This morning, my local newspaper the Boston Globe (now for sale) leads with the kind of extended news-feature one finds at least once a week in its parent company, the New York Times. The subject is something that I missed entirely at the time: the Senate's failure, by five votes, last December to ratify an international treaty guaranteeing the rights of the disabled--rights that have been enshrined in our own law for more than two decades. (The story is here, but you may not be able to access it if you are not a subscriber.) The story focuses on former Senator Bob Dole, who pioneered the Americans with Disabilities Act and secured its passage along with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell during the Administration of George H. W. Bush, and who was brought out of retirement to lobby for the passage of the treaty. He thought it would be a lead pipe cinch, but it foundered on the shoals of modern Republicanism. As so often happens, this amazing story has a lot to say about long-term trends in American and world history.
During the Reagan era, Republican fund-raiser and strategist Richard Viguerie frankly described the nature of the new Republican Party: an alliance of angry groups, including Christians believing their values were under attack, neoconservatives who wanted a stronger national defense, small businessmen who hated regulation, and (more quietly) white southerners who still resented civil rights. This story shows that trend has continued, but the coalition now includes far more extreme elements than it did then. They brought the treaty down, for reasons that had nothing to do with its purpose: to protect the rights of the disabled.
One of the organizations that played a key role, believe it or not, is called the Home School Legal Defense Fund, which represents 80,000 families, and whose head, Michael Farris, gave critical testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He argued that the treaty would give the United Nations the right to tell parents how they could home school disabled children--even though the treaty is simply a statement of principles that are already embodied in US law, which, I am quite sure, includes nothing about private homes. It turns out that Farris, who also founded the extreme conservative Patrick Henry University in Virginia, mobilized opposition to the treaty based upon the idea that it would surrender sovereignty to the United Nations. And as if that were not enough, Parris enlisted Rick Santorum, no less, to say that the law would have enabled the UN to order Santorum and his wife to abort their own disabled daughter--surely an odd interpretation, one should think, of a treaty designed to protect the disabled world wide. (For anyone curious enough to read the text, it's here.) Faced with an onslaught of lobbying from Parris and various Tea Party groups who share the concern about the UN, several Republican Senators, including Jerry Moran from Dole's home state of Kansas who had originally announced his support in the strongest terms, defected. The final vote was 61-38 in favor of the treaty. A 66-33 vote would have ratified it.
Now to begin with, the treaty failed because of extreme Republican opposition to international authority, which is one aspect of broader opposition to any governmental authority over anything. But behind that is something much, much bigger, which has gone so far that no one really notices it any more. It is very much on my mind because I've just finished the draft of my new book on U.S. entry into the Second World War.
The problem in the late 1930s, as defined by Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Secretary of War Henry M. Stimson, among many others, was the failure of states like Germany, Italy and Japan to observe fundamental principles of international law, beginning with respect for the territorial integrity of other nations. The world, they argued, like American society, needed to operate according to law, and aggressor nations were sending into anarchy, threatening fundamental American values. This was the theme of one after another of their dozens of speeches in the critical years before the war, and the foundation of their war aims. But the Republican Party no longer believes in these principles: it believes in "American exceptionalism," including a unique American relationship to a higher power, which gives us the right to do whatever we please. That is not simply a fringe position. George W. Bush undertook the Iraq war in defiance of world opinion and the United Nations, leading at least one commentator, Andrew Bacevich, to suggest implicitly that we were now the counterpart to the aggressor states of the 1930s. And that's not all: because support for whatever Israeli policy happens to be is now required of nearly all elected US officials, we can no longer oppose Israeli settlements which are a clear violation of international law. The drone program and Guantanamo are also very dubious under international law, but the Obama Administration has continued or expanded them both. For half a century the United States sold its leadership of much of the world on the basis that we stood for impartial principles. Incredibly, we have now given that up.
But the failure of the treaty illustrates the paralysis of our political system. People like Farris represent a very small segment of American opinion, but because of the nature of the politics of red states and gerrymandered Republican districts, they can dictate the behavior of enough Republicans to pass anything they want in the House and stop anything they want--like this treaty--in the Senate. They can check any movement towards a world, or a society, effectively regulated by law and providing for the basic needs of its citizens, and that's what they've been doing for the last two years and will continue to do for as long as they can.
And that, to me, raises the question of whether Democratic optimism about the country's future, based upon the results of last November's election, might be wildly optimistic. Yes, demographics favor the Democrats, but their voters, while more numerous, are far less motivated and play far less role in determining what comes out of Washington these days. President Obama simply can't convert his majority into effective action on behalf of the American people. If the sequester triggers another recession any hope of regaining the House of Representatives will probably go out the window. And another terrible problem is the almost total lack of any substantial Democratic figures under 60, except the President of the United States. Hillary Clinton looks to me like a shoo-in for the nomination in 2016 if she chooses to run simply because there is no one else on the horizon. By that time the immigration issue may be off the table, and we don't know how effective a 69-year old white woman will be among new Democratic constituencies.
The Democrats have not won anything yet. They staved off the end of modern government at the last election, but it threatens nonetheless. We are close to throwing out the lessons of the last two centuries, and I'm not sure what can be done to stop it.