Freshman Senator Ben Sasse made headlines when he gave a speech urging his Senate colleagues to exercise humility in leadership and earn back the trust of the American electorate. He made bigger ones when he became the first member of Congress to issue a statement saying he would not support Donald Trump if he became the Republican nominee for president. Thanks to alumna Jessica Prol who serves on Senator Sasse's staff, we spoke with the senator about principled leadership in an age of demagoguery.
Given the surprising factionalism during this primary season, what will the political landscape look like come 2017? Will these newly-surfacing political divides remain? Or will they fade away during the general election?
People who get paid to predict these things are stumped by this historical moment so it’s unwise for me to pretend I have any special insight.
From a historian’s angle, though, it is worth remembering two very different moments: 1860 and 1992. In the first historical moment, there were four significant presidential candidates and Abraham Lincoln became the first of many Republican presidents. In the second, a third candidate got significant votes, but things returned to the same two parties soon after.
But 2016—who knows? We’re a long way from November and I think voters will not be stuck with a general election choice between the current frontrunners, both dishonest New York liberals.
Let’s put this in context though: We are in a moment of constitutional crisis with a White House that has consistently circumvented the Constitution’s limits to presidential power. In 2017 we will see whether America’s next president—of whatever party—chooses to respect the Constitution’s limits on his or her power.
Sadly, the Democrats have gone mostly post-Constitutional and some Republicans seem happy to join them. I happen to be a Republican with one of the most conservative voting records in the U.S. Senate, but this isn’t fundamentally a partisan issue. The top concern of all American voters, should be to respect the Constitution and its checks and balances.
For conservatives who would claim to be sick of the perceived ineffectiveness of "the establishment", what alternatives are available to them? What kind of leaders should they be looking for? What role can educational organizations like the John Jay Institute play in helping to produce these leaders?
When you talk to Nebraskans, a consistent theme will emerge: Washington is not serious.
We need a humble politics where Washington needs to do fewer things but tackle the most important challenges with greater urgency and more transparency—problems like national security, an entitlement crisis, and the growth of the administrative state. I don’t see government simply as our shared project—merely a name for what we choose to do together. Our rights are given to us by God via nature and government is our project to secure those rights.
We need leaders who fight in a more meaningful way. I think it would be wonderful if we had a whole bunch of people serving in Congress with much less regard for 24-month election cycles and 24-hour news cycles—people who are pretty comfortable with losing elections because they want to tackle really big problems.
Organizations like the John Jay Institute offer an invaluable service—cultivate young people’s understanding of our exceptional history and foster the ethics, character, and friendships that make gutsy leadership possible.
Some of us are called to public service, but government is not the thing that we aspire to—government is not what we want to be free to. If politics is all you have in your life, you don’t understand the idea that our Declaration of Independence and Constitution embody. Politics are about creating a framework to be free from so many horrible things in the world so that you can be free to go pursue happiness in your local communities, in your churches, in your families, in your schools, at the PTA, at the little league, at the Rotary.
The meaning of America is not in Washington, D.C.—the meaning of America is in all the communities and the “little platoons” from coast to coast.
Is our political system broken? Is Congress destined to govern as partisan absolutists, preferring to shut down the government rather than compromise? Will the legislature slip into obsolescence amidst the growing power of the executive and judicial branches?
There is a great deal of dysfunction in Washington. After my election, I worked to interview many of my new colleagues in the Senate and found a great deal of agreement about the perverse incentives to short-term thinking. Some of the biggest challenges: The incessant fundraising, the ubiquity of cameras everywhere that we talk, the normalization over the last decade of using many Senate rules as just shirts-and-skins exercises, and the constant travel—again, fundraising— meaning, sadly, many families around here get ripped up.
The diagnosis, of course, is easier than the solution. But I’d begin by suggesting that civic disengagement is arguably a much larger problem than political polarization. And organizations like John Jay help remedy that apathy.
It isn’t so much folks back home are really locked into predictably Republican and predictably Democratic positions on every issue, it is that they tuned Congress out altogether. They don’t think we’re serious. The political class is unpopular not because of its relentless truth-telling but because of politicians’ habit of regularized pandering to those who most easily already agree with them.
Unfortunately, we have a president who has essentially said, “well, if the Congress won’t do what I want them to do, if they won’t pass the laws I wish they would pass, then I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone, and I can change things unilaterally.” That’s tragic.
Our Founders wouldn’t be able to make sense of the system we are living in right now. This kind of executive overreach came about partly because of a symbiotic legislative under-reach. Republicans and Democrats are both to blame for grabbing more power when they have the Presidency. Republicans and Democrats are both to blame in this legislature for not wanting to take on hard issues and to lead through hard votes but rather to sit back and let successive Presidents gobble up more and more power. We can and we must do better than this.
Representative government will require civic reengagement. Limited government is not an end in itself. Limited government is a way to make sure you and your children are safe and free to live fully meaningful lives—lives that lead to a prosperous, vital and virtuous society.
Senator Ben Sasse is a freshman Senator from Nebraska. He and his wife Melissa are raising their three kids in Fremont, NE.