Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska has become something of a lightning rod on the Right.
Many movement conservatives are drawn to his erudite and scholarly manner and see him as a principled statesman in contrast to Donald Trump who, they argue—and quite rightly I might add—has abandoned what has come to be called conservatism. Those inclined to support Trump instead, tend to view Sasse as part of the problem due to his vocal rejection of much of the Trump agenda—and thereby the views of the tens of millions of people who voted to implement that agenda. They see Sasse as possessing utopian political sensibilities combined with an overly moralistic view of politics that lacks a spirited defense of the people’s right to rule themselves—even if ruling themselves may mean, occasionally, getting it wrong.
Stepping back and viewing Sasse’s positives and negatives in a clear light can help us see the truth contained in these conflicting portrayals.
Sasse is obviously a good family man and understands the devastating impact of fatherlessness on our culture, as is attested by his recent Father’s Day message. His advocacy of recovering liberal education is very important in light of the intellectual rot to which most, if not all, of our public universities have succumbed. And his absolute hatred of the worst Canadian export of all-time—the rock band Nickelback—should have all Americans nodding their heads in agreement.
His recent book, The Vanishing American Adult, has garnered much acclaim and deserves to be read. In the book, Sasse explores how younger generations are increasingly ill-prepared to thrive in the world and form stable families of their own. By teaching the importance of reading, hard manual labor, and learning from individuals who have significant life experiences, Sasse charts out a path that he hopes will lead younger generations to live better lives and, ultimately, to help form a healthier civic culture.
That the book’s teachings are laudable is virtually unquestionable. But doesn’t Sasse, who has only been in the Senate for two-and-a-half years, have better things to do? It’s surely true that the decline in the American character is worthy of contemplation and exploration. But Sasse is supposed to be a full-time legislator.
What Does a Senator Do, Anyway?
The job of a U.S. senator is to help secure the common good of all Americans by means of debate for the purpose of taking decisive legislative action. This position requires individuals of great character who have a wealth of practical experience in politics, economics, and other important fields of human necessity.
Per the job requirements, senators must be able to stop ill-considered legislation and pass good legislation when possible. Doing this takes experience in forming political coalitions, knowing where compromise ends and principle begins, having a deep knowledge of Senate rules and procedures, understanding the effective deployment of rhetoric with a view to persuading diverse audiences, and maintaining a clear sense of public opinion at all times.
Having a solid grasp of these and other important aspects of political life takes years, if not decades, of practical experience. It is for this reason that James Madison argued in Federalist 62 that senators should be of “a more advanced age.”
This means that though a liberal education is a necessary precondition for anyone wishing to become a senator, it alone is insufficient to gain wisdom in practical matters. After all, Aristotle argued in his practical works that politics is the practical science par excellence because it is concerned with the attainment of the good of the regime through human action, or praxis.
“Public Sentiment is Everything”
In light of the nature of what a senator is, Sasse should reconsider his efforts and turn his ideas into meaningful legislation that touch on practical problems. From taking a glance at the limited number of bills he has sponsored thus far, they don’t meet the myriad challenges that currently confront our nation. Getting immigration under control, fending off the opiate addiction craze that is taking more and more lives in the Midwest, figuring out how to revive economically dying communities across the heartland, and countering the devastating effects of the propaganda mills also known as our public universities—these and countless other problems provide significant opportunities right now for action.
Part of this re-examination should also include taking the concerns of Trump voters seriously, which to this point Sasse has largely failed to do. For example, he downplays the importance of getting immigration right and suggests that Americans simply have to live with job disruption for at least the rest of the lives if not their children’s—a situation he takes as a fait accompli in which political choices evidently played no part in creating.
Sasse also fashions himself as a “First Amendment absolutist”—a view popular with the cognoscenti on the Right but not with a majority of the American people. Under his reading of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, Bill Maher’s use of the n-word, though objectionable, is considered free speech while laws that prohibit flag burning are a clear violation of the Constitution. But these stances do not square with the Founders’ arguments that free speech encompasses only “the ascertainment of truth for the benefit of self-government”—not “vile speech or speech unconnected to matters of public concern.”
And they do not mesh with the views of most Americans, many of whom think they should be free to enact laws banning flag burning and other forms of loathsome or lascivious “speech” that have been constitutionally protected at the behest of ACLU lawyers.
