Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, has been in the news many times as of late, but most recently for his proposed redistricting map. While it is not uncommon for the majority party to redraw districts to favor their party in upcoming elections, Ron DeSantis vetoed the Florida state House and Senate’s proposed redistricting map and provided his own. Instead of having a few more Republican-leaning districts, DeSantis’s map would favor Republicans in 20 of Florida’s 28 districts. This 20 to 8 seat ratio has caused Democrat lawmakers to call the redistricting map unconstitutional and an attack on Black voters, since the map disrupts majority Black districts. However, despite the outcries against DeSantis’s map, it passed in the state’s Senate on Wednesday with a party line vote.
Florida’s current situation points to the problem of partisanship and polarization within the state’s government. While Republicans use their majority to pass legislation to benefit their party, Democrats fight their efforts and call them unfair. This has exposed a legislative body divided into two groups distrustful of each other and their policies, leading to things like party-line voting. While Florida’s partisan redistricting problem is troubling, it may point to a larger problem facing US democracy. Is Ron DeSantis an example of a one-off extreme right-wing governor, or is he more of a reflection of the country’s current state of division and polarization?
To better answer this question, we must first understand how polarization occurs and why it becomes divisive. An important piece of polarization is that it is a gradual process that happens over time. This can make polarization hard to notice until it is an urgent problem. One scholar who has studied polarization and its detrimental effects on democracy is Jennifer McCoy. In her article, Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities, she describes that polarization is a process where the normal plurality of differences in a democratic society begin to align on a binary. This binary then allows for these “cross-cutting differences” (McCoy, 2018) to become decisive. With the society’s pluralistic nature being aligned on binary, citizens begin to perceive those differences as something detrimental, which inhibits minority views from taking hold and boxes people into an “us” vs. “them” mentality. When citizens adopt an “us” vs. “them” way of thinking, polarization can cause them to surround themselves with like-minded people, making individuals’ views more extreme. When this happens, the growing polarized groups’ views become more extreme and, in turn, create a more polarized society. The polarization process becomes a type of positive feedback loop, exacerbating its dividing effects and increasing its threat to democracy.
Although polarization, in general, may not always be detrimental to democracy, the polarization that currently plagues the United States has helped create a volatile political climate. The country’s increasing partisanship has helped fuel a distrustful “us” vs. “them” way of thinking amongst Americans that populist politicians, like Ron DeSantis, have used to their advantage. DeSantis has been making headlines lately because he has used the polarized political atmosphere of Florida’s government to benefit the Republican party. Not only has he been able to pass a heavily Republican biased redistricting map through the state Senate because of party-line voting, but DeSantis has also recently signed the controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill into law. This bill, which critics have called the “don’t say gay” bill, bans teachers from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to third grade or at any time that is not age-appropriate. With this bill, Florida’s citizens have been divided even further into “us” vs “them” ways of thinking and gained more animosity for the “other side.” The bill’s supporters say it gives parents the ability to determine when and how their children learn about LGBTQ+ topics, while critics claim that by not providing access through education, the bill can deeply harm LGBTQ+ children.
DeSantis’s success in implementing his right-leaning policies has inspired other Republican-controlled states to enact their own “don’t say gay” bills. Now, more than a dozen states have put forth their own versions of the bill. While the proposers of these bills say they are to help children “get an education, not an indoctrination,” these bills work to alienate a part of the population based on their sexuality. Adversaries of the bills argue that by banning these topics in school, it has a high possibility of producing a culture of transphobia and homophobia, which children, especially young LGBTQ+ children, are not equipped to handle. Yet, the increase in proposed “don’t say gay” bills shows that Florida was not an exception but rather a trendsetter. And while there has been significant backlash to the bills, there has also been support across the nation, helping exacerbate already strong divisions within the country. Only time will tell how divisive these bills will end up being, but one fact remains true: they are yet another example of the dangers of the polarization plaguing the United States.