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The Wasted Mind of Ben Sasse

The Nebraska senator has urgent, persuasive ideas for saving American politics. Why won’t he act on them?

Ben Sasse is not OK with Donald Trump’s tweets. On June 29, the president began yet another day by barfing out insults on Twitter, this time regarding MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski’s face. Sasse was one of the first Republicans to respond. “Please just stop,” wrote Nebraska’s 45-year-old junior senator. “This isn’t normal and it’s beneath the dignity of your office.”

Dignity is one of Ben Sasse’s things. He’s also into duty, thoughtfulness, empiricism, and respect for democratic traditions—and while most politicians would probably claim to support those ideals, Sasse sets himself apart by frequently challenging his party on their behalf. The Morning Joe incident was not nearly the first time Sasse has criticized Trump without rationalizing or minimizing his behavior the way so many in the GOP do; during the 2016 presidential campaign, Sasse refused to endorse the real estate heir even as almost all of his Republican peers in elected office folded. (He called for an independent candidate to run against Trump and Clinton in a widely discussed Facebook post but reportedly rebuffed suggestions by Mitt Romney and Bill Kristol that he become that candidate himself.) Just this Sunday, Sasse called Trump’s claim to be working on a cybersecurity commission with Vladimir Putin “bizarre” and noted (correctly) that it “should obviously not happen.”

But at the same time, Sasse’s Senate votes have so far aligned with Trump’s wishes 95 percent of the time, the same level of support that Trump has gotten from right-wing ideologues like Ted Cruz and party loyalists like Chuck Grassley. Sasse voted to confirm ill-informed Cabinet appointees like Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos; he’s voted to steamroll the judicial filibuster and stayed silent about the secretive way the Republican health care bill was written and presented to the public. During a June 25 appearance at a conservative activist conference, as other senators in his own party were criticizing the bill and the process by which it had been constructed, Sasse asked whether his remarks would be on the record before announcing that he would not have any comments at all. It was only after the proposal had almost completely stalled that Sasse proposed an alternative.

This, in a nutshell, is the central problem of Ben Sasse. He is a performatively deep thinker, an advocate of public decency who makes a case for good-faith discourse that is both eloquent and, in the FAKE NEWS!!!!!!1! era, timely. He states that case convincingly in his new book about raising hard-working and civic-minded children, The Vanishing American Adult. “Living in a republic demands a great deal of us,” he writes in a sort of mission statement for his public persona. “Among the responsibilities of each citizen in a participatory democracy is keeping ourselves sufficiently informed so that we can participate effectively, argue our positions honorably, and hopefully, forge sufficient consensus to understand each other and then to govern.” But so far, Sasse’s practical participation in our democracy—he was elected to the Senate in 2014—has mostly advanced the interests of an increasingly authoritarian, unreasonable Republican Party. In his first remarks on the Senate floor, he argued that the body should “strengthen and clarify meaningful contests of ideas.” Four months later, he wouldn’t even give Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a perfunctory meeting. And he certainly didn’t advocate giving Garland a hearing and a floor vote, as one would imagine he should have given his expressed desire for the Senate to become a lively forum for dramatic, legitimate debate rather than pre-written sound bites and predictable party-line votes.

Many politicians are hypocrites, of course. But most of them are also phonies and bullshitters. Ben Sasse isn’t. He stands out by educating himself earnestly and speaking honestly about complicated matters of history and policy. (He’s got to be the only serving Senate Republican to have written a book that approvingly cites 1960s leftist cultural critic Paul Goodman.) Unfortunately, he is also beginning to stand out by doing nothing of substance as the things he says he believes in are thrown in a garbage can by his own party. Evidence that Donald Trump was at best indifferent to and at worst complicit in Russia’s sabotage of the last presidential election is growing. Mitch McConnell is turning into the home stretch of an attempt to force through a wildly unpopular health care bill that still hasn’t had a public hearing. Democratic traditions are under attack, and Sasse is not returning fire. Does any of his thoughtfulness and honesty really matter if, come voting time, he’s just another partisan hack?

