Imagined Slights and Disability Rights

            Perhaps the politics made sense, if only in a perverse way. The United States Senate, led by several of its most conservative Republican Party members—and despite a moving and poignant plea from ailing, wheelchair-bound former GOP leader, Robert Dole—voted this past week not to ratify the proposed United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). President Obama had signed the measure in 2009 as a key step in the nation’s move to acceptance. Nonetheless, the Convention failed by five votes to achieve the two-thirds majority required in the Senate for passage (61-38). The pact had strong support from human rights, disability advocacy and veterans’ groups, the business community, several prominent GOP leaders, including not only Dole, but also former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and another prominent (and physically impaired veteran) Republican partisan, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Moreover, the European Union and 125 other nations, including Russia and China, have already ratified the protocol. In addition, the CRPD does not bind the United States to any particular action and many of its provisions were modeled on America’s own world-leading Americans with Disabilities Act. Nonetheless, Republican senators voted against it in sufficient numbers to ensure its defeat.

            This was so apparently due to fears among several GOP senators who will be standing for reelection in two years that approving the pact would cost them support among the Republican faithful in their electoral bids, and possibly would occasion primary challenges from the right. I am persuaded that this straightforward, if cynical, political explanation held more direct sway in this sad outcome than did the supposed substantive arguments against the regime that were offered in debate concerning it. These charges came mostly from the right’s entertainment industry, especially Glen Beck, and from former senator Rick Santorum. Laying aside their more outrageous and shrill claims, these largely centered on statements that the agreement would undermine U.S. sovereignty and allow United Nations “bureaucrats” (and yes, the word was used as if an epithet) to substitute their judgments for those of federal and state policy-makers. This argument, however, strains credulity and no serious scholar or expert on the protocol agrees that any such thing could ever occur under the Convention’s provisions.

            Nonetheless, this sort of contention has been a staple of far right commentators in recent years and they have apparently convinced many GOP partisans that it is appropriate to fear the United Nations and to imagine that the international body has its own army (it does not), can intervene in the internal affairs of member nations with impunity (it cannot) and somehow can order member government officials about (a complete fabrication). Apart from this source of fear, the handful of senators who caused this debacle likely also voted no aware that many in their more zealous constituencies not only believe these popular myths, but also go further and blame the United Nations (and many other institutions over which they perceive themselves to have little direct control, including their national government) for many matters that frighten them, including the fragility of their economic position and their perceived declining standing in their own society. That is, the UN played a classic scapegoat role in the present controversy and was used neatly by those leading the negative charge against the treaty as a lightning rod for the broader and largely unrelated fears of the party faithful.

            Perhaps predictably, the decisive group of Republican senators reacted to the roiling and disquiet within their core constituencies by making the political calculus that disabled citizens represented a largely defenseless constituency, and one often discriminated against within society in any case, and that it and the already suspect United Nations could more readily be given the back of their proverbial hand than could an energized and fearful voting bloc whose members might turn to another individual (read challenger) promising them solace against the supposed source of their fears.

            If this is in fact so, it raises four deeper issues concerning the current status of democratic dialogue in our nation. First, given that the claims offered to mobilize GOP partisans by conservative entertainment figures and would-be party leaders had no relationship to reality in this case, it raises anew the question of whether and how in today’s media culture voters may gain sufficient information to prevent their manipulation by public figures. That is, how can we prevent demagoguery of the sort that proved “successful” in the present example?

            Secondly, if a major segment of the nation’s population, represented by the grassroots demographic of Republican Party adherents, is indeed deeply fearful as a result of the pace of economic and social change and due to their real decline in position in those terms during the last several decades, what steps might policy-makers take to educate citizens concerning the fundaments of their concerns so they may at least understand what they are undergoing and perhaps be less drawn to false prophets offering convenient scapegoats?

            Third, this episode points up an ongoing need to revisit the realities of our current electoral nomination process. Our parties now nominate via primaries and conventions, which attract small and unrepresentative voting groups that are typically much more partisan and radical than the broader electorate, resulting in candidates that often do not represent the polity. It is apparently dynamics arising from just these processes that motivated the decisive group of senators to vote against the CRPD.

            Finally, this incident serves as a reminder, were any needed, of how easy the nation’s representatives may find it to impose costs, symbolic and otherwise, on constituencies they perceive as powerless or less likely to punish them at the polls than other groups. This inclination is both lamentable and pernicious as it signals that only some in the polity are significant and those less able to make political claims do not count as much as those capable of doing so. This attitude is costly not only for effective representation, but also and most obviously, for civil rights and freedom more generally. Once established, how shall we collectively prevent this sort of mindset from cascading to include an increasing array of supposed unpopular or powerless groups?

            This sad episode tarnishes once more the nation’s standing as a leader in human rights and democracy in the world community. That this negative vote occurred at all is testimony to the much-discussed “broken character” of our politics. That it apparently occurred for the reasons it did is doubly distressing as it signals a deeper corruption of the democratic choice-making process in the United States. In the present instance, that process was hijacked neatly by a profoundly misguided, but well-positioned and vocal set of actors who, apparently, for their own narrow political purposes have managed to tar their nation in the eyes of the world and once more to deny the nation’s disabled even a symbolic claim to equal standing with their fellow citizens. This Senate action must be reversed. It not only is morally and substantively indefensible, but also profoundly anti-democratic.