It was the latest stop on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s “where woke goes to die” tour. The focus was on higher education—specifically: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Florida universities. The roundtable event featured speakers like Christopher Rufo, the lead architect of the GOP’s crusade against critical race theory who is now helping to mastermind the ideological makeover of Florida’s New College. The gathering followed the by-now-standard script of education-themed right-wing grievance: DEI initiatives are a scam orchestrated by the “woke mob,” and Florida is not about to submit to them—not if the governor and his brain trust have anything to say about it.
The event would make headlines after an Axios reporter called the official press release “propaganda” and was fired as a result. But the ensuing furor over journalistic standards sidestepped what’s ultimately at stake in DeSantis’s war on the alleged woke excesses of the education establishment—a drive to deliver colleges and universities back to the rule of white male elites, and thereby turn back the clock on 75 years of progress. And at the center of this crusade is a West Coast bastion of cultural conservatism—the Claremont Institute, which served as a key intellectual recruiting ground for Donald Trump’s rise to power but has now shifted its allegiance to DeSantis.
DeSantis’s agenda was neatly distilled in the title of a new report by Claremont fellow Scott Yenor, who teaches political science at Boise State University: “Florida Universities: From Woke to Professionalism.” The paper was released in conjunction with the DEI roundtable, and claimed to document the unhinged course of DEI initiatives in Florida’s public university system, while also detailing steps the state can take to rein them in. Among Yenor’s recommendations: defund and dismantle all DEI offices in Florida’s colleges and universities, make collecting data on the basis of race and sex illegal, and scuttle any DEI-infused disciplines—education and law are particular targets—in favor of “science.” And that’s just the start. “From Woke to Professionalism” seeks to provide a playbook for Florida to go to war against the “reigning national civil rights regime.”
This means more than simply targeting the DEI establishment. Yenor also urges state officials to remedy what he sees as a core problem in higher education: too many women. State officials, he argues, should conduct civil rights investigations into academic programs, including education and nursing, in which women vastly outnumber men, while also ditching any curriculum or programs deemed “anti-male.” Disparate impact theory, a favorite target of the cultural right for its emphasis on systemic discrimination, gets repurposed here to boost the real victims of diversity policies: white men.
The report’s pivot away from DEI-bashing to the systematic purge of female students is part of Yenor’s ambitious proposal to correct what he sees as the damage done by feminism. Last year, he gave a speech at the National Conservatism Conference in which he denounced colleges and universities as “the citadels of our gynocracy,” and derided career-oriented women as “medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome.” Traditionally male-dominated fields such as engineering, law, and medicine should stop trying to recruit women, he argued. The culture should return to urging women to pursue “feminine goals”—chief among them, staying home and having children in the interest of restoring strong families, and through them, a strong nation. Yenor’s bid to dragoon the nation’s women back into the separate sphere of domesticity and child-rearing is but one key directive he’s undertaken as head of Claremont’s Center for the American Way of Life. Together with Rufo—another Claremont scholar—Yenor has been dispatched to the Sunshine State front lines in what Claremont director Ryan Williams calls the “fight against woke leftism.” He will serve as Claremont’s new senior director of state coalitions, based in the state capital of Tallahassee.
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Claremont’s leaders have marshaled so much early support behind DeSantis because they see him as a staunch ally in thwarting the alleged march of “wokeism” through virtually every American institution: the media, corporations, and education, from pre-K through college. They view DeSantis’s legislative assault on diversity and inclusion—including stripping the Walt Disney Company of some state tax breaks, reversing diversity policies, and sharply curtailing discussions of race and gender in Florida schools—as a model for right-wing activism across the country. Claremont and DeSantis both are holding forth Florida as a red-state template—a militant Republican state government providing a “blueprint” for rolling back civil rights across the country.
