Defining ‘Retaliation’ Down
Public-private handshakes like the one Disney enjoys in Florida are political by nature.
As culture-war issues continue to scramble the battle lines of American politics, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has shown a knack for putting himself at the forefront of the relevant fights. After months of controversy over a new Florida law banning classroom instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity for young students and in a manner not “developmentally appropriate” at all levels, DeSantis is now picking a new fight with one of that bill’s most prominent critics: The Walt Disney Company.
Disney publicly denounced the new law after its passage, saying in a statement that “our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.” That statement prompted a cascade of denouncement in conservative circles—and suggestions from DeSantis that a Disney overtly working to overturn Florida law might not find Florida as cozy a corporate environment as it has in the past.
Last Friday, DeSantis said he’d be receptive to reevaluating the 25,000-acre “special administrative district” that contains the Walt Disney World resort and in which Disney has enjoyed remarkable administrative autonomy since its creation in 1967. “They’re able to do certain things that nobody else is able to do,” DeSantis said. “Having an even playing field for everybody I think is much better than to basically allow one company to be a law unto itself.”
These comments represented no small shift. For decades, Disney has been an enormous player in Florida politics—not surprisingly, given Disney World is the biggest single-site employer in the state with some 77,000 workers and brings millions of visitors and tens of billions of dollars in tourism revenue into the state every year.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District, which has authority at the level of a county government although it technically spans parts of two Florida counties, blurs the line between public and private like perhaps no other place in America. While technically elected, the five members of its governing body—the Board of Supervisors—are de facto appointed by Disney: District landowners get one vote per acre, and Disney owns two thirds of the land. The arrangement gives Disney carte blanche to build and maintain its resort without having to constantly seek permission from local governments to, for instance, put down roads or put up buildings. In exchange, Disney foots the bill for municipal services like power, water, and waste management.
The kind of clout Disney enjoys in Florida can show up in unexpected places. One of DeSantis’ signature legislative achievements last year was a bill intended to ban social media companies from removing candidates for office from their platforms. (The victory was short-lived; a federal judge blocked the law before it could go into effect.) But the bill contained an odd carve-out, which was added at the last minute in the state Senate: The law would not apply to a “company that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex.” DeSantis signed the bill, although he now says he always opposed the carveout provision—a reasonable claim given that, as spokesperson Christina Pushaw tells The Dispatch, “we were never under the impression that our priority legislation for social media platforms would even apply to Disney in the first place.”
DeSantis’ critics have denounced his recent suggestion that Disney could lose various sweetheart deals as intolerable political retaliation for constitutional speech. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent called it a “repulsive war on Disney” that would “soon face a reckoning.”
There’s no doubt that some Republican rhetoric concerning Disney’s opposition to Florida’s education bill and its general favorability toward LGBTQ issues has been ludicrous. Conservative activist Christopher Rufo spent a day dredging up stories of sex offenders who had been Disney employees in order to portray the entire company as comfortable with pedophilia—never mind the fact that the company employs around 200,000 people at any given time. And Fox News’s Laura Ingraham raised eyebrows with a screed about the revenges she’d like to see heaped on Disney’s head: “When Republicans get back into power, Apple and Disney need to understand one thing: Everything will be on the table—your copyright and trademark protection, your special status within certain states, and even your corporate structure itself.”
“The antitrust division at Justice needs to begin the process of considering which American companies need to be broken up once and for all for competition’s sake,” she went on, “and ultimately for the good of the consumers who pay the bills.”
The idea that Republicans would punish Disney for its advocacy by going after its corporate structure is contemptible—but that’s not what DeSantis, for his part, has proposed. All he’s suggested is that Disney may not be able to count on Florida’s government continuing to bend over backwards to keep things gelling favorably for the House of Mouse.
Sweetheart arrangements between states and huge companies like Disney in the form of tax breaks, legal loopholes, or other special arrangements are common, of course—while free-market advocates convincingly argue that these handshake deals may actually depress economic activity, state governments tend to be less interested in maximizing theoretical economic output than they are in attending ribbon-cuttings at big new facilities that will employ heaps of their constituents.
Regardless, it’s silly to whinge about injecting politics into such deals—the whole thing is politics, from beginning to end. Companies like Disney make a political pitch to states like Florida: Bend the ordinary rules for us and we’ll come to town, create a flurry of new economic activity, and give you guys a political boost. If that political boost is diminished, who can get too up in arms if the politicians get less receptive to the pitch? Isn’t there a difference, surely, between singling a corporation out for special treatment because the government disagrees with its political advocacy and stopping special treatment for that reason?
“They’ve lost a lot of the pull that they used to have,” DeSantis said last Friday. “And honestly, I think that’s a good thing for our state, because the state should be governed by the best interest of the people. You should not have one organization that is able to dictate policy in all these different realms.”
A free-market, level-playing-field argument given teeth and political valence by the culture war—who says fusionism’s dead?