Vilifying the Victims of an Ineffectual State

Ron DeSantis abdicates responsibility and blames workers for dying.

Ron DeSantis speaking in 2017 | photo by Gage Skidmore
In a painfully predictable turn of events, COVID-19 cases have begun to skyrocket in Florida, a few short weeks after state and local government began the process of (prematurely) rolling back public health safeguards. This week, Governor Ron DeSantis performed an impressive rhetorical trick, abdicating not just his own responsibility for the death and illness—but that of all the wealthy consumers and business owners agitating for a return to normalcy at the expense of workers’ lives.

Desantis says “We’re not shutting down. We’re going to go forward. We’re not rolling back. You have to have society function” and that “The disease burden is not as significant as it was in March and April,” it’s “Very important to point out. We’re in a much better position than we were in March or April.”. According to DeSantis, to “shut down” (institute necessary and reasonable public health protections) the state now would do more harm to the people of Florida than the Coronavirus.

Here, I take DeSantis at his word. I think he is entirely correct that under his administration reinstating necessary physical distance and stay-at-home orders would be terrible for the median Floridian, but this is entirely by design. In the absence of a robust state or federal response, the second round of layoffs and furloughs would be financially ruinous for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of Floridians, but this is a false dichotomy. DeSantis would have you believe that the paths forward are predetermined: either we can plunge the state and country into depression, or we can grease the gears of the economy with the infected sputum of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. DeSantis, like so many leaders, loathes using the power of the state to protect its people and is too craven to tell them as much. While countries like Canada deploy their modest social safety nets to ameliorate the economic costs of prudent health policy, executives and legislators in the U.S. refuse to acknowledge that they too could create such a net.

DeSantis, like so many elected officials who strip state healthcare funding or tell the elderly it’s their patriotic duty to sacrifice themselves for the economy, knows that it’s smart politics to collapse the range of choices presented to the public to “definitely lose your job” or “possibly get COVID-19”. Republicans recognize that the vulnerable who are hurt by their policies (or lack thereof) were likely not going to vote for them anyway and it’s safe for Democrats to hew to a similar line because as long as there are sociopaths like Dan Patrick on the right, even Cuomo-style Democrats will always be the obvious lesser-of-two-evils choice.

This week, Desantis took the all too common responsibility-disappearing act to a new level—not only refusing to keep people safe but placing the blame for the consequences of his inaction on those most hurt by it, blaming “overwhelmingly Hispanic farmworkers” for the rise in cases. Nevermind that the Governor’s statement is factually incorrect in the mind palaces of many of our leaders, a callous reopening is the only rational choice path forward. Because reopening is inevitable—the only alternative to economic ruin—business owners and consumers can’t be blamed for a spike in deaths and cases, after all, they have no moral agency; they are just along for the ride. Not content to cushion the economy’s crash with the bodies of workers, those in power now vilify the workers for the crash in the first place.

The American state is as vast as the expectations for what it can offer its people in times of crisis are minuscule. Far from offering carrots to incentivize Floridians to stay home and stay safe, DeSantis is reluctant to even brandish a stick at business owners, saying that enforcement of disease-prevention regulations would be “problematic for a whole host of reasons… I think we’ve just got to trust people, give them opportunity to do good things, make good decisions. I think that works better”. Meanwhile, Medecins Sans Frontieres has opened a mission in Florida, providing care and testing to those feeding Florida while the governor sneers at them and dogwhistles to his supporters.

Rob Lytle
Rob Lytle
Political Science PhD Student

Electoral behavior, fringe politics, online radicalization.