Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to prepare for his 2022 re-election bid and — he hopes — for his 2024 presidential campaign by periodically shoveling a fresh serving of red meat to those who observers less charitable than I call rubes. First came his push to criminalize political protests in a draconian, often incoherent and possibly unconstitutional fashion, which is an exploitation of public anxieties about civil unrest that flared up in other parts of the country last summer.
This was followed by an announcement of proposed legislation that would give state government the power to dictate content on private social media sites by punishing them for their allegedly anti-conservative algorithms and for “de-platforming” those who the owners and curators of those sites deem to be acting in a manner injurious to public safety specifically and to the public interest generally. The motivation for this patently unconstitutional flyer was, first, paying obeisance to Donald Trump, who was kicked to the curb by Facebook and Twitter in the aftermath of the insurrection he inspired on January 6, and, second, leveraging the pervasive paranoia of the Trump base about so-called cancel culture.
Then there was the monkey-see, monkey-do rush to join the red state stampede to enact voter suppression laws on a scale not seen since the high tide of the Jim Crow era began to recede in the middle of the last century, the idea being to tailor the electorate to fit the GOP message rather than the GOP message to fit the electorate. The rhetorical fig leaf for this attack on American democracy is restoring voter confidence in the electoral process, which confidence was, of course, undermined by those, including DeSantis, who deem any lost election to be, ipso facto, fraudulent, particularly the most recent election in which their master was laid low by the righteous wrath of aroused voters who turned out in unprecedented numbers. This bit of shameless effrontery is akin to the arsonist with singed hair and reeking of gasoline pitching in to help fight the fire he set.
Now comes the DeSantis plan to use the traditional public school system, that punching bag for generations of Republican ideologues that is currently being dismantled hand over fist by ever expanding private school vouchers, to teach high school students “what makes America unique” by exposing them to “foundational concepts” in a new, mandatory “Florida civic seal of excellence” course that would culminate in an examination like that given to new citizens. This course would apparently be in addition to the civics course seventh graders now must take, which includes an end of course exam generally deemed more difficult than the new citizen exam, and the high school American history courses that are prerequisites for graduation.
Populist platitudes aside, the substantive content of the course that would earn a student the Ron DeSantis civic seal of excellence is unclear. What is clear is that it will be the antithesis of critical race theory, which DeSantis describes as teaching students to hate America and to hate each other. Not that critical race theory is taught in K-12 public schools in Florida, mind you. It is not. But it is one of those right wing bogeymen like sanctuary cities that do not exist and riots that have not happened that we in Florida must nonetheless stamp out, a straw man that no effort should be spared to destroy.
That said, like the stopped clock that is right twice a day, DeSantis is correct in the main about the pernicious nature of critical race theory and its identity politics adjacents. It is a mélange of reverse racism, Marxism, historical revisionism, and special pleading, and Republicans should be given credit for barring the school house door to it.
But rejecting the teaching of critical race theory and its analogues in our K-12 classrooms is not justification for spending a couple of hundred million dollars to develop a civics course redundant to existing civics and history courses about the content of which there have been no complaints, or training teachers to teach it and paying them each a $3,000 bonus for doing so, as is proposed. That is message legislation and performative politics plain and simple that should, if enacted into law, require the DeSantis campaign to report an in-kind contribution from the public treasury.
Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.