GETTING TO THE HEART OF PARTISAN DIFFERENCES…. Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah, just a week on the job, was overshadowed a bit during the midterm season. His ideology was every bit as extreme as some of the year’s more notable candidates — Angle, O’Donnell, Buck, Miller, et al — but he never quite garnered the same kind of attention.

Part of this is because his victory was a foregone conclusion after Lee won the GOP nomination, but part of it has to do with his skills. The freshman senator is a genuine radical by the standards of American politics, but he presents extremism in a genial way, and with the skill of a lawyer who, unlike some of his brethren, appears to have thought these issues through.

And after having thought these things through, Lee has concluded that the federal income tax should be scrapped; the 17th Amendment should be repealed; the 14th Amendment should be altered, and as Ian Millhiser noted this morning, child-labor laws approved by Congress are unconstitutional.

Here’s an argument Lee presented in a lecture he posted online last week:

“Congress decided it wanted to prohibit [child labor], so it passed a law — no more child labor. The Supreme Court heard a challenge to that and the Supreme Court decided a case in 1918 called Hammer v. Dagenhardt. In that case, the Supreme Court acknowledged something very interesting — that, as reprehensible as child labor is, and as much as it ought to be abandoned — that’s something that has to be done by state legislators, not by Members of Congress. […]

“This may sound harsh, but it was designed to be that way. It was designed to be a little bit harsh. Not because we like harshness for the sake of harshness, but because we like a clean division of power, so that everybody understands whose job it is to regulate what.”

Now, as a factual matter, it’s worth noting that the Supreme Court later overturned the Hammer ruling, noting that the Commerce Clause empowers the government to prevent child labor.

But stepping back, let’s also note that it’s not surprising in the least that Lee believes this. Contemporary right-wing activists, using a ridiculous “Tenther” worldview, believe most of the federal government’s functions are necessarily unconstitutional. Everything from Social Security to student loans, the minimum wage to the Civil Rights Act, are all in conflict with the extremist, far-right vision of constitutional law — a vision that’s increasingly common in the Republican Party of the 21st century. With that in mind, of course Mike Lee considers child-labor laws illegal.

Also keep in mind how relevant this is when Americans talk about wanting to see Democrats and Republicans work together with a sense of common purpose. Paul Krugman explained today, “Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it.”

Rhetorical excesses matter, as does the right’s politics of paranoia, but to appreciate at a more fundamental level why the parties are so starkly at odds, one need only to remember that modern Republicans reject the legitimacy of much of the government. “When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will,” Krugman added. “But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.”

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower (R) wrote a letter to his brother. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” Ike said. The president acknowledged in the letter that there are some who advocate such nonsense, but added, “Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Little did he know at the time what would become of his party.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.