When U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah goes to sleep at night, you can bet visions of William Jennings Bryan are not dancing in his head.
Though the tea party movement that propelled the Republican Lee into America's upper house is similar in style to early 20th-century progressivism (distrust of political and media elites, emphasis on grassroots organization, and a concern for ordinary citizen participation), the entire substance of the tea party movement has been built on rolling back reforms made possible through progressive activism.
From labor laws that made safer workplaces, to banking regulations designed to curb the influence of big money, to constitutional changes like the 17th Amendment that increased electoral participation, tea partiers like Mike Lee have been resolute in their disapproval. But Lee's opposition to the kind of increased electoral participation made possible by the 17th Amendment, and the way that issue dovetails with his views on guns, should leave Utahns wishing the tea party movement had more substantive similarities to progressivism.
At the beginning of the 20th century, helped in no small part by a surge of progressive populism, the 17th Amendment was finally ratified by the state legislatures. The amendment eliminated legislative control over the selection of U.S. senators and instead provided for their direct election by American citizens. The result was a new group of senators who were now suddenly accountable not to their state's elites, but to ordinary citizens. Of course, this sort of direct participation curtailed the ability of large interest groups to influence the legislative selection of senators and they've been trying to get back that power ever since.
Lee originally took office by drawing on the same distrust of elites that resulted in the 17th Amendment. But his blatant disapproval of that electoral accomplishment suggests that much of his populist sympathy has been nothing more than a tactic for once again consolidating power among elites in this case the powerful gun lobby.
On the issue of guns, Lee acts like the 17th Amendment has already been repealed. Even though 82 percent of Utahns support background checks, Lee has instead decided to side with our Legislature who he thinks should be electing him anyway where 70 percent of them, based on their voting records on controversial bills like HB76, are against background checks.
Lee's penchant for constitutional pedantry was on full display in an op-ed he penned in Utah's other daily a few weeks ago. He argued that background checks are constitutionally suspect because the 2nd Amendment, hallowed as it is, provides for an unfettered right to bear arms. But the courts have consistently found that even constitutional rights are subject to some degree of reasonable regulation. Yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater and see if you aren't held responsible for the consequences.
Lee's constitutional expertise is problematic not just for the way it ignores years of accumulated precedent, but also for the way it ignores that 82 percent who favor background checks. He is now further to the right than his Senate tea party colleague, Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, who came out with a compromise bill that supports background checks.
Let's not fool ourselves anymore that Lee represents Utahns. He understands his power not as derived from the Utahns who elected him, but from his supposed pre-17th Amendment constitutional expertise. He represents the gun lobby and the Utah Legislature which, unfortunately, gave up listening to their own constituents long ago.
Isaac Holyoak is communications director for Alliance for a Better UTAH. He has researched and written extensively on early 20th century American public discourse.