U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has written a book, so just go ahead and check this off the list of Things Aspirational Politicians Do. Sasse has done a series of appearances on national talk shows to promote the book where he leans on his charm and humor. It’s fair to say the junior Republican from Nebraska is becoming one of the most-liked guys in Washington. One GOP campaign guru recently bragged to me that Sasse is doing a great job of “building his nonpolitical brand,” which he can then presumably leverage for explicitly political ambitions.
Except there’s one small hitch in the perception that this book is self-serving. If you think too deeply about Sasse’s book, “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance,” it should kill off his political career, and but good.
Everyone wants politicians to tell the truth, to go Bulworth, to really say the things that can’t be said. However, that’s a lie voters tell themselves. Buried under layers of gentle persuasion in Sasse’s book is the unflinching, unspeakable, unutterable truth: America will not be saved by politics—the ultimate problem is you and me. We are all complicit in a culture that renders successive generations increasingly unhappy and helpless, and there’s not much Washington can do about it.
For this sin, Sasse’s book earned a transparently petty and obtuse review from The New York Times. It seems Sasse doesn’t offer “much by way of political specifics” and “despite being one of the first so-called Never Trump Republicans before the presidential election, he has curiously little to say about the new president.”
As much as he may believe he is the alpha and omega, Trump is not an end in himself. If you want to talk about Trump, and our toxic politics more generally, noting these things are symptomatic of cultural breakdown and resentment seems like a productive discussion to have. And if you’re still desperate for a clue, the postscript of “The Vanishing American Adult” is entitled, “Why This Wasn’t A Policy Book.” But never mind that, the Times still wants to talk about Trump:
As much as Sasse wants to indict millennials for our ‘crisis’ of ‘character,’ young Americans voted decisively against the presidential candidate who lacked any governing experience, bragged about groping women’s genitals and actively courted the bigoted vote; it was voters over the age of 65 who favored Trump by an 8 percent margin. To read ‘The Vanishing American Adult’ is to reside in a parallel universe where older Americans stoically uphold standards of decency and responsibility, instead of electing to the country’s highest office a reality-TV star with six business bankruptcies to his name who brazenly flouts both.
Elsewhere, the author of the review willfully misreads the book: “I’m not making this all about Trump. Sasse is a GOP senator who thinks, despite all evidence, the biggest problem is coddled millennials.” But if Times’ reviewer is carrying around more political baggage than a Kardashian on safari, any fair-minded reader will note that Sasse is careful about distinctions, and clear on this point in particular: “As explained earlier, this book doesn’t lay the blame for our coming-of-age crisis chiefly at the feet of those now moving toward adulthood. Quite to the contrary, these problems are very significantly the result of broader cultural assumptions.”
In other words, there’s a huge difference between saying what Sasse actually says in the book—American cultural trends that first emerged in the nineteenth century have gotten steadily worse to the point where the current generation is unprepared to deal with enormous challenges of inheriting a financially strapped, post-industrial economy and a wholly dysfunctional government resulting from the failures of previous generations—and pretending that he says the problem is the millennial generation itself.
Such an uncharitable misunderstanding is both narcissistic and unintentionally reinforces the same supposedly offensive millennial stereotypes Sasse is being accused of propagating. (Speaking of which, decrying Sasse’s book even as you admit you haven’t read it doesn’t exactly make you a model spokesman for your generation.)
That said, most of Sasse’s advice is necessarily directed at young people and those raising them, because, quite obviously, “America’s next generation will be our next generation of rulers—that’s how a republic works.” Sasse’s book is motivated by genuine concern, and to the extent it reflects criticisms of those younger than he is, Sasse isn’t yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, but instead teaching them to mow it.
Considering the 45-year-old Sasse has had a successful private equity career, been a professor at the University of Texas-Austin, was an undersecretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, became a college president at age 38, and was elected to the Senate when he was 42, well, perhaps the Kids These Days ought to consider this guy might just be in a position to talk about values like work and self-reliance?
An Active Program
After a few chapters laying out the problems created by the hemlock cocktail of material abundance and cultural passivity, Sasse lays out an “active program” to help kids coming of age become cognizant, high-functioning, responsibility shouldering, civically engaged adults.
