election in the end of 2022, it has become clear that that radical right is slowly taking the sun away from the Sunshine State.
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Lipset, Seymour Martin. “The Radical Right: A Problem for American Democracy.” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 6, no. 2, June 1955, p. 176, 10.2307/587483. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.
Mazzei, Patricia. “DeSantis Signs Florida Bill That Opponents Call “Don’t Say Gay.”” The New York Times, 28 Mar. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/03/28/us/desantis-florida-dont-say-gay-bill.html.
Mutz, Diana C. “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016 Presidential Vote.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 115, no. 19, 23 Apr. 2018, pp. E4330–E4339, 10.1073/pnas.1718155115.
Norris, Pippa, and Ronald F Inglehart. Cultural Backlash : Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. Cambridge Etc., Cambridge University Press. Copyright, 2019.
Parker, Kellie. “Gay Pride Flag,” Flickr, 20 Mar. 2005, www.flickr.com/photos/69173945@N00/233499524. Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.
The Economist. “Why Florida Is Lurching to the Right.” The Economist, The Economist, 5 Feb. 2022, www.economist.com/united-states/2022/02/05/why-florida-is-lurching-to-the-right.
United States Census Bureau. “QuickFacts: Florida.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, 2018, www.census.gov/quickfacts/fl.