When Ron DeSantis, Florida’s pugnacious governor and would-be Republican president, took against the mighty Walt Disney Company, it was seen as a high-profile test of America’s culture wars.
DeSantis, who is on the conservative wing of his party, is eager to wage war on “woke”, as the Florida state legislature did last year by passing a contentious “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bars discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity at public schools.
After criticism from the LGBT+ community as well as many of its own employees, Disney condemned the legislation and said it would reassess its political donations in Florida. DeSantis hit back, saying that he would seek to revoke Disney’s special tax status, which benefits the company’s vast Orlando theme park. Disney executives countered by suing DeSantis and continuing with its inclusive policies on LGBT+ issues.
But while that conflict rumbles on, there is another aspect of the affair that deserves attention: what is “local” democracy? At the heart of DeSantis’s legal battles with Disney there is a fight over whether state laws should always prevail or whether local municipalities (or corporate zones) should be allowed to set their own rules, as happens, for example, in Switzerland.
Back in the 18th century, America’s founding fathers chose a federal structure for their fledgling democracy. However, as James Madison noted in the Federalist Papers published in 1788, the system was always designed to be “neither wholly national nor wholly federal”. And when the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville travelled across America in the 19th century, he observed that the government was “neither precisely national nor federal” since there was a constant tussle between federal, state and municipal politicians.
Now it is arguably worse. States are taking increasingly divergent stances on issues such as abortion rights, guns and financing green initiatives — and testing the boundaries of federal law as a result. One case in point is an ongoing attempt by a Texas judge to ban the abortion medicine Mifepristone, in defiance of federal ruling.
Battles are also erupting between state legislatures and municipalities, most commonly when the former is Republican and the latter Democrat. Disney illustrates one version of this, albeit that the locality is controlled by a company. But the Local Solutions Support Center, a leftwing lobbying group, says there are currently more than 650 “pre-emption bills’’ in red-state legislatures seeking to impose state rules on public municipalities that are trying to challenge them.
The most eye-catching is a so-called “Death Star” bill that the Texas state legislature is debating this month. The bill seeks to ensure that any city that dares to introduce local rules that are more progressive than state laws (for example, to protect workers) can be sued by local businesses for damages. Austin, long a politically blue oasis surrounded by a sea of red, is one potential target.
DeSantis’s Florida is also mulling a Death Star bill. A raft of other bills could force prosecutors in liberal cities in places such as Texas, Georgia, Florida and Oklahoma to uphold a red state’s anti-LGBT+ rules or abortion bans, even if opposed locally. The Tennessee legislature is trying to curb the power of politicians in progressive Nashville. And so on.
Republican leaders like DeSantis would argue that these bills simply reflect democracy in action. After all, red-state legislatures were elected by voters to pursue conservative mandates. But, according to Darrell West, an analyst at the Brookings think-tank, the US is entering a “risky new phase that pits blue states against red ones and blue cities against red states, and threatens democracy as a whole”. Such jurisdictional conflicts have, he argues, strained federalism and made it difficult for businesses to know whose laws they should obey.
The problem could get worse. Data from the Census Bureau shows that in recent years there has been a marked population flow from Democrat states (such as New York, California and Illinois) into Republican-controlled states (such as Florida, Texas, North and South Carolina and Idaho), mostly into urban areas. This pre-dated the pandemic but was accelerated by remote working.
In the longer term, more metropolitan islands of blue in red states could lead to more rebellion. That means that the issue of federalism and local politics could be doubly emotive — and fascinating — in the 2024 elections. Mickey Mouse won’t be the last to get caught in the crossfire.
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