What, pray tell, had roused freedom from its slumber?
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which ruled that corporations have First Amendment rights. I thought then, like most conservatives, that the court was correct. Unlike many these days, I still do. The New York Times Co. has every right to argue for its preferred policies, and so does Koch Industries.
It’s difficult to exaggerate how committed the right once was to this principle and how much it appalled the left. Masterpiece Cakeshop, we conservatives contended, had every right not to be compelled to make “gay wedding cakes” because of the owner’s religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby had a First Amendment right to defy provisions of the Affordable Care Act that violated its religious freedom. We won both arguments at the Supreme Court.
That era is now officially over.
Florida recently passed the Parental Rights in Education bill (tendentiously called the “Don’t Say Gay” law by detractors). The Walt Disney Company, under CEO Bob Chapek, tried to stay out of the controversy. But a pincer movement of internal and external political pressure forced the company to publicly oppose the bill.
Worse, a video of a Disney meeting at which executives boasted of their “not at all secret” agenda to incorporate gay and transgender themes into Disney content was leaked at the worst possible moment. The very online right was already in a full-blown moral panic about pedophilia, basically holding that anyone who opposed the bill was either a “groomer” or “groomer friendly.” (Once a term for adults who manipulate underage children for sexual abuse, “groomer” suddenly meant dissenters from a moral crusade.)
Against the broader backdrop of the populist fatalism of the Trump era, which holds that conservatives “never win” when they play by the rules, it was something of a perfect storm.
Florida Republicans, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, voted to strip Walt Disney World of its special status under something called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Crafted by Republicans in 1967, the improvement district deal exempted Disney World from zoning and tax laws in exchange for Disney transforming a massive amount of swampy land into the Magic Kingdom and running it without taxpayer money. Economically and politically, it was win-win for both Disney and Florida—until last week, when a remarkable number of politicians suddenly embraced a purist libertarian opposition to such public-private partnerships of which there are more than 1,000 in Florida.
Of course, Orlando International Airport and Daytona International Speedway, with similar exemptions, will be fine, because the libertarian arguments are entirely pretextual. This was about punishing Disney. Florida’s lieutenant governor even admits that if Disney simply changed its politics, everything could go back to normal. Oh, is that all?
The view on the right is that DeSantis is a courageous brawler, beating back a behemoth of “woke capitalism.” It’s certainly true that DeSantis comes out a winner on the national stage as he contemplates a presidential run in 2024.
I will also concede that DeSantis’ supporters have a point. If corporations will let themselves be bullied out of their lanes by the left, they shouldn’t be surprised if they invite retaliation from the right. As problematic as I find this whole spectacle, it would be a good thing if corporations thought twice about picking sides in the culture war. As Michael Jordan once said, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
But whether the costs outweigh the benefits is unknowable, particularly in a climate in which what constitutes winning is redefined on the fly by Twitter mobs. After all, as National Review’s Charlie Cooke notes, DeSantis had “already won”: Disney took its shot at the Florida parental rights bill, and even though all of its sponsors were recipients of Disney’s political contributions, Disney lost. But the right’s equivalent of Twitter-addicted woke activists wanted a pound of Mouse flesh.
Privately, some defenders say the Reedy Creek Improvement District rescission, which doesn’t go into effect until next year, will never happen. Saner heads will prevail, opting not to shift massive burdens onto county governments and taxpayers (this would explain why Disney has largely stayed mum). But that theory assumes DeSantis is the mob’s master, not its servant.
And even if—a big if—corporate America takes the right lessons here, there’s no chance activists on the left or right will, at least for the foreseeable future. When you reward mobs, you get more mobs.