The Curious Case of Ben Sasse

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.


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28 responses to “The Curious Case of Ben Sasse”

  1. Most Republicans know of Sasse solely because of his Never Trumpism. It isn’t a good prescription for future success in the GOP.

  2. “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.”

    I see I have another entry for my collection of “American Greatness wants free speech for conservatives on college campuses, but not for anybody else” anecdotes. It keeps growing and growing and growing….

    • Joe Mathis, you really stretch to reach that conclusion. Your argument that Conservatives want a monopoly on free speech, while denying it for anyone else, is simply fallacious. You choose to ignore that it was not Conservatives who enacted draconian “hate speech” rules at multiple colleges that bring forth severe disciplinary action against individuals for the mildest comment about a
      “protected” (read favored) minority. You also ignore that until the last few decades there were mores, some institutionalized into laws supported by Liberals and Conservatives alike, that prohibited “lascivious’ speech on the public airways.

    • Wasn’t it obama’s attorney general, lorretta lynch who wanted to prosecute “climate deniers”?
      Does your progressive collection include that entry Mr. Mathis?

  3. As an Ayn Rand conservative who would very much like to see most of the aggrandizement of regulatory and other powers that the Federal government has acquired over the last century plus severely reduced so that decision-making returns to the individual exerting their will through their own choices aggregated into markets and to localities and the states wherever possible, I can understand a principled conservative who wants to push things in a principled direction.

    BUT, and this is a big BUT, in the real world we live in, the forces of those who would use the federal bureaucracy and other powers to crush those of us who live liberty, in the real world where the forces of political correctness want to disarm the population and suppress our freedom of thought, speech and belief, where the forces of crony capitalism want to take control of the 17% of the economy which is the healthcare system, to crush our energy and manufacturing industry, to reduce the vast bulk of Americans to dependence for survival on government – it is the responsibility of Republican leaders not to advocate for perfection but to industriously, systematically and effectively restore the foundations of liberty and American life. Killing the revocation of Obamacare because it is not revocation enough does not advance freedom, it instead causes the continuation of Obamacare. Whining about the fact that Trump uses Democrat Alinsky tactics against the Democrats to discredit them and the media they control because those tactics are mean is idiotic given that the Democrats have won over and over even turning the boy scout Romney to a villain using them. Complaining that Trump’s tax cuts are not perfect enough and thereby continuing the current terrible tax system is idiotic.

    While I might enjoy having a conversation with someone like Sasse, weaklings like him who are unable to translate ideas into action effectively are NOT what we need in our political leaders. Perhaps he should be teaching in a University somewhere but if our political leaders choose to accept perfectionistic impotence over pragmatic action, we will lose this nation to the left.

    • Sasse reminds me of Lizzy Warren. They are both too much in love with themselves and of no use to the Republic. He needs to be primaried.

    • You should mail a copy of this to every never-Trumper as well as Rand Paul. The RINOs, however, are a lost cause anyway.

  4. Sasse reminds me of a 1st Responder whom arrives at a severe accident to attend to a person that has just lost both legs in the incident.
    He knows from the loss of blood, this person hasn’t any chance of survival, and realizes all he can do is comfort the dying victim before they expire, with soothing dialogue.
    Sasse needs to get a job as a funeral director, and get the hell out of Our Congress.
    There are too many just like him infesting Our venerated halls of Congress.

    • I keep visualizing Sasse as manager of a DMV, maybe The Bronx.

      • The Bronx has become such a sanctuary, it requires being fluent in at least ten languages, with the patience of Mother Teresa. ‘Surly’ is needed in Manhattan, for the elitists.
        My first thought was actually a nomination for Sasse to be Ambassador to Uzbekistan. Warren gets Maldives.

  5. Outstanding.
    This may be off the mark, but I will extend the analogy of Greek Philosophers, by observing that too many Republicans in the Senate have internalized fragments of the Philosopher King concept. Senator Sasse seems to tilt noticeably to the Philosopher side; while others; e.g. Senator McCain, tilt precariously toward the Monarch. In the aggregate, these incomplete souls make it virtually impossible to legislate.

  6. You nailed Ben Sasse to the “T”. I’d add he’s a narcissistic opportunist that wants to be President so badly, he’s willing to destroy his own party, if it’ll help him get there.

  7. He’s a prissy blowhard who wants to be accepted and adored by the left. He preaches principles for the money, but won’t put them in practice if it will harm his “aspiration” to be the new John McCain…loved by the left until he runs for president, then reviled. Just remember his pathetic performance on Bill Maher. He has nothing to say to conservatives that’s worth listening to.

    • “… loved by the Left until he runs for president, then reviled” describes every Republican who can’t get with the program.

  8. The real job of a Senator is to represent their State and it’s interests. And Sasse needs to answer what did he know and when he knew it regarding Denny Hastert’s “activities”.

  9. Sasse is first a nevertrumper. That’s what he IS. What has he DONE? He has ruined a perfectly nice little college in the name of a “new” liberal arts. So, if what you are and what you have done add up to a mole hill of negatives, what mountain does he think is out there to climb?

  10. Ben Sasse laughed when Bill Maher said the N word. BTW, what was he doing on that evil show? Plus he voted for Hillary over the GOP nominee.

  11. This guy is emblematic of those Republicans who, when Trump says or does something stupid or outrageous, fall all over themselves to get to a microphone to condemn him. Reagan talked of the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Apparently, these people have never heard of it, let alone obey it. What is truly frustrating, however, is that while Republicans go around bashing their own president, Democrats march in lockstep and never, but I mean NEVER, speak critically of one of their own.

    • Republicans won a golden opportunity in 2016. They (not Trump) are working overtime to throw it away. Time is running out already. There won’t be another chance.

  12. sasse is a backstabbing scum bag who supported a lying, murdering criminal and her serial rapist husband over Trump. He deserves to lose his next election.

  13. Great essay Mike. Sasse’s ego may be his true motivator. And for a politician, getting favorable press may be his daily goal.
    Will Sasse stop his pandering and start representing his voters? Not so far.

  14. Drain the swamp … by shooting this alligator.

  15. Mr Sasse is easy to understand, his actions are those of an unbridled egomaniac. I agree with him on most substance, but his problem is that he acts like a rebellious teenager, not a serious politician.
    Trump is it, we live or die on this hill. If you truly believe in the USA as standing for a set of values, then a mature individual subsumes his anger and plays for the team.
    Mr Sasse is clearly of the opinion he is too important for that. Too smart , too insightful to deprive us of even his most trivial bit of wisdom. If you have ever attended a MENSA meeting you know the type, to enamored of their own insights to acknowledge that anyone else might know something as well.

  16. The conservatism of the “movement conservatives” is a mish-mash of libertarianism, neoconservatism, and progressivism. The one ideological school these “movement conservatives” will not go near is, ironically enough, conservatism. if Russel Kirk or Robert Nisbet came on the scene in 2017 they’d be blacklisted by the “movement conservatives”.