This tight ideological alliance explains why DeSantis’s brain trust is stocked with Claremonsters, as the think tank’s staff and fellows refer to themselves, who now play an outsized role in shaping policy. Rufo, for example, advised DeSantis on his Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits schools, colleges and businesses from teaching students and employees anything that would cause anyone to “feel guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin. And when DeSantis orchestrated a takeover of New College, he tapped Rufo to lead the effort to remake the school as a “Hillsdale of the south,” referencing the fundamentalist Michigan college long positioned on the vanguard of right-wing culture warfare.
Even DeSantis’s new speechwriter has Claremont ties. Nate Hochman, a rising star in the intellectual right’s amorphous coalition of culture warriors, self-proclaimed economic populists, and unabashed America firsters, is both a former Claremont intern and a fellow. Hochman, who proclaimed earlier this year that he hopes that the “Republican party agenda is going to cohere around the culture war as its organizing, totalizing force,” now will be able to bring that mandate into the forefront of DeSantis’s campaign messaging.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Claremonsters will continue chipping away at what they see as Florida’s misguided dalliances with the woke. In his road map for higher education in Florida, Yenor holds up as his model the University of California, Berkeley–in the 1950s, before the Free Speech movement and the hippies wrecked everything. The University of Florida, he writes, should be a beacon of academic freedom and meritocracy for the country, just as UC Berkeley was back then. Of course, UC Berkeley was also an elite, and almost entirely white, institution in the 1950s. Some 90 percent of entering freshmen in the 1960s were white, and most hailed from families that were substantially wealthier than the typical Californian. And just one-quarter of students were women. For them, the school offered a 10-week course on marriage, jokingly known to students as “From Courtship to Venereal Disease in Ten Easy Lessons.”
Elsewhere, Yenor has argued more explicitly that returning college to the elites should be the goal. Only 8 percent of Americans attended college as late as 1960, he pointed out in a recent op-ed for the Christian advocacy organization American Reformer. “The United States should move toward 8% from its current 46%.”
“Too many of the wrong sorts of people go to college” is not exactly the stuff of campaign bumper stickers. DeSantis knows this firsthand, thanks to his ill-considered effort to escalate Florida’s assault on AP African American Studies into a full-scale attack on “Advanced Placement, Inc.” No doubt DeSantis and his corps of culture warriors calculated that the entire Advanced Placement program was a ripe target in the rolling war on wokeness, but the move was a political disaster. Parents in Florida regard AP classes not as a manufactory of left-wing ideological conformity but as a crucial path to getting their kids admitted to select colleges—and saving money when they get there. And they’re not wrong—so the politically savvy DeSantis has since moved on to other targets.
Nor does Yenor’s wide-ranging campaign against the “gynocracy” seem likely to resonate with the suburban women to whom the GOP tries intermittently to appeal. As Daily Beast columnist Michael Daly pointed out, DeSantis’s wife, Casey, who tweeted enthusiastically about Yenor’s Tallahassee appointment, holds a BA in economics—one of the disciplines Yenor regards as subject to gynocratic infiltration. And her mother is a speech pathologist—another of the female-dominated fields that he wants dismantled.
There are also growing signs that DeSantis’s war on wokeness is losing its luster among Florida voters. A recent poll found that his marquee bill aimed at rooting out diversity efforts in the state’s higher education system is particularly unpopular. Sixty-five percent of voters, including 38 percent of Republicans, oppose it. And as his signature issue—limiting what students can learn and teachers can teach in Florida’s public schools in the name of parent rights—becomes synonymous with book banning, his popularity is likely to dim further.
Of course, the GOP supermajority in the Florida state legislature will continue to rubber-stamp increasingly outlandish bills on gender and diversity, regardless of whether the public supports them. Indeed, the pliant legislative body is a big reason Claremont is so bullish on Florida spearheading the nation’s return to the pre–civil rights era.
When DeSantis officially launches his candidacy, he’ll point to a long list of right-wing policy accomplishments. But using the levers of power to ram through an unpopular agenda is not the same thing as winning over hearts and minds. As he sells a retrograde vision of America with the help of a militant right-wing intellectual cadre, DeSantis is likely to learn that lesson the hard way.