The right embraces an unexpected political weapon: governmental power

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One of the less important falsehoods Donald Trump offered during his career in politics was that he represented a “silent majority.” That he was the voice not only of a politically subdued or dormant set of Americans — which was valid — but that this group constituted most of the country. This belief was unadulterated by his having lost the popular vote in 2016 and is presumably intact today, despite losing the 2020 vote by an even wider margin.

It is a belief shared by many of his supporters that is rooted not in the realities of the circumstance but in a fundamental and largely unfalsifiable assumption about the extent to which the rest of the country agrees with them. If you declare polling to be inaccurate and invalid, there’s no reason not to assume that your own views and those of your friends (since most Americans don’t know many people on the other side of the political divide) represent the majority.

The problem is that there’s not a lot of evidence that it’s true. Yes, President Biden’s approval ratings are dire, but that’s a reflection more of Biden than Trump (as Trump’s low approval ratings were a reflection of him). Democrats are expected to lose control of the House and Senate in November, but it’s hard to extricate that from Biden’s soft political position. If Republicans retake the Senate, it would also be unusual if the Republican senators in the 118th Congress had received more votes than their Democratic colleagues: it’s only happened once since 1994. Which, of course, ties back to Trump’s 2016 win, one driven not by popular support but structural advantages.

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It’s useful to reevaluate all of this now because of a trend that’s emerged since Democrats took control of the legislative and executive branches last year. The political right has engaged in a series of cultural fights that are reminiscent of the push by the left in years prior, except instead of focusing on elevating issues of how racism is embedded in political and legal systems, the focus has been on how elevating those issues and the acceptance of same-sex relationships has run amok. Last year’s excoriations of “critical race theory” — a term intentionally overinflated to apply to anything race-related in the public discourse — have been set aside in favor of lamentations about “grooming,” an even more obviously dishonest presentation that casts anti-LGBTQ rhetoric as a defense of children.

“Set aside,” isn’t quite right, of course. It’s more akin to how omicron replaced delta in the country’s coronavirus infections: the latter was more viral, more effective at spreading and potentially more damaging to the political left. You don’t have to take my word for it. One of the primary promoters of both lines of argument told the New York Times explicitly that the “reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues.” Making it more useful.

The point is, in part, to win elections. Republicans see the focus on race that preceded the state elections in Virginia last year as definitive in winning the governor’s race. (Other observers, noting the swing in New Jersey where “critical race theory” wasn’t as prominent, point to a common backlash against the new president as a much larger factor.) The point of winning elections, meanwhile, is to be able to enact a political agenda which, as Jamelle Bouie notes in the Times, includes (again, often explicitly) eviscerating governmental power, including in public schools. That the “critical race theory” and “groomer” lines of attack focus on kids is a function of the utility of leveraging fears about what happens to children, but it’s also a function of undercutting public confidence in schools themselves.

By contrasting this public fight with the past cultural debates over race and same-sex marriage, though, something else comes into focus. The Black Lives Matter movement correlated with a sharp increase in belief that discrimination was affecting Black Americans. Same-sex marriage went from outlier to majority opinion in a remarkably short period of time. Among younger Americans, these positions find even more support.

This is in part why the response to both cultural efforts has diverged.

Disney, for example, has become a target of opprobrium on the right because it spoke out against a Florida law that limits classroom instruction on “sexuality” — a vaguely worded law that has been celebrated by conservatives as stamping out the ability of teachers to talk about same-sex relationships. Disney faced internal pressure from its employees to take a stand. But consider the Disney market is hoping to target: young parents who fall on the younger end of the age spectrum.

Age and politics intertwine here a lot. As Democratic data expert David Shor pointed out in 2020, many companies are now led by young, college-educated executives, people who are more likely to be politically liberal than conservative. Combine internal pressure from employees, external market forces driven by younger consumers and a C-suite that’s more liberal than in years past, and you get situations like Disney’s tension with Florida. You get a broad embrace of Black Lives Matter or Pride Month by brands hoping to appeal to young consumers.

How did Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) responds to Disney’s comment? Not by simply trying to outmaneuver Disney on rhetoric, though conservatives nationally (and on Fox News) have been lambasting the company whenever possible. Instead, Florida’s Republican legislature feels DeSantis a bill stripping Disney of its special status in the state, a measure DeSantis quickly signed into law.

It’s not really clear that this will hurt Disney much. In fact, it might save the company a lot of money, passing on costs to residents of Florida counties near its theme parks. But the point is that DeSantis and his allies in the legislature decided to use governmental power to punish a corporation specifically because that company had opposed it politically.

This is not what Republicans — the party of small government and the free market — are supposed to espouse. For the most part, though, they’ve been fine with it, nodding at a state governor leveraging state power in this way. Just as there’s been little outcry from the right over librarians pulling books with sensitive or controversial subjects from the shelves when those subjects run afoul of conservative orthodoxy. Mind you this comes only one year after the right was fixed on how Dr. Seuss’s estate had decided to stop printing several books with racially questionable images or language.

That this is happening in Florida is interesting. DeSantis has leaned into partisan culture-war fights as he seeks re-election this year and as he eyes a potential presidential bid in 2024. But it’s worth remembering that he won election in the first place not through an overwhelming victory over his Democratic opponent but, instead , remarkably narrowly. This is not a hard-right state enacting hard-right policies; it’s one of the most purple states in the country enacting them. Granted, it’s also a state with a disproportionate number of old people.

As Matt Yglesias notes, Trump tried to effect the same sort of punitive use of governmental power as president, to little outcry. A president whose victory was even more tenuous than DeSantis’s was eager to try to use the power of the White House for political purposes, both against private companies and, infamously, against the foreign states.

In large part this is because the political right often finds itself unable to win cultural fights on cultural terms. The outcry against Disney has included repeated insistences that the company would wither into nothing from the sheer weight of conservative opprobrium; it seems to be doing okay so far. Similar threats against other companies like Apple have also been glancing blows. Where the right does often have power is in state governments. So it applies that power.

The left leverages state-level power, too. Blue-state pension funds pull investments from fossil-fuel companies, for example. But it’s hard to think of an example of a state trying to punish a specific company for no other reason than its political positions. Such an effort would also not be inherently hypocritical, given the diverging partisan views of using political power.

Again, Disney will be okay. The question, though, is what happens in 2025 if Trump or DeSantis wins the presidency — perhaps while losing the popular vote — and the House and Senate are in Republican control, perhaps thanks to the institutional advantage heavily rural Republican states have in that latter chamber . What happens if a company expresses opposition to the GOP’s agenda then?

Were Biden and the Democratic House and Senate to try to explicitly punish a company for expressing opposition to their political agenda, the right would justifiably be furious. If the tables turn, there’s no reason to think that they would be. Meaning that there would be little opposition to seeing how far that use of governmental power could be extended.

After all, it’s in service to what the self-identified majority wants.

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