Ron DeSantis Is a Test Case

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In the United States, Pildes wrote, “one might imagine the party in power during unified government would seek to dramatically expand the number and size of the federal courts, then fill these new positions.” Trump, Pildes noted, has already indicated that “one of the first things he’d do if re-elected would be an executive order reassigning tens of thousands civil servants into Schedule F positions — which would mean they would lose their Civil Service protections and could be fired and replaced with new appointees the president would choose.”

Instead of censorship, Pildes wrote, an authoritarian-leaning president would seek to control the media

through exacting economic leverage against it or delegitimating it by calling it “fake news.” As they insulate themselves from accountability, these governments then use their discretionary powers over grants, licenses and the like to pressure businesses and others to extract “donations” to political campaigns, toe the party line or at least not challenge it publicly. We saw a glimpse of this during Covid, with President Trump saying he would provide desperately needed equipment to governors who were “nice” to him, not “nasty.”

Donald Moynihan, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, described in an email how democratic backsliding would alter or affect different constituencies and demographic groups.

“For many, life would go on as normal. These are groups with more conservative beliefs that have little reason to worry that their rights are at risk,” Moynihan wrote. Conversely, he continued, “certain groups would be more vulnerable. These include historically marginalized groups, who might find new restrictions on voting. Or members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community who are treated as second-class citizens.”

Government workers, Moynihan said, are likely to bear the brunt:

Because U.S. democratic backsliding has been accompanied with a conspiratorial anti-statist flavor, the risks extend especially to public servants. Over the last few years, specific groups of public officials — election officials, public health personnel, schoolteachers and library workers — have been subject to wild conspiracy theories and unfounded accusations and given less professional autonomy to do their job.

DeSantis, Moynihan wrote, is “a better representation of these threats than Trump,” because the Florida governor

has passed bills that monitor the political ideology of faculty and students. Higher-ed institutions have censored faculty, barring some from testifying against state redistricting proposals and constraining how they talk about issues like race. The DeSantis administration has encouraged students to monitor and report on professors whose views are “not acceptable,” a practice akin to what happens in China.

DeSantis, Moynihan added,

has signed bills that limit discussions in the classroom or the ability of people to protest. His administration stymied the right to vote for former felons, making it not just much harder to reclaim that right but refusing to provide information to those seeking to know what they needed to do to vote and prosecuting citizens who mistakenly voted because of confusion. He has attacked L.G.B.T.Q. groups, and his press spokesperson has labeled anyone that opposes their “Don’t Say Gay” bill as “groomers.”

DeSantis’s re-election bid, along with his national prospects — along with those of Trump and the politicians who imitate him — will be a test of the direction the United States is poised to take at a time when, to quote the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, “the world’s economic-political order appears to be at an inflection point, with its future direction hanging very much in balance.”

The combination of racial and ethnic tension — and the continuance of economic dislocation unfairly distributed across the nation — has turned the United States into a testing ground for right-wing populism. The anger of the white working and middle classes that Trump and DeSantis capitalize on had its origin in two major developments over the past six decades.

The first of these grew out of the continuing absorption into the political system of the racially driven partisan realignment that began decades ago at the height of the civil rights movement. As described by Ilyana Kuziemko of Princeton and Ebonya Washington of Yale,

the entire 17-percentage-point decline in Democratic Party identification between 1958 and 1980 is explained by the 19-percentage-point decline among Southern whites with conservative racial views. Extending the post-period through 2000, 77 percent of the 20-percentage-point drop is explained by the differential drop among Southern whites with conservative racial views.

The second development originates in the enduring dislocation engendered by the 2008 financial crisis:

“The years after the crisis saw sharp increases in political polarization and the rise of populist movements on both the left and right in Europe and the U.S., culminating in Brexit in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump here — by some measures the country’s most polarizing president ever,” wrote Gautam Mukunda, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “Even the economic recovery experienced by the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Britain, is not enough to neutralize the long-term political and social effects of the collapse.”

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