In many ways, Florida has become the voice for conservative America. Under the governorship of Republican Ron DeSantis since 2019, himself seen as a possible nominee for president in 2024, Florida has attracted national media attention for its dramatic and oftentimes restrictive legislation passed. One of the most prominent examples is the recent HB 1557, or the Parental Rights in Education Act, often referred to by critics as the ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill’. Signed into law by DeSantis in July 2022, the bill prohibits classroom instruction relating to sexual orientation and gender identity from grades K to 3, requires parents of students to be notified of specific instructions in class, and bans specific readings and books from being taught in school.
Supporters of the bill say it gives parents of students more freedom and empowerment over what is being taught to their kids, as parents are given the ability to sue schools or school boards over material they deem inappropriate. Critics say it is an extreme measure meant to further isolate LGTBQ+ students and staff and will lead to an increase in hostilities against the marginalized community. So, does the recent legislation constitute democratic backsliding and erosion in the United States? While at first glance it may just seem like a bill designed to give parents more autonomy over what is taught to their kids, a more detailed examination reveals that HB 1557 is a deeply undemocratic, homophobic, and restrictive bill designed to isolate minority rights and expression.
To begin, a clear definition of what exactly democratic erosion is should be highlighted. Although there are many types, Florida’s HB 1557 most closely resembles what Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg call ‘constitutional regression’. This type of democratic erosion is an often quieter, more subtle backslide of democratic rights, one that executives in power use in order to restrict competitive elections, the right to speech, and the rule of law. In many ways, Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill partially aligns with the constitutional regression form of democratic backsliding, as it severely restricts the right of speech for both LGBTQ+ students and teachers and rolls back protections for the minority population.
Not only does the bill fit into the definition of constitutional regression, but it also increases prejudice and inequality against an already marginalized community, qualities that often act as warning signs of impending democratic erosion. Nancy Bermeo’s paper On Democratic Backsliding defines the process of democratic backsliding as “… state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy”. While sustaining and emboldening minority rights are not an official political institution, it still acts as an important safeguard in any constitutional democracy. In many ways, Governor DeSantis is acting as a populist leader desperately trying to cling to power and gain support from his conservative base feeling threatened by perceived cultural shifts. Following the lead of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Florida is setting up a dangerous precedent where executives take the rights of minority groups away to appeal to the larger majority and gain votes.
Another way that the bill constitutes democratic erosion is seen with the ability by parents to sue schools and school boards over materials they deem to be harmful to their children. For example, if a student is asked to draw a picture of their family and proceeds to draw a picture with two dads while sharing it with the class, a parent can then legally sue the school saying it was an inappropriate discussion on gender or sexuality. The very nature and writing of the bill allow for threatened legal repercussions against schools by parents, something that is often seen in hybrid regimes by executives trying to silence the opposition (like Orbán in Hungary and Erdoğan in Turkey). A prime example of what Ozan Varol calls stealth authoritarianism, this use of threats and the ability to sue was purposely put into the bill by its writers in order to create a culture of self-censorship in schools. With self-censorship of a community in place, DeSantis has learned from authoritarian leaders around the world and applied their dubious tactics to Florida’s own citizens.
In the end, the recent passage of HR 1557 in Florida has prompted a much-needed discussion on democratic erosion in the United States. Adopted under the guise of giving parents more control over what is taught to their children in school, the bill only further isolates the LGBTQ+ community and creates a culture of censorship for both students and schools alike. The rollback of the rights of a minority group is just one of the characteristics of constitutional retrogression, and HB 1557 highlights just how easily a state can regress the rights of its own citizens. This chipping away at minority rights goes directly against the ideals of constitutional democracy, showcasing just how far a populist leader will go to embolden the majority and gain votes to stay in power.
Moreover, the power for parents to sue the school and school board greatly correlates with Varol’s argument on stealth authoritarianism, as the bill almost encourages a culture of censorship and silence. All the while, it is the LGBTQ+ community that will bear the brunt of the bill the hardest, as it will only further exacerbate homophobic and transphobic rhetoric occurring in this country. Florida’s passage of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill offers a powerful example of democratic erosion and showcases what happens when a populist leader resorts to taking away minority rights to embolden their power and image.