Ron DeSantis and Gavin Newsom’s Pissing Contest Is Culture War Idiocy

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Last summer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) released a 30-second ad for his re-election campaign. It was pretty standard stuff for a Democratic governor in a blue state, talking up abortion access and LGBT rights and racial tolerance. But it was also addressed to the people of Florida, 3,000 miles away and ineligible to vote in Newsom’s race, unless they took his closing invitation to move to California.

The ad was just one episode of a multi-month feud between Newsom and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a fight that went another round earlier this month.

DeSantis slammed a new California law which says doctors judged to have shared “misinformation or disinformation” related to COVID-19 could lose their license to practice. “If a high-quality physician is driven out of California, [Florida] is going to be the first place people are going to want to go,” he said, returning Newsom’s invite.

If the governors’ goal here is simply to raise their national political profiles, presumably in anticipation of a future presidential run, I suppose public spatting is a successful tactic. But it’s also bizarre and unhelpful to everyone else, a manufactured animosity which increases discord without accomplishing anything for the Floridians and Californians these men ostensibly serve. Shouldn’t a governor, of all people, focus on his own state?

Maybe the strangest part of this feud is how novel it feels. Newsom and DeSantis are widely assumed to have presidential aspirations, sure. But they aren’t candidates now, and governors who aren’t competing in a presidential election typically don’t have sustained cross-country fights with each other in the normal course of gubernatorial duties.

I reached out to Kristoffer Shields, a historian and program manager at the Eagleton Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University, to ask if my impression of novelty was correct. “It’s definitely not unprecedented for governors of different states to have disagreements or even fights across state lines,” Shields told me in a conversation by email, though generally those battles are tied to a more specific situation, like an “environmental or development issue (border disputes, basically).”

Florida and California, of course, do not share a border. And though sometimes this feud has been more policy-centric, overall it’s “pretty personal and has lasted longer than usual,” Shields observed. (Two other sources I interviewed, both political scientists who’ve studied America’s culture wars, likewise said no strong historical comparisons came to mind.)

Newsom has called DeSantis “cruel” and unworthy of respect, while DeSantis has said Newsom’s “hair gel is interfering with his brain function.” This isn’t a one-off swipe or disagreement over a single policy, and it shows no sign of winding down. There aren’t “a lot of historical precedents for that, apart from active campaigns,” Shields said, musing that this could be a new feature of “the nationalization of all politics” we’ve seen in recent years. “Maybe,” he suggested, “2024 (or even 2028?) has begun.”

Explaining this fight as the overlong run-up to a presidential campaign is hopeful in one sense: Election Day 2024 (or—and I hate to even consider this timeline—2028) will eventually come. Maybe there’s a goal here. Maybe the spat will end. Maybe the 80 percent of us who live in neither Florida nor California won’t be presented to a perpetual pantomime of warring princelings.

But there’s another explanation, too, which is that the nationalization of politics doesn’t need an election to escalate, and that ambitious politicians have decided their aims are best served by fighting the culture war on the largest stage available, in the most dramatic way possible, with the most eye-catching opponent on offer.

The evidence for this explanation is unfortunately ample. Cross-country sparring makes sense given each governor’s landslide victory in the 2022 midterms. Both won by nearly a 20-point margin, demolishing their respective opponents and, in DeSantis’s case, markedly outperforming his last win in 2018.

At the state level, there are no more worlds to conquer. But like any suitably entrepreneurial American, Newsom and DeSantis did not weep. They found a bigger world and started crafting insults.

And both governors have already demonstrated their willingness to go all-in on culture warring. DeSantis has lately been skirmishing with the NHL while his lieutenant governor nicknames the World Economic Forum the “Woke Elite Forum.” Newsom, for his part, in May urged Democrats to launch a culture war “counteroffensive,” meeting the “rage machine on the right” more “resolutely.” If his Florida ad, released two months later, was meant to demonstrate the lesson, I’m not sure “resolute” is quite the right word.

There is, perhaps, a version of this scenario which will give us an instructive contrast in the different policy agendas, visions of America, and understandings of freedom itself which these two men represent. But if the feud so far is any indication, we’d do better to expect another 18 months to 20 years of a pissing contest we’re all forced to witness.





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