This takes the form of five different themes laid out over different chapters: One, we need to stop segregating Americans by age so much. Youth peer culture is unhealthy, and engagement with older people imparts wisdom and helps kids confront mortality. Two, develop a work ethic and learn to embrace the pain and discomfort that brings, knowing that productivity is one of the big keys to satisfaction and happiness.
Three, avoid overconsumption. Involvement in faith, family, community, and, yes, work are what fill the voids that are important in life, not accumulation of things, and learning the difference between “want” and “need” is the sign of a mature person. Four, learn to travel. Travel is necessarily different than tourism, and here Sasse gets at how to embrace the kind of adventures where you travel light, take risks, learn of different perspectives, and ultimately, build empathy. Five, Sasse suggests working at becoming a truly literate person, which is as much about having a moral and intellectual framework to discern what to read and grasp what you’ve read as it is the act of reading itself.
Despite the focus on self-reliance, Sasse doesn’t dismiss politics outright nor does he ignore systemic issues such as racism. But it’s fair to say that the more persuasive he is about the need to “rebuild a culture of self-reliance” the more repellent Sasse becomes to the current strains of cultural progressivism that see every expression through the lenses of personal identity and power politics.
Naturally, this also backs into a more explosive argument, and whether it is overtly political or not, this argument is makes him even more anathema to liberals. Sasse suggests early on that the problems we’re contending with also result from specific thinkers who are identifiably progressive, such as the godfather of America’s modern educational philosophy, John Dewey. Sasse upholds Dewey as a reason why, in the words of one government report Sasse quotes, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
This brings us to another reason Sasse’s book might give liberal readers fits. Over and over again, Sasse highlights that the fundamental problem with our current approach to education is the way it devalues virtue and embraces moral relativity. It’s not even really debatable that this is a part of the progressive political project, and at one point Sasse quotes Dewey saying “immutable truth is dead and buried. There is no room for fixed and natural law or permanent moral absolutes.”
As hard as it is to misinterpret Dewey’s oft-repeated sentiments to this effect, The Times reviewer assures me that Sasse is wrong about Dewey’s “totalizing goals” without bothering to explain why. However, it seems to me that Dewey is not wrong about the fact there is no room in modern America for “moral absolutes,” just as Sasse is right to worry about the culture this way of thinking has bequeathed us.
From the Theoretical to the Practical
Sasse is a Yale Ph.D. and his intellect is on full display here, dropping all manner of cultural, political, and historical references—he cites everyone from Rousseau to Thorstein Veblen to Edith Hamilton’s poetic translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. But despite the conspicuous erudition, Sasse is also determined to write an accessible book. Any professorial inclinations are cloaked with winsome admixture of folksy anecdotes, alarming social science data, and practical advice that often comes in the form of suggestion boxes at the end of the relevant chapters.
That last bit makes the book particularly interesting and valuable for parents. None of the advice is truly groundbreaking, but he does make good suggestions that move the book from the theoretical to the practical. Still, much of that practical advice, while entirely supportable by reams of evidence and common sense, means that parents who wish to follow it are going to be required to swim upstream against some pretty powerful cultural currents.
The indictment of public schooling is all well and good, but many people don’t have a choice other than to rely on it. (At least Sasse isn’t a hypocrite who stashes his kids in expensive private schools—he’s actively involved in homeschooling his kids and they are often by his side travelling with him or working in his Senate office.)
Other cultural trends are simply inescapably pervasive; Sasse spends a lot of time railing against the soul-destroying effects of a digitally wired society that leaves little room for personal interaction and meaningful contemplation. Setting aside the growing body of worrisome research here, we all know we would be better off if there was a way of ripping away kids from video games, smart phones, and ubiquitous pornography. But I doubt Pandora’s closing the box any time soon, if ever.
Still, if Sasse encourages everyone to be intentional about what their kids are exposed to, up to and including the effort necessary to teach kids how to cultivate their own virtue—well, maybe America’s still got a fighting chance. If we choose not to do this, the alternative is a truth so unutterable and frightening that I doubt that even a man of Sasse’s political gifts can sugarcoat it: We’re doomed.