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The Policy Consequences of Democratic Paranoia and Delusion



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Fordham University theologian Elizabeth Johnson recently published a two-part essay in Commonweal in which she reflected on why so many Christians do not appear to follow their own professed beliefs when the question of the principal challenges to continued sustainable human life on earth arises. Johnson argued that, “There are three mechanisms of (ecological) destruction: overpopulation, consumption of resources, and pollution” and that many believers are preventing efforts to address them. These are surely enduringly significant matters, but I want to note that Johnson’s fundamental query is as relevant for America’s politics generally as it is for the relationship of the nation’s religious adherents, of whatever faith tradition, to our ecology. She implicitly raised a vital concern for our politics: why our nation’s leaders are enmeshed in partisan warfare and painful policy stagnation rather than rolling up their proverbial sleeves to address these signal concerns and many others.

That is, if this question of why a share of our elected officials cannot seem even to acknowledge compelling social concerns, much less address them, is relevant in the realm of environmental stewardship, it is equally appropriate in other policy domains. I am struck as I write, for example, that the United States Senate looks set once again to reject, due to opposition by several Republicans, the proposed United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) even though that treaty is modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and despite the fact that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have strongly supported its ratification and that President Obama has signed it. Moreover, former President George H.W. Bush (R) strongly supported the original United States statute on which the treaty is based when it was enacted during his term of office.

Given these realities, considering how matters once again have come to this sad and indefensible pass for the CRPD provides a lens into several noteworthy characteristics of America’s current politics. The measure last failed to gain United States ratification in December 2012 when several conservative organizations and some GOP leaders and senators attacked it on grounds that it would impair American sovereignty. One leader, former Republican Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, argued that the CRPD was flawed because it would negatively affect Americans interested in homeschooling their children since it contained a provision that, “The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” Notwithstanding such fanciful objections and the ratification loss in 2012, the measure’s proponents were hopeful the Senate would embrace the treaty this year since only a few GOP votes would be necessary to secure that result. It now appears that those lawmakers needed for passage will not support the Convention and the Senate will again fail to embrace it. The reasons for this turn are evocative.

First and most basically, the primary issues offered by today’s opponents, like those in 2012, are either factually erroneous or fantastical. These contentions include the by now old claim that the treaty would hobble American sovereignty by ceding it to the United Nations (UN). This is patently false since all UN policy advice is merely advisory to signatory regimes and, in any case, the agreement does nothing more (and arguably not as much) to ensure human and civil rights for the disabled than the U.S. statute on which it was based. Similarly, Senator Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee recently announced he would oppose the accord because it would “undermine our Constitution” by expanding the powers of the Federal government. The Convention could do no such thing since the treaty was modeled on existing U.S. law and cannot expand the nation’s powers.

Nonetheless, these sorts of claims appeal to what political scientist Richard Hofstadter labeled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in a famous essay published 50 years ago. Hofstadter argued, as Thomas Frank has recently noted in Harper’s Magazine, that belief in conspiracies is epidemic in our nation’s culture, and further, “a ‘style of mind’ inclines a sizable number of Americans to conceive of history as driven by elaborate schemes rather than by the usual boring forces—economic, sociological and technological. History-as-conspiracy is hardly unknown in other countries, of course, but Americans seem to return to the idea with an unseemly enthusiasm.” It is easy to label the sorts of charges hurled against the UN pact as the product of just such thinking, if such fantasizing can be so labeled, since none have any basis in reality. But even if this is so, it begs the question of why legislators would not only countenance, but also listen to cranks and their crackpot theories, much less publicly embrace them.

To understand why a small but vital number of GOP senators feel compelled to do so in the case of the CRPD, one must recall that to secure election or reelection, senators must first obtain nomination, either through a convention or primary, and that these processes are dominated by a relatively tiny portion of the electorate comprised disproportionately of activist partisans. Today, for the Republican Party, a large share of that already small group is composed of angry Tea Party and libertarian conservatives who are convinced that their government is seeking to deprive them of their liberty and who, in any case, see “undue government” as the nation’s principal challenge. These are just the sorts of voters who not only articulate and listen to arguments of the sort advanced by Santorum and Corker, but also act on them in the voting process. That fact makes GOP senators skittish, especially those standing for reelection, as they realize they could lose their positions to challengers making such claims in a (typically) very low-turnout election. They therefore seek to buffer themselves politically from such potential criticism by ensuring their votes do not allow such charges to be made against them. In this case, as in many others, both action and reality come the cropper. In this example, too, the rights of a share of the population have been, if not actually diminished, at least symbolically impugned.

Nevertheless, this argument does not reach why the GOP base now consists so disproportionately of fearful and angry white men convinced that their own government represents so terrible and overweening a prospect that they would believe the sort of nonsense pressed in the current conversation concerning the Disability accord. A partial answer to this question doubtless lies in Hofstadter’s insight, but I suspect that fear of the long-term erosion of their economic standing and a consequent desire to find someone or something to blame for that situation is also playing a large role in their disposition to give credence to these sorts of claims. It should also be said that the GOP has obtained the votes of this population in recent decades by arguing endlessly they have more to fear from their national government than they do from the vagaries of globalization or technological change or any other factors in their lives. That is, the Party has offered governance itself as just such an “explanation.” Moreover, the Republican Party has suggested to this base more recently that the federal government particularly has tyrannized as it has gone about its efforts to assist the poor and other long stigmatized groups. In advancing that suggestion, the GOP has not so subtly demonized these populations with its principal voter group in order to gain its members’ support. Coupled with artful gerrymandering, this electoral mobilization strategy has succeeded in securing a solid foundation for the party, especially in the South, for some decades, but it has also unleashed large doses of paranoia and a conservative talk radio and television industry that daily fuels such fires for its faithful. In these venues, as evidenced by the sorts of arguments outlined above against the CRPD, one often cannot find any connection between reality or cause and effect to outraged claims. But that fact does not matter since the talk show hosts and authors of such inflammatory rhetoric are not interested in substantively thoughtful and accurate arguments and regime stability, but instead are focused on ratings and advertising dollars or political mobilization.

In short, the UN CRPD may soon fall prey once more not to any real or significant defects in its provisions, but to the increasingly well-known and miserable travails of American mobilization politics and legislative posturing. Sadly, so long as the GOP remains in thrall to the media complex its own partisans have nurtured and continues to press its core constituency to demonize their government in lieu of grappling with the complex causes of their current economic situation, this trend looks set to persist. It opens space for the full-throated expression of the country’s native paranoia and it provides ample fuel to feed that predilection. So long as this situation prevails, the nation will continue to suffer from both the social fissures created in its population by these mobilization and governance processes and the consequences of its resulting inability to address compelling concerns. The United States will also, as the present case illustrates, too often bear little resemblance to the beacon of human rights many of these same leaders are so fond of declaring our nation to be.

Publication Date

February 23, 2014