WASHINGTON — Among the saddest aspects of a political culture premised on the exaggeration and organization of grievances is the way policy debates get pulled into a vortex of paranoia.
Some governors, Democrats and Republicans, attempt to set some (rather anemic) common academic standards and it is said to "destroy America and the system of freedom as we know it." Some governors, Democrats and Republicans, advocate HPV vaccinations to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer and this is attacked as a violation of parental rights that puts "little children's lives at risk."
This is the way the modern ideological market often works. It is driven by entrepreneurs of outrage, marketers of resentment, innovators in the on-time delivery of anger. Their market share does not need to be large to be influential. Several thousand calls to Congress can seem like a populist wave.
A recent success of this approach concerned the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — a treaty negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, signed by President Obama in 2009 and still awaiting Senate approval.
The treaty essentially takes the protections of our Americans with Disabilities Act and sets them as an international norm, with a committee of experts issuing reports on violations it sees. To some conservative activists, this translates into: "My kid wears glasses, now they're disabled, now the U.N. gains control over them." And: "The global community could force America to sanction sterilization or abortion for the disabled — at taxpayer expense." And: America is "signing up to be an official socialist nation."
Based on a short, successful campaign by the religious right and tea-party groups last year, ratification fell six votes short. A number of otherwise responsible legislators were intimidated by highly organized nonsense.
The treaty does nothing to encourage abortion. It only sets the expectation that a country's existing "sexual and reproductive health" services should be equally available to the disabled. In practice, this means disabled people should not be subjected to forced sterilization or forced abortion — presumably pro-life commitments. The U.S. has made clear it views the treaty as silent on the general legality of abortion — a view uniformly accepted by other signatories.
Some conservatives, particularly homeschoolers, have also claimed that the treaty surrenders U.S. sovereignty to U.N. bureaucrats who could remove disabled children from parental care and force them to be educated in public schools.
The fear here — and not just limited to the disabilities treaty — is that international law can be used to override American law. There are, in fact, cases where litigious activists have tried to enforce international law in U.S. courts. But this treaty — and the congressional Reservations, Understandings and Declarations (RUDs) that accompany it — provides no basis for such challenges.
The resolution of ratification makes clear that the Americans with Disabilities Act remains the controlling U.S. law and that the treaty will not affect current enforcement or create additional causes for legal action. The treaty cannot be enforced through U.S. courts, and it creates no international venues for litigation. Recommendations from the committee of experts are non-binding. This does not require trusting the United Nations, only trusting the supremacy of the Constitution and American law.
So if the treaty leaves U.S. law exactly the same, why take the risk of signing at all? The answer depends on your broader view of America's calling. If you think American exceptionalism is sullied, or stained, or corrupted by engagement with the world, then isolation from the contagion of international norms is a natural response. But if American exceptionalism is expressed by shaping international norms according to the universal values of our founding — including the rights and dignity of disabled men and women — then engagement is instinctive.
These tendencies have been at odds throughout American history. And religious people have often helped determine the balance. Recently, religious activists have led movements to encourage international religious liberty, confront genocide in Sudan and fight against the global AIDS pandemic. They have entered unexpected ideological alliances with more traditionally liberal human rights or global health organizations to push for idealistic national goals.
On the disabilities treaty, some religious activists have exhibited a different approach: defensive, self-focused and poorly informed. And they have made common cause with conservative organizations that trade in conspiratorial fantasies.
This type of activism is discrediting — and also clarifying. Do religious conservatives really want their faith to be known for its fears?
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.