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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a bill eliminating a special tax district — which has allowed the Walt Disney Co. to exercise a form of self-government around its Orlando-area parks — in retaliation for the company’s opposition to a new law that limits discussion of gender and sexual identity in the state’s schools.
After initially resisting pressure from employees and the LGBTQ community to denounce the school legislation, which critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” law, Disney CEO Bob Chapek called it a “challenge to basic human rights.” On the day the bill was signed into law, the company released a statement saying its goal is to see the legislation repealed or struck down in court.
Within days, Florida Republicans began calling for Disney to lose its special tax status, which for the past 55 years has granted the company the authority to manage about 25,000 acres of land without direct oversight from local governments. The state Legislature voted to do so last week. There’s debate about what impact the elimination of the tax zone will have, including concerns that local residents may end up footing the bill for millions of dollars in services Disney has historically paid for.
DeSantis, who is widely viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2024, and Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature have been some of the GOP’s most enthusiastic participants in the so-called culture war. In addition to their recent move against Disney and the “Don’t Say Gay” law that preceded the move, the state has banned grade-school textbooks that include “prohibited topics” like discussions of race, introduced new limitations on tenure at public universities, waged repeated fights over COVID mitigation strategies and created a new police force dedicated to pursuing voter fraud.
Why there’s debate
There’s fair discussion over whether companies should be granted perks like the tax zone Disney has enjoyed for many years. But much of the conversation stemming from this dispute has centered around broader questions of how the country got to a place where a political party that has in the past been defined by its reverence for the free market would enthusiastically take aim against one of the world's most recognizable companies.
Many experts say the move against Disney is representative of how the GOP has shifted from the economic conservatism that was at its core in the Reagan era and has fully embraced cultural conflicts that played a major role in Donald Trump’s political success. Critics on the left, however, argue that the conflict is indicative of the GOP’s willingness to use the levers of government to suppress any challenges to its authority.
On the other side of the dispute is Disney, a company that built an entertainment empire based on its ability to create products that appeal to everyone. But cultural critics argue that — as demands for social justice, equality and representation become more prominent — it’s simply impossible for any major business to stay out of the fray. This can put companies in a precarious position in which progressives demand they do more while, at the same time, conservatives accuse companies of surrendering to “woke” political pressure.
Disney’s special tax zone won’t be officially revoked until June of next year, so there may be time for the company and state Legislature to reach an agreement that allows the zone to survive in some form. Some legal experts also believe there’s a strong chance that the law will be struck down by the courts as a violation of the First Amendment.
Political neutrality isn’t an option for big businesses in today’s America
“Disney’s business plan operates on accommodating everyone and minimizing excluding anyone. From its movies to its theme parks to its hotels and vacation packages, Disney has created an image that Disney is for everyone. The company’s political fight with DeSantis … could very well shatter that portrait one way or another, and perhaps create a more realistic picture of who the company is ready to stand with and who it may disappoint.” — Alex Abad-Santos, Vox
Businesses are terrified of upsetting left-wing activists
“Major corporations of all stripes have completely bought into the Democratic Party’s cultural battles, whether they believe in the causes or are simply afraid of mean tweets from activists or unfavorable media coverage.” — Zachary Faria, Washington Examiner
Companies have major financial incentives to promote social progress
“Twenty-first century America is more diverse and accepting, a change which the free market logically reflects. … Conservatives decrying this shift as ‘woke’ corporate infiltration and subjugation are ignoring a simpler explanation: Companies are responding to market forces.” — Robert Schlesinger, New Republic
The culture wars put companies in an impossible position
“Disney is caught between a rock and a hard place. … I suspect their lobbyists told them, ‘You know, keep quiet on this’ and that’s what they tried to do, but then they couldn’t because the cast members rose up and said, ‘You got to object to this’. They can’t afford to alienate not only their cast members but people who support a more liberal, diverse society.” — Charles Zelden, legal historian, to the Guardian
Conservatives have gotten fed up with companies attacking their political views
“At some point, conservatives were going to have to make an example of one of these companies, not just grumble about them after they get away with it. … Going after Disney is the victim’s punch to the nose to correct the bully: Stop attacking us, or we will defend ourselves.” — Ryan Ellis, National Review
The GOP is wisely abandoning the unquestioning pro-business positions of its past
“DeSantis’s move thus makes perfect political sense; his crusade against Disney caters to the cultural and economic views of a large majority of his voters. … He thus has delivered a political masterstroke, regardless of what one might think about the propriety of his effort.” — Henry Olsen, Washington Post
The GOP will do anything to defend its political power
“The true meaning of the Disney move is that today’s conservatives will do anything to maintain social control, including dropping any last, thin pretenses of supporting the Bill of Rights or the other pillars of American democracy. In 2022, they will throw away books, destroy the lives of teachers, and deliberately prevent your child from learning — anything to keep the arc of a moral universe from bending toward justice.” — Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer
Republicans want to punish any person or organization that doesn’t back their party line
“Shaking up Fantasyland after a half-century is one thing. But is that the price of political dissent? What company, what industry, what institution is next? And where is Florida headed under this Republican leadership if more voices merely clam up and go away?” — Editorial, Tampa Bay Times
Florida Republicans are overplaying their hand in the culture wars
“To middle-American, small-c conservative parents of young children, waiting until after third grade for their kids to learn about homosexuality — or simply teaching them about it themselves, in the privacy of their own home, as is their right — sounds pretty reasonable, at least to look at the polling. But to argue that corporate America is engaged in a mass conspiracy to turn your kids gay decidedly does not.” — Derek Robertson, Politico
Decades of insider deals have made companies and lawmakers primed for a volatile breakup
“America is positively overrun with crony capitalism — the practice of granting government favors to corporations or industries. … This complex system of tax breaks and benefits creates entanglement between business and state that leads both parties to believe that they should have outsized influence on the other.” — David French, Atlantic
Business leaders have forgotten that their job is to make profits, not proclamations
“Disney’s intervention into Florida politics highlights again the problems that arise when businesses stray from their central purpose of creating long-term value for shareholders.” — James Freeman, Wall Street Journal
Conservative lawmakers are consistently rewarded for picking cultural fights
“We can expect to see more fights over schools and cartoons and board books for toddlers and more invocations of ‘brainwashing’ and ‘grooming’ as well. Because many on the right know that it's not just good for their politics, but their pocketbooks, too.” — Nicole Hemmer, CNN
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