Sasse grew up in Fremont, Nebraska (pop. 26,000), working summer jobs in corn and bean fields—experiences that he has rarely since missed an opportunity to mention. He was the valedictorian at the public high school where his father Gary taught history and English and coached wrestling and football. Sasse graduated from Harvard University in 1994 before piling up a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland (famous for its demanding “Great Books” curriculum, which it seems Sasse quite enjoyed), and two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from Yale. Sasse, who was raised Lutheran, served for a time as the executive director of a theological scholars’ group called the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals; his award-winning dissertation was a 451-page examination of the religious right’s response to the 1960s-era legal attack on practices like school prayer by activists such as the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. (The thesis’ abstract indicates that Sasse’s personal sympathies lay with neither the secularizers nor with their grandstanding adversaries but with “the vast middle of America” that wanted to preserve modest religious traditions in public life.) Before running for office, Sasse worked as a corporate turnaround specialist for McKinsey, was a staffer at the Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services during the second Bush administration, and eventually became the president of Midland University in his hometown. Sasse has the intellectual credentials and résumé that Paul Ryan wants you to think he has.

Though he was a relative nobody in Nebraska politics, Sasse surged to an easy win in the 2014 Republican primary, his first-ever run for political office, by exploiting what Mother Jones Tim Murphy described as “Washington connections and Fremont loyalties.” He was able to out-fundraise his opponents while at the same time developing a reputation for Tea Party–style outsider candor as he barnstormed around the state in a “Sassemobile” RV that a 2014 Omaha World-Herald piece described as being “adorned with shotgun-shell lights, kitschy novelties and dead animals.” This goofy, Middle American dad vibe remains a major component of Sasse’s image. He gets a visible kick out of telling stories about his teenage daughter’s time working on a dairy farm, which apparently involved a great deal of contact with bovine birthing fluids, and has a Twitter account that can be funny even by normal-person standards:

It doesn’t seem to be an accident that Sasse’s shtick—he jokes a lot about Nickelback and engages in charming regular-guy stunts—rarely has a partisan subtext. He wants to exemplify the “that which unites us is greater than that which divides us” ethos, and despite his early success with right-wing true believers—his attacks on Obamacare earned him a National Review cover four months before he even won his Republican primary—he has always incorporated aisle-bridging appeals to American unity into his rhetoric. He’s quick with critical nonpartisan sound bites, like “Democrats have bad ideas and Republicans have no ideas” and also quick with fuzzy nonpartisan sound bites, like “Nebraska Republicans believe that Nebraska Democrats love their kids, and I believe we can have a constructive conversation with everybody.” One is reminded of another young published author and heartland senator with impressive intellectual credentials who had an affection for rhetoric about national cohesion. (On the subject of Obama, Sasse has said that many of the former president’s executive orders were unconstitutional and, as mentioned, was not a fan of the Affordable Care Act. But he never suggested that Obama might be a Kenyan terrorist.)

Sasse’s new book—which argues that contemporary parents need to better inculcate their children with both a work ethic and small-d democratic ideals like curiosity and humility—demonstrates that his rhetoric about nonpartisan public-mindedness has some intellectual depth to it. While his evidence that millennials lack grit and curiosity is too dependent on anecdote and his mockery of campus “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” is glib, his claim that the United States would benefit from a renewed interest in the principles of civic society is self-evidently true, and his thoughts on raising well-rounded, self-sufficient humans are worthwhile regardless of whether you agree that today’s kids are particularly liable to slacking and loafing. Sasse is ultimately using parenting as a lens through which to examine concepts like culture and character, which feels like an urgent task today. For partly understandable reasons, a great deal of current writing on the left, including my own, is quite concerned with critique and deconstruction, not creation of positive identity. We have a well-developed sense of who we are against—not just politically, but also in terms of broad cultural classes such as Bankers, Douchebags, Hipsters, Basic Bitches—but not who we are. Sasse’s book reminds us that it is worth thinking in an organized way not just about takedowns and epic owns of various political dumpster fires and cultural atrocities but about what kinds of lives we want to build.

Ben Sasse, republican congressional candidate from Nebraska, is interviewed by Roll Call on February 7, 2014.
Ben Sasse graduated from Harvard University in 1994 before piling up a master’s degree from St. John’s College and two more master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from Yale. Above, Sasse during a 2014 interview.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

The Vanishing American Adult, as Emma Green notes in a sharp Atlantic essay, often implicitly undermines modern Republican dogma. While others in his party take cheap shots at godless, cosmopolitan “elites,” Sasse recommends that teenagers travel widely on the cheap and read James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain so that they’ll think about “the ways in which religious life can turn hypocritical and repressive.” He doesn’t dog-whistle or scapegoat people of color, writing that the correlation of economic hardship and social instability—once cast as the problem of a black “culture of poverty”—is not actually “unique to any geographic or ethnic community.” He notes that unemployment in many areas of the country has been caused by automation, not Mexican or Chinese aggression. (Granted, not scapegoating foreigners and people of color is a very low bar to ask someone to clear in 2017—and yet here we are.) Sasse cites Marx, as well as contemporary cultural critic Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, in explaining how assembly-line techniques and other algorithmic efficiencies are good for companies’ bottom lines but bad for individual workers’ sense of autonomy and pride in their labor. He is not willfully ignorant, as many politicians of both parties are, to the ways in which modern capitalism works against individual efforts to find meaning in our lives and communities.

