Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is running for president of the United States on a record of anti-diversity, pro-censorship, white nationalist measures. He has targeted education, LGBTQ rights and access to health care, and should he prevail, his anti-science candidacy stands to harm millions of Americans.
DeSantis has banned books in school libraries, restricted teachers’ classroom discussions about diversity, prohibited high school classes that focus on Black history and people, politicized college curricula, limited spending on diversity programs, ignored greenhouse gas reduction in climate change policy, diminished reproductive rights and outlawed transgender health care.
The governor has refused all evidence that masks are safe and help prevent COVID, appointed a surgeon general who advised against vaccines, and continues to paint science and evidence as restrictions to the freedom of Floridians. Instead of limiting the role of government, as he claimed in his fight against masks, he is expanding it to selectively promote a particular religious agenda.
The maternal mortality rate in Florida is rising, yet DeSantis signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, outlawing it after six weeks of pregnancy and endangering people who have life-threatening complications that termination could help. Black women in Florida have the worst maternal mortality rates of any group in the state, and research has shown that people who are denied abortions and forced to give birth suffer mentally, financially and educationally. These statistics surely won’t improve under these new laws, which are pushing health care providers to move out of the state.
By making gender-affirming care for youth illegal and disparaging the use of preferred pronouns and names, the governor and his followers will undoubtedly add to the suffering of transgender individuals. Multiple studies have looked at the mental health of transgender teens. Researchers have found that giving puberty blockers to youth questioning the gender they were assigned at birth reduces depression, anxiety and anger. In another study, 56 percent of transgender youth surveyed had attempted suicide, and causes included feeling they didn’t belong, being excluded and a profound lack of self-worth.
Despite Florida’s vulnerability to climate change, whether through natural disaster or sea-level rise, DeSantis has ignored scientific evidence again, refusing to address the role of greenhouse gas emissions in global warming. He has focused instead on adaptation, or resiliency measures. He’s also nixed sustainable investment efforts like bonds that would fund renewable energy measures in the state. But adaptation and mitigation go hand-in-hand. Without reducing the cause of climate change, adaptation will only go so far, and under DeSantis, Florida remains at high risk of climate-related disaster.
DeSantis has signed bills allowing people to challenge school library books they deem unfit for children. To date, books pulled from library shelves include a biography of baseball player Roberto Clemente (which was later restored), poetry from Amanda Gorman, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and books about Black, Cuban and LGBTQ perspectives.
The authors of several books that have been pulled from Florida’s shelves have sued the state for violating both their First Amendment rights to free speech and their 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law. The teachers’ union and other groups are suing on the grounds that the law extends beyond schools into public libraries.
His “Don’t Say Gay” law prevents teachers from talking about homosexuality or being transgender through high school. Such rules prevent comprehensive sex education and invalidate LGBTQ students, adding to the mental health burden of a state that has a severe shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists.
DeSantis and the far right misrepresent critical race theory (which examines the role of race in the legal system) and pressured the College Board to remove references to the theory from the Advanced Placement African American Studies curriculum. The governor’s actions are part of a large-scale misinformation campaign to stoke white fear and uphold white nationalism. Yet, racism is reality, and in our multicultural, multilingual, global society, promoting white nationalism will create a generation of students who cannot reason and think as critically as their peers.
The governor has also banned Florida colleges’ efforts to promote diversity, inclusion and equity. The bans could affect all aspects of education, including efforts to recruit nonwhite STEM students and scientists to higher education. He has stacked the New College of Florida board of trustees, historically apolitical, with conservative ideologues to create an institute of higher learning that adheres to his version of American education and white exceptionalism, which is explicitly modeled on conservative evangelical Christian colleges.
What Ron DeSantis has done in Florida mirrors efforts in other states, including Texas. He is among a new class of conservative lawmakers who speak of freedom while restricting freedom. This political maneuvering is part of building his national presence yet it does not represent most Americans’ views. The population of Florida is growing faster than most other places in the U.S., but the state is now poised to have fewer critical thinkers, fewer people of color as educators and as the subjects of education, more deaths in childbirth, and scores of people in the throes of crisis because of their identities. A country led by someone wielding such cruelty, bigotry and megalomania will never be “a more perfect Union.”