Ron DeSantis’s brand of freedom could endanger Floridians
Florida is so synonymous with good weather that reciting the names of the sunshine state’s cities—Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Naples, Sarasota—sounds like reading aloud from a travel brochure.
Americans flock to the state for beach holidays, visits to Disneyland, or to while away their days in retirement communities that promise endless sunshine and beach-front properties.
But over the last few days Florida’s blessings have become its biggest curse. On 28th September, Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida as a high category 4 storm. The hurricane left destruction in its wake, with estimates of up to $63bn in insurance losses. It is expected to be one of the top ten costliest storms in American history.
And those estimates don’t cover all the of the damage. Since the start of 2022, six insurers have gone into receivership while other private insurers are fleeing the state and refusing to offer insurance “at any price”. Of the almost two million households in the nine Floridian counties that President Biden declared collectively to be a disaster zone, only 29 per cent had federal flood insurance. For those living in these communities, economic recovery will be very difficult to achieve.
Part of the reason for the insurance exodus is glaringly obvious—Florida sits square in the middle of a hurricane highway zone. Yet Florida’s problem has been exacerbated by choices made by politicians wanting to guarantee a certain brand of freedom, promising that citizens can live unrestrained without the sort of government regulation that would require storm-resistant roofs and homes built on dry land.
The freest state
Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is one of the most popular governors in the United States and a walking allegory for the all-American “bootstraps” myth of the self-made man. He hails from a working-class background but entered the governor’s mansion with Ivy League degrees and a promise to turn Florida into a libertarian haven where there would be just enough government intervention to protect private property and prevent chaos.
In Florida, the prevailing sense of freedom is “freedom to”—the freedom to refuse to get vaccinated, wear a mask or call somebody by their desired pronouns, and the freedom to carry guns and live in wetlands that are susceptible to flooding and hurricanes. DeSantis’s brand of libertarian freedom meant he flinched at lockdown orders during the pandemic. Once vaccines became available, he quickly outlawed both masks and vaccines ordinances, arguing that mandates are violations of personal liberty.
In an address this past January, DeSantis said: “We will protect the rights of individuals to live their lives free from the yoke of restrictions and mandates.”
“Florida has stood strong as the rock of freedom. And upon this rock we must build Florida’s future. Together we have made Florida the freest state in these United States.”
In this way, DeSantis neglects the importance of “freedom from” death, disease, or flooding. The “freest state in the US” had one of the highest excess death rates in the US. A recent study found that after vaccines became available, death rates were substantially higher death rates among registered Republicans, with a 76 per cent higher excess death rate for Republicans compared to Democrats.
To many voters, DeSantis is correct in saying that Florida is one of the freest states in the nation. Residents pay no income tax and can construct homes in flood-prone areas. Coastal areas are so popular that 26 per cent of the population, 5.1 million people, live in floodplains that were once wetlands and could be inundated by future Hurricanes similar to Ian. That population figure could increase: over the last decade, Florida’s population has ballooned as more Americans drove south hoping to stick a flag in their own plot of paradise. The state is the most popular destination for domestic migration.
These surging numbers are exacerbating Florida’s already significant environmental problems. DeSantis’s own government admits that by 2045, $26bn worth of residential property will be at risk of chronic flooding. The Everglades have been drained to provide water for farms and residences and are now half their original size.
Despite these challenges, the governor has decided to further court right-wing voters by claiming he is “not a global warming person”. Instead, he has turned voter attention towards social causes that he believes are stripping Americans of their freedom to refuse to use somebody’s preferred pronouns or carry massive military-style weapons openly in public. He signed the “Stop WOKE Act” which outlaws the teaching of critical-race theory, and legislation known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law forbidding public school teachers from discussing LGBT issues.
Florida’s tragedy is a tragedy of the commons: everybody wants the freedom to own their small piece of paradise without acknowledging that paradise does not exist in isolation. The estuaries that run through paradise connect to waterways which connect to beaches which connect to the ocean. This same ocean is warming and rising because of the emissions Floridians burn so that they can drive their giant SUVs freely from one end of a parking lot to another.
The governor is running for re-election in the mid-terms this November and rumoured to be preparing for a run at the presidency in 2024. He is likely to win next month, and steadily rising approval ratings make it look like he’s got a chance at becoming president.
What is at stake in these elections is a contest between two versions of freedom that are steadily colliding to rewrite the narrative of what it means to be American.
In one version, Americans come together to solve collective problems so they can live free from fear of rising sea levels and hospital bills. In DeSantis’s version, Americans’ live free from regulation and rules, free to enough to choke on toxic algae that has carpeted their white sandy beaches, leaving behind the bloated bodies of dead manatees to rot in the sun.
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