Ron DeSantis and the New Republican Orthodoxy

What the Florida governor's clash with the cruise lines says about today's GOP

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has emerged as one of the most popular figures among the Republican Party faithful, who see him as a leading candidate for president in 2024 if you know who from Mar-a-Lago declines to run. The conservative commentariat favorably contrasts DeSantis’s management of the coronavirus pandemic with the performance of other governors, both Democratic and Republican. Unlike many other states, Florida kept schools open for in-person instruction, and the Sunshine State seems to have achieved similar Covid outcomes as places that adopted more stringent regulations. In the post-vaccine period, DeSantis signed a bill into law that forbade all public and private organizations from denying service based on vaccination status. Each violation of this rule would result in a $5,000 fine.

This policy, in keeping with DeSantis’s less aggressive Covid posture when compared to other governors, has recently led to a showdown with Florida’s lucrative cruise industry. The CDC released a policy allowing cruises to resume, provided that 98 percent of crewmembers and 95 percent of passengers were vaccinated. Cruise lines prepared to restart operations under these guidelines, but the DeSantis administration warned them that requiring vaccination for passengers would violate Florida’s prohibition on “vaccination passports.”

DeSantis also sued the CDC over the cruise vaccination rule, which resulted in court-ordered mediation between his administration and the CDC. This mediation failed, and at time of writing, cruise lines have been responding in various ways to Florida’s prohibition on vaccination requirements. Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line plan to require vaccination for passengers, while Royal Caribbean will encourage vaccination without requiring it.

DeSantis’s combative stance against vaccine requirements for cruise passengers has prompted accusations of conservative hypocrisy. Jonathan Chait points to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which conservatives defended a Christian baker’s refusal to make a cake for a same-sex wedding because of his opposition to gay marriage. Now, Chait claims, conservatives like DeSantis are demanding that other businesses figuratively “bake the cake” even though there may be a compelling public health justification for businesses requiring their customers to be vaccinated. Allahpundit of Hot Air declared DeSantis’s actions “a pure pander to the anti-vaxxer element of the GOP base ahead of 2024.” Many other observers, operating under the outdated image of a pro-business GOP, have been taken aback by the sight of a leading Republican imposing new regulations on private enterprise.

I am inclined to agree that, given the petri dishes that are large cruise ships, cruise operators should be allowed to require vaccination for their customers. And in the year 2021, one should never dismiss the possibility that any government action is a performative pander to a particular party’s base—such as when DeSantis recently signed a bill that purported to reign in “Big Tech” by prohibiting social media services from removing politicians from their networks, while exempting from the law companies that operate theme parks (an obvious carveout for Disney). The latter, according to many legal commentators, is facially unconstitutional and unlikely to survive the coming lawsuits, which suggests that DeSantis merely wanted to signal his opposition to Big Tech and social media’s banning of Donald Trump after the January 6 riot. But the reflexive accusations of conservative hypocrisy or inconsistency miss an important development in conservative circles represented by DeSantis’s confrontation with the cruise industry. Indeed, DeSantis’s action in this case exemplifies an emerging Republican orthodoxy on the role of the state in people’s lives.

This emerging orthodoxy grows out of at least two developments. First, Republicans are belatedly coming to the realization that private business, particularly the titans of retail and finance, often actively support liberal causes. DeSantis’s anti-Big Tech legislation is merely the latest example of the Republican flight from support for big business (see also, for example, Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s support for unionizing an Amazon warehouse because of his opposition to the company’s supposed bias against conservative books and charities). Whether sincerely or for the good of their bottom lines, many business leaders have fully embraced the values of “wokeness,” as demonstrated by social media communiques, mandatory diversity training, and threats to pull business out of states that pass objectionable laws. Republicans, for their part, no longer give the benefit of the doubt to businesses, particularly large corporations. DeSantis’s actions—to preempt the imposition of vaccine requirements that he argues would violate citizens’ medical privacy—thus flow out of a newfound conservative orthodoxy that sees Republican government as protecting the people against the tyranny of various “establishment forces,” which now include “woke capital.”

Second, trust in both public and private institutions has fallen significantly. Although distrust in institutions is by no means limited to the political right, this fall in trust is particularly pronounced among conservatives. To offer just one example, Facebook and Twitter decided to remove and prohibit posts discussing the Hunter Biden laptop story because, as the tech people saw it, the story was an unverified and potentially election-disrupting source of misinformation, a move almost universally seen on the right as an effort to head off a line of attack against the Biden campaign.

Defenders of social media content moderation can make their stand on the right of a private business to decide what is allowed on its platform, but this argument has very little purchase among conservatives, who see private companies continually making decisions that favor liberals at the expense of conservatives. The right has lost trust in institutions to make just decisions, and conservatives have come to see slippery slopes everywhere. Admit the principle that social media companies can moderate content to prevent the dissemination of misinformation, and these companies will end up censoring conservative content. Concede the right of cruise lines to require vaccination, and the requirement of “vaccine passports” to patronize a business of any kind, from a restaurant to a sporting event, will soon follow.

A post on RedState provides an excellent example of this growing consensus on the right. “Vaccine passports are not going to stop with cruise lines and everyone knows it,” the author writes. The post goes on to claim that “[individual freedom] doesn’t become any less important if it’s a private business in cahoots with the government that is seeking to crush it.” Conservatives see DeSantis as standing between the individual and the overbearing power of both private business and the government.

Understanding this view helps to explain why conservatives largely do not see an inconsistency in supporting Masterpiece Cakeshop while defending DeSantis’s stand against the cruise lines. Conservatives do not believe that defending the right of the business to refuse to bake the cake for a same-sex ceremony represents a slippery slope toward the denial of service to LGBT people generally, and same-sex couples could obtain a wedding cake at a number of other shops. Standing with the cake shop, then, means standing with a small business owner against attempts by the State of Colorado to force him to “bake the cake.” In contrast, conservatives fear that giving cruise lines license to require vaccination over concerns about an outbreak will logically lead to similar restrictions in many other businesses. “Your papers, please” will inevitably follow, according to this view. In both cases, then, conservatives claim to be standing up for the rights of the individual against powerful institutions, both public and private.

Those conditioned to see the GOP as the pro-business party might be surprised at DeSantis’s actions and the support for them on the right. But taking a broader perspective shows that this episode represents one of the clearest windows into an emerging Republican orthodoxy. This populist Republicanism, which Donald Trump occasionally amplified but did not invent, claims that government should defend the rights of the individual from usurpation by powerful public and private institutions. In an age of huge tech companies and the growing dominance of Amazon in retail, a muscular defense of individual rights could form the basis of a compelling political agenda that recognizes threats to liberty from the private sector. But pitfalls threaten the success of this new Republican orthodoxy.

For one, the demographics and biases of average Republicans often lead the party to rail against supposed attacks on free speech by Facebook but remain silent in the face of brutality by local police departments. And in a larger sense, an emphasis on the individual always runs the risk of descending into a nihilism that fails to articulate the necessity of individual responsibility alongside individual rights. The direction of the new Republicanism—towards a productive defense of the individual or towards an atomistic selfishness—will depend upon the skill and foresight of Republican leaders. Can they gain the trust of the base while steering their voters in a positive direction? For now, DeSantis appears to be the leading candidate to supplant the 45th president as the leader of this populist Republicanism.