“It needs to be a wake-up call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people.” So said John Kerry in a fit of frustration after the Senate voted against ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
This was the sort of pro-forma vote that would have passed with broad bipartisan support a decade or so ago – a symbolic signing on to a UN treaty that aimed to raise international standards on the treatment of the disabled, not to some dizzying new height but to the level the US achieved more than 20 years ago under President George H W Bush.
America, it was hoped, would add its weight to the push to extend disability rights around the world.
Instead, the vote became a litmus test that pitted Main Street moderate Republicans against right-wing fear-mongers. The fear-mongers won.
In the process, the vote showed just how polarised and dysfunctional the Senate has become.
The stakes were symbolised by the sight of 89-year-old Bob Dole, the former Senate Republican majority leader, sitting in a wheelchair outside the chamber, greeting his one-time conservative colleagues and urging them to vote “Yes” on the treaty.
Dole – his party’s 1996 presidential nominee – was badly wounded in the Second World War and permanently lost the full use of one hand, while more recent frailties have put the party mandarin into a wheelchair. Conservatives duly paid their respect, before stepping over the man and his Main Street Republican legacy to vote against the treaty.
The problem was not the treaty itself. There were no financial costs associated or binding red tape. Instead, the problem was a far-Right drumbeat that any international treaty represents a surrender of sovereignty.
Added urgency was provided by a misinformation campaign that tried to turn the principle of compassion and dignity on its head; arguing that the treaty could somehow usurp parental rights and force abortions in a dystopian future.
It was a riff of the old Death Panel argument – the notion that health care reforms would mean bureaucrats deciding who should live and who be allowed to die – pushed this time most prominently by right wing commentator Glenn Beck and former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who promoted the idea that the treaty could have compromised the life of his severely disabled daughter, Bella.
Santorum proclaimed victory in a fundraising email that read: “Now that (the convention) is defeated, we know that United Nations won’t have oversight of how we care for our special needs kids.”
In the name of compassion, compassion was denied.
These claims resonated because of the veiled threat of a primary challenge from the Right against any senator who voted for this international treaty that was somehow turned into a litmus test on abortion.
Senator John McCain felt compelled to take to the senate floor to clear up any confusion: “With respect to abortion, this is a disabilities treaty and has nothing to do with abortion,” he said. “Trying to turn this into an abortion debate is bad politics and just wrong.”
But these rote invocations have resonance because Republican legislators live in fear of being attacked by the Right wing of their own party. This helps account for why the eight Republicans senators who crossed party lines to vote for the bill are either leaving the Senate at the end of the year or not up for re-election in 2014.
In the end, the vote was 61 to 38, five votes short of the two thirds needed to ratify a treaty, and a moderate majority was blocked by an extreme minority.
The failure of this bill was an outrage because it codified the resurgence of an anti-internationalist, conspiracy-theorist wing of the conservative movement that has been in retreat since the John Birch Society proclaimed President Dwight David Eisenhower a Soviet spy.
The fear of a socialist plot to create a one-world government has animated fright-wing anxieties since debates over the League of Nations almost 100 years ago.
The UN has always attracted a certain amount of the same crazed conspiracy theories, but they were batted back by responsible Republican leaders who were committed to active engagement in international affairs.
Under the presidency of Barack Obama, old conspiracy theories have gained enthusiastic new dupes. The fading of the strong Centre-Right tradition in the face of polarisation has empowered the extremes.
The result was a perversion of justice. It was a canary in a coalmine vote, because if senators cannot agree on a non-binding treaty to protect the disabled, how can it hope to find common ground on more contentious and expensive issues?
More troubling is the fact that Republican senators seem more afraid of being challenged in primary elections by the far-Right than of appearing callous to the concerns of the disabled.