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On Ben Sasse, Civil Society, and Voting Records

June 15th, 2017 | 11 min read

By Jake Meador

Last week Matthew Walther went hard after one of my Senators, Ben Sasse, in a piece for The Week. The piece wandered a bit, but I basically agreed with it: It’s hard to make sense of Sasse as a politician because there is, from where a lot of us are sitting, a large gap between his rhetoric and his actual voting record. Moreover, it’s hard to square some of his rhetoric with his policy preferences.

Walther gets at one of the problems neatly in this paragraph:

I should say that condescending evangelical Christians who pride themselves on being debt free and pursuing meaningful hobbies probably have their hearts in the right place. The fact that millions of Americans are wasting their lives watching garbage on television and pornography and eating junk food is tragic. But has it never occurred to high-horse Republicans that three decades of neoliberal atomization, of untrammeled free speech and unregulated free markets, while very good for the partners at Boston Consulting Group, the first place this “historian” worked after becoming a bachelor of arts at Harvard, have been devastating for millions of Americans without the financial and intellectual resources available to them? If the poor have vicious habits, whose fault is it — theirs or the people who made fortunes encouraging and refining these habits with the help of international consulting firms?

Then this monstrosity of a piece got published. The majority of Nichols’ review seems like little more than the sort of thinly veiled coastal snobbery that explains much of the 2016 election. It’s the sort of thinking that is almost enough to make me a Trumpkin purely out of spite. That’s not a thing I’m proud of, to be clear, but it’s the reaction I have as a lifelong Nebraskan to some liberal snob calling my home a “patch of wilderness.”

That said, Nichols did make one interesting observation which, sadly, didn’t really get developed amidst all the self-adulating snark:

When he’s not trying to build a case for child labor, Sasse sounds more like a new-age philosopher than a Tea Party senator. His prescriptions for modern youth are, for the most part, distinctively un-Republican. He invites readers to limit their possessions and reject consumerism. He has a soft spot for nature, and he writes at length about the benefits of the cross-country road trip. At one point, he argues for a greater embrace of birth and death with an anecdote about witnessing a friend’s birth with his wife as a “trial run” for their own. “The obstetrics nurses were — to put it mildly — surprised to see the four of us arrive in the delivery room arm in arm,” he writes. He describes this as “a great evening.” This mishmash of ideologies — part Thoreau, part Kerouac, part Mommy Blogger — bears no resemblance to Sasse’s actual voting record, which is hostile to the environment and seeks to further enrich the purveyors of mindless entertainment and conspicuous consumption.

This is the interesting question about Sasse. Both Sasse and his friend, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, are obviously interested in a fairly un-Republican sort of social vision. Lee just oversaw the release of a report on the state of civil society in America, after all:

Today, Americans face a wide variety of challenges in our era of tumultuous transition. We are materially better off in many ways than in the past. But despite this real progress, there is a sense that our social fabric has seen better days. Leading thinkers have issued warnings that we are increasingly “bowling alone,” “coming apart,” and inhabiting a “fractured republic.” At the heart of those warnings is a view that what happens in the middle layers of our society is vital to sustaining a free, prosperous, democratic, and pluralistic country. That space is held together by extended networks of cooperation and social support, norms of reciprocity and mutual obligation, trust, and social cohesion. In short, it is sustained by what we do together.

The Social Capital Project is a multi-year research effort that will investigate the evolving nature, quality, and importance of our associational life. “Associational life” is our shorthand for the web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors—namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and our religious congregations. These institutions are critical to forming our character and capacities, providing us with meaning and purpose, and for addressing the many challenges we face.

The goal of the project is to better understand why the health of our associational life feels so compromised, what consequences have followed from changes in the middle social layers of our society, why some communities have more robust civil society than others, and what can be done—or can stop being done—to improve the health of our social capital. Through a series of reports and hearings, it will study the state of the relationships that weave together the social fabric enabling our country—our laws, our institutions, our markets, and our democracy—to function so well in the first place.

What’s curious is that this sort of communitarianism typically leads one into inevitable conflicts with GOP orthodoxy. That has been my experience as well as the experience of many other young trads. For many communitarians, I think the natural movement is to say that if communal life is a central concern then a more expansive view of the magistrate’s role in promoting civil society is almost inevitable. The prevailing orthodoxy on the American right is so deeply individualistic that I struggle to see any place for civil society in the aggressively libertarian approach they have embraced.

Several years ago I heard a well-to-do man say that a recession would be good because it would separate the men from the boys. That’s the spirit I see on the American right: We’re all autonomous, isolated individuals who rise and fall based on our own merit. Certainly that’s the spirit of the leadership of the GOP. It’s the spirit behind Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% comments as well as the spirit behind the actual agenda of the Trump administration, the president’s empty campaign rhetoric not withstanding.

