On Thursday, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) delivered a speech to the conservative Federalist Society that would have been more at home on Alex Jones’ radio show than at a gathering of many of the most powerful lawyers and judges in the country.
In it, Lee warned of a brewing civil war, and claimed that the only way to avert violence would be to eradicate a long list of federal programs including “the interstate highway system,” funding for “K through 12 public education,” “federal higher education accreditation,” “early childhood education, the Department of Commerce,” “housing policy, workforce regulation,” and what Lee labeled the “huge glut of federally owned land.”
Seriously, this is not hyperbole. A sitting United States senator actually said these things. You can watch the entire speech here.
Lee, who also believes that federal child labor laws, Social Security, and Medicare are unconstitutional, claimed in his speech that America faces a stark choice — “federalism or violence.”
According to Lee, when the federal government has the power to do pretty much anything, that thrusts the country into a “fundamentally un-American contest” to “determine which half of our nation will have the power, at least temporarily, to unilaterally impose its will and its values on the other half.”
Lee, of course, blamed this state of affairs on “the left.”
“Many on the left don’t seem too concerned,” about a system of government where a political party which wins an election gains the temporary power to govern. Lee claims that the “left” believes that “demographic and historic trends coupled with what many see as the inherent rightness of their leftist cause make their ultimate victory over red America inevitable.”
And this whole democratic state of affairs, he says, will somehow lead to civil unrest.
Lee’s vision for the country — a vision where only states and not the federal government are allowed to do any meaningful degree of governing — has been tried before. The United States used to give each state tremendous and largely exclusive authority over its own economic regulations, its own civil rights regime, and its own system of voting rights. That was the system that brought the United States no small amount of violence in the form of slavery and, later, Jim Crow.
Just as significantly harmful, the absence of nationwide regulation gave us a world where wealthy businesses and individuals could play the various states off of one another in order to dismantle even the most basic protections for workers.
In 1887, for example, Alabama passed a law limiting child laborers to an eight-hour work day — and this was at a time when Southern cotton mills were filled with workers as young as six. The state repealed this law seven years later after a group of Massachusetts-based mill owners promised to open a factory in Alabama if the state would allow children to work in that mill for as long as the bosses wanted.
Lee’s long list of activities the federal government must cease appears to be entirely arbitrary (though, in true Republican form, he does claim that the feds should be allowed to enforce immigration laws).
In the past, Lee has argued that pretty much every federal law that liberals support violates the Constitution. He argued that the federal ban on child labor is unconstitutional because the Constitution was “designed to be a little bit harsh,” for example. But many of the items on Lee’s list of forbidden federal actions cannot even plausibly be labeled unconstitutional.
Take the interstate highway system. The Constitution gives Congress the power to “lay and collect Taxes” to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” and to “regulate Commerce . . . among the several States.” Highways are the very channels where commerce among the several states happens. They are the means we use to travel across state lines, and to ship many goods from one state to another.
There is no theory of the Constitution, or, at least, no theory that pays any heed to the Constitution’s text, which forbids Congress from using tax dollars to build the channels of commerce.
It’s worth noting, however, that there is a different constitution which does support Lee’s attack on interstate highways. The Constitution of the Confederate States of America gave its congress a much more limited power to build the infrastructure for a robust national economy. Among other things, it explicitly forbade the Confederate government from spending “money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce; except for the purpose of furnishing lights, beacons, and buoys, and other aids to navigation upon the coasts, and the improvement of harbors and the removing of obstructions in river navigation.”
It is perhaps not outside the realm of possibility that Lee was simply reading the wrong constitution when he wrote his Federalist Society speech.