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Disney boycotts are nothing new. Except when they are.
The DeSantis vs. Disney saga has caught some people by surprise.
Although the gist of it is pretty straightfoward, a full understanding requires knowing two things: (1) the animating ethos of today’s Republican Party is the relentless pursuit of culture war Ws, and (2) DeSantis vs. Disney represents the apotheosis of social conservatism’s rise within Republican electoral politics.
The first explains why DeSantis—the sitting governor of the most important red state today—would even want to pick a fight with an entertainment giant that employs nearly 80 thousand Floridians.
The second probes whether DeSantis’s actions are continuous with past forms of conservative activism—or whether they represent a deviation.
I expounded on the first in a recent piece for The Bulwark.
DeSantis’s Disney villain–like turn against the Mouse is primarily driven by the structural incentives now firmly built into the architecture of right-wing electoral politics. … [His] anti-Disney play is an affirmation of the expectations of today’s MAGA GOP that its leaders pursue ideologically driven punitive statism against culturally influential entities they perceive to be hostile either to conservative interests or to their interpretation of what’s best for America.
Since the Trumpian turn in 2016, the ascendant model of conservative legislating and governing is almost entirely given over to an own-the-libs ethos in which the highest praise is “He fights!” That means DeSantis must wage relentless culture war hostilities, he must embody limitless reactionary belligerence, in order to build out his national profile, to burnish his presidential readiness. …
DeSantis isn’t alone in trying to adopt this MAGA model. Think of his contemporary Josh Hawley, the Missouri senator: Embodying an own-the-libs ethos has been his strategy for years. But while it hasn’t panned out for Hawley due to his almost preternatural inability to excite the base, DeSantis seems to have impressed many conservatives around the country as representing the governing ideal.
And that ideal is: Use the power of the state to wage unremitting hostility against culturally significant forces that are even minimally hospitable to the left—government, entertainment, business, and educational entities—even if doing so imposes heavy social or economic costs on one’s own constituents.
Turning our attention to the second point, my contention is that DeSantis vs. Disney is both a genuine departure from, but also entirely consistent with, the social conservatism of years past.
Make no mistake, DeSantis’s war with the Mouse is an escalation from past conservative crusades against cultural institutions taken to be too friendly to “leftist” causes.
It’s an escalation first and foremost because it is spearheaded by a prominent governor and presidential aspirant, as opposed to some religious figure shouting from the fringes, and second, because it involves the governor using the machinery of the state to seriously punish a dissident corporate entity.
This is what I mean by “genuine departure”—DeSantis vs. Disney is a conflict on an entirely new qualitative plane.
Then again, that doesn’t mean we’re dealing with a completely novel campaign here. Disney has been boycotted before. The right aren’t newcomers to the activist space.
But what’s new today is that, with DeSantis vs. Disney, we have a serious presidential aspirant using a culture war conflict as his main springboard to the presidency.
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By contrast, Reagan rebuffed the religious right’s initiatives in order to prioritize his economic vision. He accepted their voter mobilization efforts, certainly. And he threw them a bone here and there. But both during the 1980 cycle and then throughout his presidential tenure, Reagan made sure the religious right understood he wasn’t going to be rubberstamping their proposals.
What this example (and others like it) suggests is that social conservatism, which in the past was a singular strand within the broader conservative movement, has become the dominant preoccupation of Republican politics.
That’s not to say that (a) social conservatism has played a minor role in past political epochs, or that (b) other conservative fixations from recent history, like conservatarian economics, remained blissfully free from culture war considerations, or that (c) conservative politicians today exclusively pursue culture war wins.
A counterexample to (a) is the Federalist Society’s multi-decade-long project to beat back “living Constitutionalism” and “judicial progressivism,” which by itself shows social conservatism has never been a mere minor concern.
A counterexample to (b) is the Tea Party wave from 2010-15, which on its face was styled as a narrow economic rebuke but was in fact a tsunami of racial backlash against America’s first black president.
And a counterexample to (c) is the variety of initiatives and actions conservative politicians take today that have a more, um, behind-the-scenes flavor to them. In many ways, the best thing that can happen to a policy objective is for the spotlight of political contestation not to shine on it—or for it to be the sort of issue where its national security implications override its culture war salience: such as when Republicans join the overwhelming consensus on rhetorically condemning China or whatever.
But those sorts of issues are now few and far between. Indeed, what makes today’s iteration of Republican politics different than past forms is that today’s social conservatism isn’t a branch on a tree, or a tree within a forest—it’s nearly everything now.
Social conservatism, which until the Trumpian turn was one of many competing conservative impulses, has morphed into a pervasive culture war mission that now completely dominates the political strategies of leading Republican presidential aspirants.
So instead of Republican hopefuls having to placate fiery religious types and make smaller concessions to them, these aspirants have become the zealots themselves, comprehensively reordering politics so that every issue runs through a culture war filter first.
Over the years, social conservatives have found themselves animated by lots of different cultural developments. Two are worth special mention: secularization and liberalization.
Prior to the 1990s, the Cold War loomed large in the conservative psyche. It did for most people, of course—but there was something particularly haunting, for religious conservatives, about a communist superpower that built an explicitly atheistic conviction into the fabric of its social order.
