How Florida Is Leading U.S. Politics Back to the Culture Wars

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Florida Governor Rick Scott listens as business leaders speak during a roundtable discussion in Miami on Aug. 19, 2011

They don’t call economics the dismal science for nothing, which helps explain why U.S. politics is riveted once more by social issues. After being locked for three years in a torture chamber of financial disaster, our elected officials are now looking at the improving metrics and deciding it’s O.K. to step back into their comfort zone: the culture wars. Why deal with layoffs, foreclosures and Greece when it’s so much easier to indulge in debate over contraception, religious liberty and gay marriage – especially in an election year? It’s a no-brainer.

Both political parties understand that. God knows so do we in the media. And so does Florida, America’s bellwether, where the urge to leave the dark forest of economic recession and head for the sunny beach of social demagoguery looks particularly strong – and not just inside the West Palm Beach radio studio where Rush Limbaugh’s knuckles are dragging more loudly than usual these days. When GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum recently cast aspersions on higher education, calling President Obama “a snob” for wanting every American to attend college, legislators in Tallahassee, as if on cue, announced they were poised to slash almost $300 million from Florida’s higher-education budget. This, in the state that already spends the least in the nation per capita on higher education and reaps what it sows in the form of one of America’s most embarrassingly low-tech and low-wage economies.

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But the Sunshine State is just trying to stay ahead of the political curve: school funding is passé; school prayer is back! Last week, even though the Florida legislature can’t be bothered to shore up the colleges and universities that could help reduce the state’s retro dependence on tourism, condo construction and citrus fruit, it did find the time and energy to pass a measure that would permit student-led prayer in public schools. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic state senator Gary Siplin of Orlando, prefers the term inspirational messages to prayer, but Governor Rick Scott, a conservative Republican who is expected to sign the measure, made it clear what this is all about: “As you know,” Scott said, “I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe individuals should have a right to say a prayer.”

Duly noted, Governor – I go to Mass myself on Sundays – but the right to say prayers and the right to impose them on public-school convocations are two very different things. If Scott signs the bill, it will face a barrage of constitutional challenges, and rightly so. Yet that commotion is probably just fine with Florida lawmakers – the same group that gave us the Terri Schiavo fiasco and so many other notorious culture-war moments – as long as it helps voters forget that Tallahassee is undermining the state’s college campuses and, in turn, its prospects for reforming an economy that was one of the hardest hit by the Great Recession.

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In fact, despite a state unemployment rate still hovering close to 10%, school prayer is just one of the Florida legislature’s culture-war priorities. On Friday, March 2, the state house approved Florida’s version of a bill to keep “foreign law” – read, Islamic Shari’a – from insidiously seeping into the U.S. judicial system, even though the notion of a Shari’a “threat” to Florida or any other state is as delusional as it is bigoted. The Florida house passed another bill last week that would force women to wait 24 hours before having an abortion and would require abortion clinics to be owned by physicians – read, not by Planned Parenthood.

But that “righteous war,” as one GOP state representative put it, grabs more headlines than the tedium of real economic development. Meanwhile, the independent Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy reports that since the recession started, Tallahassee has cut an astonishing one-third of the state’s higher-education budget. During that same period, Florida, the nation’s fourth largest state, has lost more than 10,000 high-tech jobs. Some of those vanished when the NASA space-shuttle program shut down, but that in itself is another reminder that the peninsula can hardly afford to keep ignoring the examples set by the nation’s three largest states, California, Texas and New York, whose universities have played a major role in developing high-tech industries.

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Take Miami-Dade County, Florida’s largest metropolitan area. It ranks 13th among 15 large U.S. metropolises in the ratio of high-tech companies to total workers, according to a recent study by Texas-based Avalanche Consulting. A big reason: its share of college-educated residents is dead last, as is its share of workers trained for science- and technology-related fields. That affirms a constant complaint from high-tech firms about Florida in general: they can’t find enough skilled Floridians to make it worth their while to move there. Miami-Dade did rank fourth in academic-research spending increases, particularly in the biomedical arena. But much of that growth has occurred at the University of Miami, a private institution.

What mattered more to Tallahassee this past year was making sure Florida was the first state in the country to bar pediatricians from asking patients and their families if they had guns in their homes. Never mind that 1 in 25 cases at U.S. pediatric trauma centers involves gunshot wounds; to Scott and the legislature, it was about protecting privacy. A federal judge recently blocked that law, and we’re likely to see more federal judges called in on the state’s school-prayer, anti-Shari’a and antiabortion measures.

No matter; the debate will continue. The country’s no longer interested in talking about the assault on our portfolio values. Both the right and the left are happily obsessed again with the righteous war over moral values – and Florida is leading the way. Even if its schools don’t stand a prayer.

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