If you’re someone who cares about communal life, you look at all of this with a bit of horror and, in most cases, seem to naturally move leftward on economics and healthcare, at minimum: You come to see a stronger social safety net as an essential part of caring for the needs of our neighbors and you are relatively easy to persuade on something like single-payer given the paucity of market-based solutions on offer.

This, of course, is precisely what is so odd about Sasse and Lee. If they were just garden variety GOP apparatchiks… well, why talk about civil society so much? Why criticize the president so much? Certainly one plausible answer is “chase that #maverick brand that John McCain is going to pass on to someone.” But I don’t think it’s the only plausible answer, nor do I think it fully explains what either of them have done during their time in public life.

On this point, geography may turn out to be instructive: Sasse is from Nebraska. Lee is from Utah. One of the things both states seem to possess is a sort of instinctive independence. Utah’s independence can be easily explained by simply looking at their religious history. It’s probably also worth noting that Jon Huntsman and Evan McMullin are both from Utah.

I’m not sure where Nebraska’s comes from. But relative to our neighbors in Iowa and Kansas, I have always found Nebraskans to be more protective of their right to make up their own mind and act in what way seems best to them. A close friend of mine who lived 15 years in Kansas and 15 in Nebraska has said the same thing. And I think when you look at my state’s recent history, you see that independence at work. We haven’t had the sort of conservative revolution Kansas has seen, where we adopt a kind of new Republican Orthodoxy as a grand experiment in conservativism. That wouldn’t fly here. Nor do we have the Democratic population that Iowa does—that would be no less problematic for most of our citizens. We’re red, but the sort of red that elects people like Bob Kerrey, Ben Nelson, Chuck Hagel, and, of course, Sasse himself.

But the independence of Nebraska, and I assume Utah as well, is not simply an older form of today’s existentialist individualism where everyone is free to define themselves. It’s older and a bit hokier than that.

Note how often that piece by Paul Harvey ties the farmer’s work to the life of his local place. There’s mention of school boards and families, animals and neighbors, church and children. It might be corny, but it also describes a way of life that actually does exist—or at least has in the past—in places like Nebraska.

If you came to Nebraska you would absolutely meet people here who exemplify the ideals Harvey is talking about. I was raised by people like that—and so were they. That Ram commercial may score high on the cheesiness scale, but it also accurately describes three generations of my family—and if I’m faithful to the vows I’ve taken to my family, it will describe four.

The independence that Nebraskans cherish is not an independence whose goal is self-actualization; it’s an independence whose goal is being free to care for neighbor and family and place. It’s a strained and probably unsustainable sort of individualism that, on the one hand, resents the unchosen authority claimed by the magistrate, but on the other freely sacrifices individual expression for early mornings, long hours of volunteer work, and a deep loyalty to land and people. It’s an independence that is deeply suspicious of coercion, even if that isn’t wholly coherent given the role the magistrate can and should play in promoting the common good.

But, right or wrong, the coercive power of the magistrate is seen as a threat to the free assembly of people who mean to care for themselves independent of what they would see as the interference of outsiders and bureaucrats. Some of Sasse’s own speeches make this point, as when he cited an EPA regulation that made it very difficult for Nebraska farmers to complete tasks that should be relatively simple and straightforward. For Sasse and, presumably, for Lee, we need a limited government to protect civil society because when government gets involved it inevitably ends up taking on many of the jobs properly left to intermediate civil institutions.

And that brings us back to Walther’s critique: At root, I suspect Sasse and Lee’s interest in civil society probably does contradict their voting records. But it’s complicated. And if there is a contradiction, I don’t think it’s because Sasse or Lee are bereft of principles, as Nichols quite clearly stated and Walther strongly implied.

Rather, I think Sasse and Lee are both loyal sons of states that cherish an older form of American individualism which we might see as an odd sort of working-class cousin to the old ideal of noblisse oblige: You’re a Nebraskan farmer. You’re your own man. No one tells you when to get up, when to take a lunch break, or where you can or can’t go for medical care. (It’s worth noting that many Nebraskans I know who hate the idea of single-payer also deeply resent insurance companies for reasons that actually overlap a lot with their reasons for hating single-payer—they’re a huge bureaucracy, they’re outsiders, they claim authority over people that isn’t rightfully theirs, and so on.)

But the purpose of being your own man isn’t so you can engage in some sort of life-long work of self discovery via introspection, experience, and so on. You need to be your own man so you can take care of the people around you who share the same place with you as well as many of the same loves, fears, and ambitions. It’s an odd sort of communitarian individualism that, again, may not be coherent or sustainable but absolutely exists in huge swathes of this country. If people want to understand Republican communitarians like Sasse and Lee, I think this is the place to start. And if we’re serious about doing the hard work of being good citizens in a republic, then we need to pursue this sort of understanding rather than engaging in self-adulating theatrics.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).