And yet, despite his understanding of labor-related alienation, Sasse scored a zero in 2015 on the AFL-CIO’s legislative rating system, something that no other senator—not even Ted Cruz—pulled off. For all his clarity about the forces that contribute to instability in the parts of the country that have been decimated by heroin and painkillers, he was the only senator of either party to vote against a 2016 bill to fund opioid treatment programs. Sasse is an avowed limited-government conservative who insists that individual-sized solutions exist to even the largest multinational-induced crises: He gives the nation’s no-benefit, low-wage Walmart cashiers, Amazon warehouse gofers, and Uber drivers his empathy and understanding, but, unsurprisingly, he doesn’t want to give them national, collective power. He prefers smaller measures—family-level self-improvement, as described in his book, and institutions like “the Rotary Club and the PTA, the synagogues and the churches, the small businesses and local town meetings.” But how are town meetings supposed to stop AIG and Lehman Brothers from crashing the entire U.S. housing market by losing $600 trillion on speculative, fraudulent trades involving mortgages that were processed into mega-securities by a supercomputer? Sasse hasn’t said.

What is most maddening about Sasse is not his party fealty per se—I’m not expecting a Republican senator to support left-wing policies; that’s not the standard we should hold him to—but the way he has outlined the basis for a path he has yet to take himself. Conservatives who praise hard work and mom-and-pop businesses but support policies that privilege idle and/or corporate wealth are a dime a dozen—but not all conservatives have spoken and written, as Sasse has, about “the intellectual and character development that comes from being forced to articulate, defend, and potentially revise one’s views and positions.” Sasse, to a frustrating degree, often breezes past flashing neon signs begging him to take his own advice. It seems at times that he’s just on the verge of really being onto something—to creating a strand of American political thought that matches an articulate conservative appreciation of individual dignity and autonomy with a liberal understanding of the modern forces constraining said autonomy. But he never gets there. At best, he has blind spots; at worst, he’s willfully refusing to follow his own advice about openness to new ideas.

US Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, speaks during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) 2016 at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, outside Washington, March 3, 2016.
A goofy, Middle American dad vibe remains a major component of Ben Sasse’s image. Above, Sasse speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on March 3, 2016.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

So maybe Sasse is a hypocrite; more generously, perhaps he isn’t brave enough to engage in the kind of direct confrontation that would be required of him to live by his stated values, even when he’s not up for re-election until 2020. (It was telling that, when Bill Maher used the word nigger as a punchline while interviewing Sasse on HBO, the senator laughed awkwardly—then apologized at length several hours later for not having condemned Maher’s use of the slur in the moment.) But Sasse’s failure to act feels like a waste of potential in a way that other political surrenders do not. When Marco Rubio or Andrew Cuomo blithely abandon a principle they’ve previously averred to believe in, one does not feel like a potentially historic opportunity has been squandered. Perhaps it comes down to the fact that I don’t think those guys believe in anything anymore, and I think Sasse still does.

I have some Sasse-ian empathy for Ben Sasse. It must be exhausting to be the good-faith guy in a party whose approach is all bad faith. I genuinely appreciate his candor and intelligence. But the tough love Sasse wants parents to show their children requires me to point out that if Nebraskans had elected a cravenly partisan alt-right bozo as their senator in 2014 instead of a genial Ph.D., American public life would be little different today. Sasse is probably doing exactly what his constituents want him to do right now—Trump won Nebraska by 25 points. But it doesn’t seem like he will be able to maintain such a large gap between his stated values and his record indefinitely without losing either his national reputation—which must matter to him, or else why write a general-interest book for a major publisher—or his sanity. At some point Sasse will have to actually interrupt Bill Maher; he’ll have to actually run against Donald Trump instead of suggesting that it would be nice if someone else did; he’ll have to challenge his own president not just by tweeting but by putting a hold on an executive-branch nominee until the Judiciary Committee, of which he’s a member, agrees to hearings on Trump’s obstruction of the FBI’s Russia investigation; he’ll have to refuse to vote for a motion to proceed on the health care bill until it gets a public hearing. It will be hard work, and he will get a lot of blowback from his own party and its dogmatic activists. But living in a republic demands a great deal from us.

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