Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has cultivated a reputation as a right-wing political warrior in the so-called war on woke, which amounts to turning back the clocks on policies that promote diversity, silencing discussions about racism, limiting access to safe abortions, and other progressive policies.
DeSantis was expected to announce Wednesday night (May 24) on Twitter that he’s a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. His track record as governor of the Sunshine State suggests that he aims to bring his anti-woke agenda to the rest of the nation if elected.
DeSantis joins the race in a distant second-place behind former President Donald Trump, 53.5 percent to 20.8 percent and polls consistently second to Trump in head-to-head contests, according to FiveThirtyEight’s aggregated primary polls.
The former three-term congressman stepped into the national spotlight during his 2018 gubernatorial race against Andrew Gillum, the former Tallahassee mayor and Florida’s first major party Black candidate for governor.
Shortly after Gillum won the Democratic nomination, DeSantis, then a Trump-backed candidate, stirred controversy when he appeared to blow a racist dog whistle, using the racist epithet “monkey,” about Gillum during a Fox News interview.
“The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state,” DeSantis said of Gillum, The New York Times reported.
Now in his second term as governor, DeSantis has emerged as a leader among conservatives in crafting a far-right policy agenda in the culture wars. His handiwork includes legislation
dubbed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act – the acronym standing for "Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees" – that is also known as the Individual Freedom Act. It would restrict how race is discussed in state schools, including universities, and in companies.
“Woke,” a term coined in Black American activist circles to mean being conscious of racial and social injustice issues, was co-opted by conservatives as a label for progressive values and initiatives. They’ve invoked the expression in their battle against trans and gay rights, classroom lessons on America’s history of racism and anything else to stir up their base.
While DeSantis’ war on woke rhetoric could take him far in the primaries, some political experts say he’ll need to tone it down if he wins the GOP presidential nomination. That’s because DeSantis’ bread-and-butter far-right agenda doesn’t work in key swing states, like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that helped Trump get elected in 2016.
If he manages to win the nomination, which could happen if criminal investigations of Trump in Georgia and other places derail the former president, DeSantis would square off against President Joe Biden next year.
What would a DeSantis presidency look like? Here are some of the policies that he championed as governor and would likely push as president.
DeSantis signed a bill into law on May 15 that defunds programs that promote diversity in public higher education. It forbids Florida’s public colleges from spending state or federal funds on DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives, including helping schools increase student and faculty racial, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation diversity.
The law also prohibits public colleges from offering courses that “distort significant historical events” or teach theories about systemic racism and identity politics.
According to DeSantis, these programs are discriminatory, NPR reported. Reading between the lines, he apparently believes diversity programs discriminate specifically against White men.
DeSantis made headlines in January when the state’s education department prohibited public high schools from offering Advanced Placement African American Studies, a pilot course offered by the nonprofit College Board that oversees AP coursework.
Education officials said the “content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”
Later, DeSantis defended the decision, saying that the course aims to indoctrinate students through material on critical race theory (CRT), Black LGBTQ studies, reparations, mass incarceration and the Movement for Black Lives.
He could also try to expand his literary censorship crusades. Florida, under DeSantis’ leadership, has emerged as the epicenter of the book banning wave in school districts across the nation.
DeSantis, his GOP-controlled state legislature and his network of conservative groups helped push through three state laws in 2022 targeting certain reading or educational materials that discuss racism, LGBTQ rights or other ideas they oppose.
In 2021, Democrats introduced the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is aimed at fighting voter suppression and restoring enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But it has been an uphill battle getting it through Congress.
DeSantis has shown in Florida that he has no interest in equal access to the ballot that could help “woke politicians” win office.
In April, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed controversial Senate Bill 7050 – a sweeping measure that makes it difficult for community-based organizations to register voters.
The Republicans argue that the changes are necessary to protect election integrity, but opponents say it’s nothing more than a voter suppression tool.
“This bill will harm organizations that play a vital role in registering voters of all political backgrounds but are especially essential for engaging Black and brown communities in the democratic process,” the Florida ACLU said.
Last year, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court handed a long-desired culture war victory to abortion rights opponents.
But in the midterm elections, voters in several states chose to add abortion protections to their constitutions, as voters in other states rejected ballot measures that would limit access to legal abortions.
After the high court overturned Roe v. Wade, Florida appears to have taken a two-pronged approach to securing the conservatives’ victory. In Tallahassee, DeSantis signed a six-week ban on abortion in April, making Florida one of the most restrictive states to obtain an abortion. Dubbed the “Heartbeat Protection Act,” the law makes it a third-degree felony for physicians or anyone who "actively participate(s) in" an abortion in violation of the ban.
Meanwhile, at the federal level, Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio touted his “anti-woke agenda” in February that included three anti-abortion bills. One measure would prohibit employers from deducting expenses related to their employees’ abortion travel costs. Another bill would block Biden from declaring a public health emergency to protect access to abortion services.
If elected, DeSantis would likely team-up with Rubio and other Republicans to push similar anti-abortion policies as widely as possible.