Senator Sasse of course is free to have his own opinions, but his seeming disinterest in considering the concerns of the nearly 63 million Americans who propelled Trump to the White House betrays his studious and thoughtful self-presentation. He should take the time to grapple with their views, which would give some weight to the image he is attempting to cultivate as a serious person who is concerned with getting to the truth of things through reflection and debate.
Rhetoric vs. Reality
Sasse is known for his rhetoric concerning first principles and aspects of constitutional government. For instance in his maiden speech on the Senate floor, Sasse sketched out his view of what healthy republican politics should look like:
We should primarily be doing the harder work of trying to understand competing positions on larger issues. Good teachers don’t shut down debate; they try to model Socratic seriousness by putting the best possible construction on arguments, even—and especially—if one doesn’t hold those positions. Our goal is not to attack strawmen—but to strengthen and clarify meaningful contests of ideas.
Yet far too many times, Sasse’s’ strong NeverTrumpism has overwhelmed his thoughtfulness in speech. For example, in an interview only a few months after giving his first floor speech, Sasse had this to say about Donald Trump: “I signed up for the party of Abraham Lincoln, not the party of David Duke, Donald Trump.” To liken Trump to an open white supremacist is appalling and clearly insulted voters who were drawn to Trump’s message, thus pushing them even more into his corner.
Since Trump’s victory, Sasse has felt the need to air his every feeling on the president in public, without seeming to care how his words will be used by Democrats or the media. This is in stark contrast to senators such as Rand Paul and Tom Cotton who, while they surely have differences with the president at times (for example, Sen. Paul on civil asset forfeiture), have stayed mostly silent in the public arena. They understand that continual criticisms of the titular head of their own party are not helpful, as such attacks help fuel the ruling class’s endless crusade aimed at taking Trump down by any means necessary.
Republicans of course need not to be in complete lockstep with President Trump at all times and on all matters. This has never happened between any president and the members of his own party. As Reagan historian Steven Hayward has written, “Often, in fact, Reagan’s fights with members of his own party were fiercer than his fights with Democrats.”
Instead, this is to point out that sustained public criticism of the leader of their party is detrimental to the Republicans’ effectiveness as a party. Sasse should remember that he is a member of the Republican Party and, in the final analysis, was elected for that reason.
Putting individual goals and aspirations above the party—which is the effectual truth of some of his public commentary—is more akin to the notion of political leadership Woodrow Wilson had in mind. In Wilson’s view, political parties were seen as vehicles to elevate enterprising leaders to national prominence. Rather than the political party defining the individual, the individual through his rhetoric would define the party.
A Life of Thought or Action
The foregoing sketch points to a crucial missing piece in Sasse’s repertoire (and he is far from alone in this): statesmanship.
Statesmanship in its classical understanding is the combination of prudence, or understanding what can be accomplished given current circumstances, and right ends that are grounded in a transcendent idea of justice.
The key element that distinguishes statesmanship from the philosophic life is its fundamental focus on action rather than contemplation.
As Winston Churchill famously wrote in his autobiography, My Early Life, “A man’s Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action.” Does thought serve as a foundation for action? Undoubtedly. But as Churchill knew given his own magnanimity combined with his penetrating studies of the lives of other statesman such as the First Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, statesmanship is above all concerned with action, not thought.
As American Greatness commentator Jay Whig wrote a few months ago,
While theoretical wisdom can provide advice to practical wisdom, as Aristotle did in the Ethics, it is not theory that chiefly informs statesmanship. Theoretical wisdom examines the true nature of the whole for the sake of knowing. While theoretical wisdom for Aristotle is in the superior position for the sake of understanding, it is in an inferior position with respect to direct application for practical enterprises.
The kind of wisdom gleaned from a genuinely liberal education is necessary in order to be a good human being and citizen. But if one wants to enter the field of politics, such education serves only as the foundation on which action is taken. It alone cannot map out a systematic strategy or serve as a how-to manual where one simply needs to follow a series of preset steps.
A senator making speeches and writing books is perfectly reasonable, but if those things are to be useful for the nation, they must be in the service of ends that are achieved through action.
Ben Sasse is undoubtedly intelligent, but his political acumen leaves much to be desired. If he is to be useful going forward, it is urgent that he reconsider the job of a senator, study the actions of great statesman such as Lincoln and Churchill, and—this is crucial—translate thought into action. For the country would certainly benefit if he were to mature in his conception of the character of political life.