Mike Lee, a sign of the times?

“On the campaign trail, especially during his heated primary battle …, Lee offered glimpses of a truly radical vision of the U.S. Constitution, one that sees the document as divinely inspired and views much of what the federal government currently does as unconstitutional.”

The Lee referred to is Mike Lee, a 39-year old Republican from Utah and one of the newly-elected Tea Party senators. The quote is from an article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine by Jeffrey Rosen titled “The Tea Party’s Radical Constitutionalism.”

“As your U.S. senator,” Lee promised during the campaign, “I will not vote for a single bill that I can’t justify based on the text and the original understanding of the Constitution, no matter what the court says you can do.”

Some of the new Senator’s campaign promises, as summarized by Rosen:

  • Lee proposed to dismantle, on constitutional grounds, the federal Departments of Education, and Housing and Urban Development.
  • He insisted that “the Constitution doesn’t give Congress the power to redistribute our wealth” and vowed to phase out Social Security.
  • He proposed repealing the 16th Amendment, which authorizes the progressive federal income tax, and called the 17th Amendment, which allows senators to be elected by popular vote rather than by state legislatures, a “mistake.”
  • He pledged to end “the unauthorized federal occupation” of Utah land, insisting that Congress lacks the constitutional power to designate federally protected wilderness unless the relevant state legislature approves.
  • He embraced “nullification,” the idea that states have the right — and indeed the duty — to disregard federal laws, like the new health-care-reform bill, that they say are unconstitutional.

I’ve heard this kind of rhetoric before, but dismissed the speakers as cable TV crazies who get a lot of attention, but don’t represent many Americans. But Rosen suggests I may be wrong:

Like the Tea Party movement itself, Lee’s constitutional vision may appear to be an incohesive mixture of libertarianism and social conservatism, of opposition to federal power and support for tearing down the wall of separation between church and state. In fact, however, it represents an exotic but, in its own way, coherent idea of the Constitution, one that is consistent with certain familiar strains of legal conservatism and constitutional scholarship but at the same time is genuinely eccentric and extreme. Much of the Tea Party movement’s more-strident rhetoric, seen in light of this constitutional vision, may be best understood not as scattershot right-wing hostility to government but as a comprehensive, if startling, worldview about the proper roles of government and faith in American life.

Rosen’s credentials suggest he knows whereof he speaks. He is a professor of law at George Washington University Law School and the Legal Affairs Editor for The New Republic. He is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, which lists constitutional law among his areas of expertise.

Much of Rosen’s article summarizes a 1981 book, “The 5,000-Year Leap,” by W. Cleon Skousen, who is considered the “constitutional guru” for the Tea Party movement and whose book, according to amazon.com, is “regularly featured by Glenn Beck to Fox TV viewers as a Must Read.” Media Matters for America, “a Web-based, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media, has some interesting background on Skousen here.

The description of “The 5,000-Year Leap” on amazon.com:

The nation the Founders built is now in the throes of a political, economic, social, and spiritual crisis that has driven many to an almost frantic search for modern solutions. The truth is that the solutions have been available for a long time — in the writings of our Founding Fathers — carefully set forth in this timely book.

In The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World, discover the 28 Principles of Freedom our Founding Fathers said must be understood and perpetuated by every people who desire peace, prosperity, and freedom. Learn how adherence to these beliefs during the past 200 years has brought about more progress than was made in the previous 5000 years. These 28 Principles include The Genius of Natural Law, Virtuous and Moral Leaders, Equal Rights–Not Equal Things, and Avoiding the Burden of Debt. Published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to restoring Constitutional principles in the tradition of America’s Founding Fathers.

The National Center for Constitutional Studies…is doing a fine public service in educating Americans about the principles of the Constitution. — Ronald Reagan, President of the United States

This is possibly the most comprehensive treatment of the genius of the American Founding Fathers which has ever been encompassed in a single volume. — Kenneth C. Chatwin, District Judge, Phoenix, Arizona

It may be that Mike Lee is a sign of the times, and I guess we can’t dismiss him as another “crazy.”

Think it’s hard to get anything done in the Senate today? Just wait.

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