The Disappearance of Virtue From American Politics

In his new book, Ben Sasse has identified the right project for America: rehabilitating a shared moral language.

Nati Harnik / AP / 21kompot /Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In just two short years, Senator Ben Sasse has gone from Capitol Hill newbie to digital president puncher, tweeting about Donald Trump’s affairs and the Midwestern dumpster fires he found more appealing than 2016’s Oval Office contenders.

Yet, on his breaks from Twitter, Sasse managed to craft a serious new book, The Vanishing American Adult. It advances a thesis that’s at once out of place at this political moment and almost too on-the-nose for the Trump years: He believes Americans have lost their sense of personal integrity and discipline. For the country to deal with the troubles ahead—including automation, political disengagement, and the rise of nativist, huckster politicians, he says—people must recover their sense of virtue. The republic depends on it.

Earnest talk of virtue is uncommon in American politics. Forget the low lows of 2016, a year defined by political cynicism and brutish behavior, or even these first months of 2017, which have been swallowed by dramatic revelations and relentless Washington in-fighting. At this point, the idea of a shared culture is almost unimaginable: America has been carved up into mutually exclusive spheres bounded by religion, race, income, and city-limit signs. Sasse is taking on a problem more challenging than getting legislation through Congress, courting disgruntled voters, or even figuring out what to do about America’s haphazard president. He’s trying to articulate a language of shared culture and values in a country that has been rocked by technological, cultural, and demographic change. It may be an imperfect attempt. But at least Sasse has identified the right project.

The Vanishing American Adult is written as a reflection on the purpose and nature of education, which, Sasses argues, should extend beyond schooling and classrooms. “Everywhere I go across the country, I hear from people who share an ominous sense that something is very wrong with our kids,” he writes. “We’ve lost something from our older ways of coming of age.” Instead of relying on “institutionalized school-centric childhood[s],” Sasse says, families should develop practices that will prepare their kids to become “fully formed, vivacious, appealing, resilient, self-reliant, problem-solving souls who see themselves … called to love and serve their neighbors.” This is the future he wants for his kids.

Sasse’s proposed cultivation program is a cross between boot camp and a great-books seminar. In a chapter called “Embrace Work Pain,” Sasse encourages families to set their alarms early, maintain a rigorous chore system, and send their kids out to do hard labor; in his case, it was detasseling corn, while his daughter Corrie learned how to care for pregnant cows. Sasse holds up multi-generational relationships, world travel, and voracious reading as ways of building greater empathy and self-knowledge. He spends pages fretting about which 60 volumes he should include in his family “canon,” which he and his wife built to “model … a life saturated by a stack of truly life-changing books” for their kids.

The Republican senator also shows his countercultural streaks. A large portion of the book is dedicated to forms of stoicism, discipline, and self-denial: “There is almost nothing more important we can do for our young than convince them that production is more satisfying than consumption,” he writes. “Anyone who swims so completely in a sea of material surplus as to be unaware of the virtues of the simple life is flirting with great moral risk.” His tips are concrete—cut down on spending, screen time, and for the tired parents, drinking—but the purpose is lofty: “It is very difficult for a rich republic to remain virtuous.”

In fact, everything in the book is ultimately pitched for the good of the republic. Citizens who take little interest in books threaten the idea of democracy, which “assume[s] the ability to read—and a desire to read.” Americans have long held the “ideal that work is a necessary component of becoming a fully formed adult, that a life well-lived entails a forward-leaning embrace of responsibility.” The country’s great challenge is “to create lifelong learners and lifelong producers,” he writes. “The vast majority of the challenge is about nurturing more resilient souls. And governments cannot nurture.”

Americans “are a drifting and aimless people—awash in material goods and yet spiritually aching for meaning.”

Even though Sasse is an elected official, or perhaps because of what he’s seen in politics, he believes culture—and the acculturation of the young—is more important than policy. “The heart of the problem we are tackling in this book is well upstream from politics,” he writes, explaining “why this wasn’t a policy book.” Americans “are a drifting and aimless people—awash in material goods and yet spiritually aching for meaning.” His proposals are about recovering this sense of meaning and establishing a shared language for talking about it, thickening the civic culture that serves as the foundation of political deliberation.

This is an increasingly radical idea. America has largely responded to the challenges of diversity and pluralism by pushing moral language out of public life. Democratic deliberation is almost uniformly tainted with the assumption of bad faith. Platforms like Twitter, beloved by Sasse and Trump alike, thrive on outrage, reduction, and snark. The fact that Sasse still believes in a shared American cultural project is remarkable, given the extent of its unwinding and intensity of the factors working against it.

Perhaps Sasse doesn’t take those challenges seriously enough. Throughout the book, Sasse crutches on the presumptive “we,” as in, “Because we are the richest people the world has ever known, our children know few limits.” Or: “In our efforts to develop kids’ talents, to provide them with a set of extracurricular experiences even more impressive than our own, many of us” may focus on the wrong goals. The “us” implied in these statements is slippery: While Sasse may claim he’s talking about all Americans, he’s really speaking to the upper-middle class, the privileged few whose only barrier to living “somewhere else for 60 days”—another of Sasse’s tips—is “a review of their family’s calendar” and “searching for the opportunity.”

Sasse pays little attention to the real divides in income, race, and religious conviction that have left many Americans feeling like they live among strangers in a country that wasn’t built for them. Some of his ideas seem punitive, showing the dark side of the Protestant work ethic he so cherishes: Historically, Sasse writes, “the important American cultural cleavage was … not rich versus poor, but rather dignified working poor versus supposedly lazy, undeserving poor.” He updates this mythical archetype for the modern age: parents who stream another Netflix sitcom instead of shoveling their neighbor’s walk, or “needy, undisciplined, coddled, presumptuous” young people who lack “much of a filter between their public personas and their inner lives.” Blaming Millennials for America’s cultural drift is the book’s most grievous and inexplicable category error—maybe we could call it ad millennialem, in the spirit of Sasse’s exhortation for the young to study ancient Rome on their path to virtue. It’s an out for the 45-year-old senator to finger the generation below him rather than grapple with the structural inequalities and cultural differences that have fractured the country over the course of many years.

“It is very difficult for a rich republic to remain virtuous.”

But it’s also a mistake to call The Vanishing American Adult a “consummate politician’s book” or a naïve ode to the power of chores, as The New York Times has done—Sasse is working in a much older tradition of writing and thinking. Throughout the book, he keeps returning to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile as a reference point and implicit model for what he’s doing. In keeping with Sasse’s studied performance of folksy erudition, this 18th-century text is a bit of a political-philosophy deep cut. It follows the fictional story of a child, Emile, as he gains the education he needs to survive in a corrupt society. The book is about the wisdom that comes from firsthand experience, like flying kites to teach a sense of direction or swimming streams that will one day become the Hellespont.

Like Rousseau, Sasse believes challenging experiences form a person’s character and the heart of education. Like Rousseau, Sasse sees healthy society as a function of virtuous individuals. The senator is making “a plea for self-discipline and self-control” as “the one and only dignified alternative to discipline and control” by the government. At its core, the book also pleads for something greater: the rehabilitation of shared values in a time of intense difference; a focus on culture as the deepest challenge of politics; and the ability to imagine virtue as part of who we are as citizens, whether Sasse gets it right or not.