Why Ron DeSantis Is Going After Disney
Once upon a time, it would have been considered a cardinal rule in Florida politics not to get in a public fight with the Walt Disney Company.In fact, it didn’t have to be a rule. No one would have considered it conceivable. The iconic American brand, long a symbol of wholesomeness and childhood delight, is as identified with Florida as sunshine and beaches.But here comes Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, acting swiftly to repeal the “special independent district” enjoyed by Disney for half a century.
Even if Disney ends up retaining the district in some form, the lightning-fast strike by the Legislature feels like an inflection point in the relationship of the Republican Party to big business.
That relationship, once a key element of the GOP coalition, has been under strain for quite some time. The Washington Post ran an interview titled, “Here’s the history of how big business lost control of the GOP,” back in 2013. But now the two sides are entering a period of active hostilities. And there is a real political upside for the GOP in this new dynamic, which should make it easier for it to rebut the charge it is simply a tool of big business that has dogged it at least since the days of Herbert Hoover.
The party has obviously become more populist and working class over time, a change exemplified by Donald Trump. As this shift has occurred, business leaders who once seemed natural allies began to look more like part of the elite that conservatives distrust and disdain.
Meanwhile, as cultural issues have gained prominence, the priorities and constituencies of business and the GOP have diverged. Corporations consider it good for their brand, and for business, to cater to younger consumers (and their own younger employees) that tend to embrace social liberalism and the latest fashionable causes. Republicans are representing culturally conservative voters who expect pushback against the woke tide sweeping most American institutions.
Back in 2015, corporations had considerable sway in the debate over religious freedom restorations acts — bills to protect the exercise of religion that often became fights over gay rights. Harsh condemnations and threats of boycotts either helped stop or modify such bills. Social conservatives were frustrated and appalled, but businesses and sports leagues, with massive resources and huge followings, held the whip hand in the debate.
Now, though, it is near-suicidal in Republican politics to bend to such pressure, and it has been proven that it can be withstood. Georgia Republicans didn’t give an inch last year when the business community condemned the state’s new voting law. Atlanta lost the All-Star game, but Stacey Abrams was embarrassed by it. Like a storm of outrage on Twitter, the controversy came and went and Georgia — and its voting law — are still standing.
Ron DeSantis operated from the same playbook when Disney denounced Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents. He stood firm and hit back at the entertainment giant, saying that as a family-friendly business it should understand parents not wanting young children taught about gender identity in public schools.
But now Florida has gone further, moving to take away Disney’s independent special district. The provisions allowing Disney to govern itself are so extensive that one analyst has called the Reedy Creek Improvement District “the Vatican with mouse ears.”
“Never before or since has such outlandish dominion been given to a private corporation,” the Florida writer Carl Hiaasen notes in his book Team Rodent. “Disney owns its own utilities. It administers its own planning and zoning. It composes its own building codes and employs its own inspectors. It maintains its own fire department. It even has the authority to levy taxes.”