Two years ago, Disney announced a huge investment in Florida. The company would pack up its California-based Imagineering team, which designs the high-concept attractions at its theme parks, and ship as many as 2,000 employees off to a new, billion-dollar Orlando campus. As a reason for the move, the company’s parks chief cited the state’s “business-friendly climate”—shorthand for a massive tax break Disney would receive for the relocation.
On Thursday, Disney reversed course. The official reason was “new leadership and changing business conditions”; Disney has since reinstated its former CEO Robert Iger, who promised in November to review the plan, and the boss is also in cost-cutting mode. On Thursday the company announced that it would close another big Florida investment, a hotel that makes you feel as if you’re on a Star Wars spaceship but costs upward of $5,000 for two nights.
But the elephant in the room is Ron DeSantis, who has been at war with his home state’s largest taxpayer since Disney leadership came out against his “Don’t Say Gay” bill last spring. The Republican tried to punish the House of Mouse by revoking the status of the independent district that has helped Disney World achieve a kind of self-governance. As it turns out, Disney had enacted some sneaky provisions to maintain control. DeSantis threatened retaliation, musing that he might open a prison next to Disney World. Last month, Disney filed a First Amendment lawsuit accusing DeSantis of a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint.” The governor’s allies have countersued.
Neither side was willing to say on the record that this week’s canceled investment was the direct result of the governor’s actions, but one Florida man was ready to speculate. “The culture of losing continues,” Donald Trump wrote on Thursday, appropriating a phrase DeSantis has used to describe the GOP attachment to Trump. “Ron DeSantis single-handedly lost the State of Florida nearly $1 billion in investment and over 2,000 jobs—with an average salary of $120,000—because he was too weak to fight for his state.”
In a way, the Disney-Florida war has come full circle. It was the disgruntled Florida-bound Imagineers—an elite cadre within the parks division—who wrote a letter to former CEO Bob Chapek on March 1, 2022, criticizing the company’s ambivalent stance on DeSantis’ bill to ban discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms. A few days later, the company made a statement, and found itself the target of an extended right-wing campaign.
In some ways, this whole dispute is a bit of a one-off: As a children’s entertainment company, Disney was unusually well suited to touch off a furor on the American right, which has made the imagined pedophilia of its opponents one of its major political talking points. As a corporation with special political status, Disney was also uniquely vulnerable to interference from Tallahassee. (On the other hand, the recent backlash against Budweiser after it paid a transgender influencer for an Instagram ad suggests that it’s open season on corporations that provoke the right-wing outrage machine, particularly as it ramps up a campaign against trans people.)
And yet the mouse startling the elephant touches on a much larger question: How far can Republican governors go before corporations and their employees begin to reconsider a red-state migration that has been the dominant American geographic pattern of recent decades? In February, DeSantis wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that standing up to Disney was just part of a larger effort to rein in corporate America’s supposed left-wing politics. “We are making Florida the state where the economy flourishes,” he wrote, “because we are the state where woke goes to die.” At what point do business-friendly policies on pollution, taxation, and worker protection get outweighed by social-justice concerns in the boardroom?
The past few years have given us no shortage of examples of corporate activism on social questions, from Wall Street’s ESG investing to Major League Baseball pulling the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to Georgia’s voting restrictions. Furthermore, polling shows that Republican positions on social questions such as abortion, climate change, and LGBTQ+ rights are unpopular with most Americans—not just with Disney’s Imagineering corps.
And yet it’s also true that red states have continued to vacuum up jobs and population, with Florida’s total employment surpassing New York’s for the first time in 2022. Just as red states offer an attractive package for bosses, they have begun to lure educated workers for mostly separate reasons: warm weather and cheap homes. This trend seems to have accelerated since the pandemic, as remote work loosens the link between geography and high-paying careers.
Cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco are shedding college graduates, who are flocking to major Southern cities like Dallas, Houston, Austin, Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando, and Jacksonville. Yet even as cities grow more similar to one another, promising similar inclusive cultures, revitalized walkable neighborhoods, and global dining scenes, they are diverging politically as red states adopt ever-more-reactionary policies.
Liberals still do cluster by political affiliation when they move, but it’s at a local level—in the same cities and suburbs—not a state level. That may limit their interactions with supporters of Greg Abbott or Ron DeSantis. It also limits their influence in statehouse politics.
Politically motivated relocations, like that of the Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade, who has moved his family out of Florida as a result of DeSantis’ policies, seem to be more the exception than the rule. Disney’s employee uprising too. It’s easier to protest with your co-workers when the company forces you to move to a state whose governor is simultaneously becoming an avatar of toxic Republican politics. But when families make decisions one by one, housing costs appear to count for a lot more than social politics. Just as workers rarely moved pre-pandemic simply to escape high taxes, they seem not to care very much about Southern states’ abortion bans and open-carry laws. Moving to Canada is a threat that rarely gets acted on.