September 26, 2022

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What Ron DeSantis’s spat with Disney says about American politics

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ON APRIL 22ND Disney released its latest film, “Polar Bear”, timed with Earth Day. The film tracks the life of a female polar bear trying to raise cubs in the Arctic. The film’s debut coincided with Disney’s relationship with Florida’s leaders reaching a new, frigid low. The same day Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, signed two bills taking aim at the entertainment company, a large employer in the state. The feud is revealing about Florida’s, and the country’s, political direction.

In this spring’s legislative session in Tallahassee, Republican lawmakers prioritised social issues. One new law restricts conversations about sexuality and gender orientation among young children in public-school classrooms and enables parents to sue school districts if they believe these provisions are violated. Some of Disney’s employees objected and urged the company to use its presence and power in Florida. The firm’s boss, Bob Chapek, publicly opposed the bill, which supporters call the “Parental Rights in Education” bill and critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay”.

Mr Chapek’s move prompted Mr DeSantis to retaliate against “woke” Disney, which his office accused of turning a blind eye to human-rights abuses in China while picking a fight in Florida. The reprisal was two-fold: one new law eliminates a carve-out that the legislature had granted “theme parks” last year in a bill that holds social-media companies responsible for deplatforming users. Another eliminates Disney’s “special district”, which has enabled it to operate autonomously, with government-like powers, since 1967. This includes operating and owning its own utilities, investing in emergency services and regulating safety and sanitary codes. Some fear this will place a burden on Orange and Osceola Counties. More likely, the legislature will pass new legislation, so that the change will not come at a financial cost to nearby residents.

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The spat points to two things worth watching in politics. One is Mr DeSantis’s ambition. In less than four years he has transitioned from a little-known congressman, who won Florida’s governorship by just over 30,000 votes thanks to a surprise endorsement from Donald Trump, into a perceived superstar in right-wing circles. Mr DeSantis is up for re-election this year and has used the Disney row to elevate his national profile, linking himself to one of the world’s most famous entertainment brands (even if as an opponent).

Until recently it was widely believed Mr DeSantis would not run for president in 2024 if Mr Trump did. Some who know the governor no longer think that remains the case. His momentum is such that he might be willing to challenge his original endorser (and fellow Florida resident). At fund-raisers one of the most frequent questions attendees ask is when he is going to announce his run for the White House.

The second political current that the Disney-DeSantis row points to is how corporate America can no longer depend on either party for defence. Republicans, who used to be the party that would reliably stand up for business interests, are increasingly populist and willing to slam big firms: witness their repeated attacks on big tech (a frequent target of Mr DeSantis). Erstwhile darlings like Disney, which have offered economic and political sustenance to Florida, can no longer count on disputes being resolved amicably.

The irony is that Mr DeSantis has positioned Florida as a “pro-business” state, so in this respect his sparring with Disney is awkward. Might it affect companies’ willingness to relocate to the state? Many people in the business world see that as unlikely, because they understand what is really motivating the governor: a run for the presidency in 2024. If he were more serious about punishing Disney, he might have targeted the roughly $580m in credits to reduce state income taxes that Florida offered Disney in return for moving jobs to the state.

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“I think there will be a deal cut that lets each of them save face,” predicts Susan MacManus, a seasoned Florida-watcher at the University of South Florida. It wouldn’t be your usual Disney story if it didn’t promise a happy ending. Mr DeSantis, for one, is counting on it.

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