Just like neoconservatism’s emphasis on international democracy-building was a reaction to, and a defense against, the fear of communism’s encroachment, religious conservatives responded to the specter of government-driven atheism by railing against what they saw as the secularization of the state.
Now add to this various forms of social liberalization—especially in the 60s and 70s. For example, the so-called sexual revolution of the 60s—which to conservatives brought with it family-destroying feminist ideas, advancements in contraception, the mainstreaming of homosexuality, popular art with more “adult” content, and rising divorce rates—was treated as an avalanche of moral degradation.
For social conservatives, the twin evils of secularization and liberalization were threatening to bring down all that was good and decent in society. So, for example, the campaign to bring prayer back into public schools was underwritten by a twofold fear: (1) our main geopolitical rival explicitly crowding out religion’s role in society and the specter of it happening here, and (2) rampant cultural liberalization increasingly disinclining Americans from religious participation.
In response to these threats, organizations like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority did two things really well:
First, they collected various disparate issues—divorce, feminism, the teaching of evolution, gay rights, abortion, porn, etc.—and grouped them under a single umbrella concern: traditional family values.
Second, the very category they used, “family values,” welcomed all conservatives, not just religious ones. Falwell, who was avowedly religious, at times intentionally de-emphasized the explicitly religious aspect of his social critique, which allowed non-religious conservatives to participate.
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The Moral Majority, and other social conservative vehicles a lot like it, dwindled in power during the Reagan years. That’s because the urgency of the original critique lost its power during those eight years (12 if you count George H. W. Bush’s single term) of conservative power.
Although social-conservative initiatives retreated into a more explicitly religious form by the 1990s, they were powered by the same underlying complaint.
Consider the Disney Boycott that started in the mid-90s.
Disney was charged with straying from its founder’s pure motives and engaging in actions that went against “moral and family values”—the same critique as before, and very similar to the critique today.
One of the organizations boycotting Disney said:
We must show Disney that families are tired of a place where molesters and lesbians are hired to make films and movies that say it’s OK to go against morals and grow up gay.
In the decade before that, Falwell had said:
I believe that the massive homosexual revolution is always a symptom of a nation coming under the judgment of God. … I do not want to frighten the children of America regarding the goals of militant homosexuals in this country. They do demonstrate in the streets. They do have plans to create a unisexual society in this country. They do want to transform America into a modern Sodom and Gomorrah.
Today, the “groomer” smear functions much in the same way.
What triggered the boycott against Disney in the 90s? A number of things, but primarily Disney extending health benefits to its gay employees’ life partners and Disney not putting a stop to unofficial theme-park events like “Gay Day.”
In an episode eerily similar to what’s happening in Florida today, over a dozen Florida state-level legislators sent a letter to Disney in reponse to the company’s decision to extend health coverage to employees’ same-sex partners:
We are surprised at your belittlement of the sanctity of marriage. … We strongly disapprove of your inclusion and endorsement of a lifestyle that is unhealthy, unnatural, and unworthy of special treatment.
There were also lesser complaints, like Disney planting subliminal messages in films: a boner in The Little Mermaid; a cloud of dust in The Lion King spelling “S E X”; and a coded message in Aladdin during a line of dialogue that reads “scat, good tiger, take off and go,” but is believed to actually be “good teenagers, take off your clothes.”
Just like with the recent Bud Light meltdown, in which professional conservative agitators whipped up a frenzied mob to complain about the beer giant’s “betrayal” of its customers, when the Southern Baptist Convention overwhelmingly adopted a resolution boycotting Disney, the SBC president said:
When Disney crosses to the other side of the street, there’s a sense of betrayal and outrage. … You can’t walk the family side of the street and the gay side of the street in the Magic Kingdom at the same time.
The boycott ended eight or so years later with little to no effect on Disney. But the effect it had on a post-Reagan religious right was notable.
Mark Pinsky, a religion writer for The Orlando Sentinel, wrote a book called The Gospel According to Disney. In it, Pinsky said:
Despite fears that the boycott would make them look like backwoods, knuckle-scraping yokels … Southern Baptist leaders found that this publicity helped them. In the domestic religious marketplace … their controversial stands established and burnished their own brand as the conservative, family values denomination.
Despite the fact that only 30 percent of Southern Baptists reported complying with the boycott, and despite venues like The New York Times calling it “an utter flop,” the SBC president got a huge boost in his listenership from the boycott. Going up against a cultural giant gave SBC leaders cred.
That’s the exact same dynamic with DeSantis vs. Disney—except, now it’s a sitting governor and presidential aspirant doing it rather than a preacher with a loud megaphone. But, worryingly, the weapons available to him are far more dangerous to our democracy than the ones the Moral Majority, the SBC, and other conservative organs could wield. DeSantis’s weapons are legal and political (e.g., stripping Disney of its legal arrangement with the state), rather than merely rhetorical and activistic (e.g., using anti-Disney sentiment to get out the vote).
That’s how DeSantis vs. Disney is both a departure from, but continuous with, past forms of conservative activism.
The point was never to put Disney out of business, which is a possibility that only exists in the fevered imaginations of antiwoke hysterics. It was a gambit designed to catapult DeSantis to the top of Republican politics.
These sorts of antics have never been seen by serious candidates as a path to presidency—until now. Although I’m a fervent believer that there’s a great big wonderful tomorrow, it’s hard to deny we currently live in the silliest timeline of all.