Mr. Serious

Senator Ben Sasse, a Politician, Has Written a Serious, Non-Politician’s Book

There’s no glossy photo of him on the cover staring meaningfully into the future, and no easy bromides inside. Can a man such as this survive in today’s Washington?

Is there room for an intellectual academic in Donald Trump’s Republican Party? Is there room for a conservative in today’s literary culture? Is there room in America for U.S. Senator Ben Sasse?

With Trump’s White House engulfed in scandal and the American electorate in a constant state of war with itself, perhaps no one wants to hear the philosophical musings of an academic-turned-senator. But they should.

Since his election to the Senate as a Nebraska Republican in 2014, Sasse has emerged as the thinking man’s conservative hero who has amazingly prospered amid the backdrop of a chaotic Trump presidency. A unicorn, if you will. His new book, The Vanishing American Adult, reflects a worldview that views culture as upstream from politics.

While so many of his colleagues have written personal memoirs and campaign policy books to lay the groundwork for a potential presidential run, Sasse has chosen a different path. It’s more of a how-to guide for surviving and thriving in the 21st century—and it’s also about raising kids to become adults with values and character. It’s about how to live in a world that is simultaneously too comfortable and sanitized—but paradoxically too chaotic and dangerous.

If you want to raise a healthy and happy family in a rapidly changing world, this book will provide you with copious notes and ideas. Sasse even goes so far as to talk about how to develop a personal syllabus of books to read. But amid his practical advice, Sasse also challenges readers to consider esoteric ideas. (What is “adolescence,” anyway? Why are we segregating by age? Shouldn’t young people be around old people? Why are young people delaying marriage? Why you should be a traveler—not a “tourist.”)

People have always struggled to raise good kids while simultaneously dealing with economic and technological changes, and this book will treat readers to their fair share of Sasse’s thoughts on the subject. But this book also wrestles with the unique times in which we live. “It’s the Information Age or the Age of Globalization—or the Postindustrial Age,” he writes, searching for a name to assign our time. “We really don’t know what to call it or how to think about it. No one knows what comes next.”

If this doesn’t sound like a normal political book, that’s because Sasse isn’t a normal politician. The son of a football and wrestling coach from Nebraska, Sasse was Midland University’s president before coming to the Senate. His Ivy League education (including a Ph.D. in American history from Yale) is tempered by his folksy Midwestern roots.

Likewise, his references to Plato, Augustine, and Rousseau are made more approachable by his Gen-X sensibilities—and frequent pop culture references to people like Chevy Chase, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Seinfeld. If you could have taken the intellectual prowess of Newt Gingrich (circa 1994) and the freshness of Marco Rubio (circa 2010) and mixed them together, you might well have created an author who would write a book like this.

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. The Vanishing American Adult doesn’t have the typical glossy facade of a ghostwritten political stepping-stone. There is no predictable picture of Sasse, sport coat draped over his shoulder, staring thoughtfully off into space. The cover doesn’t even call him senator, just “Ben Sasse.” As he notes, “I don’t write primarily as a senator, but rather as a citizen, as a dad, as a reader, and as a former college president who closely and painfully observed how little our kids have read of our tradition.” Instead, this is presented as a real book by a real author about a real topic—which is precisely what The Vanishing American Adult is.

Ultimately, this book has the potential to do what so few books can promise: make you a better person. The Vanishing American Adult, if read widely, would build more thoughtful individuals—which would, if replicated, create a stronger civilization. These goals are ambitious, it’s true. Whereas most politicians begin downstream (seeking to change the way we vote), Sasse’s ultimate goal is to change the way we live, think, and work.

“At some point we forgot the difference between needs and wants and decided that acquiring things could bring us happiness,” Sasse writes. “It’s not true. Gluttony is a danger we’ve forgotten to guard against. But even more basically, consumption alone cannot make us happy; meaningful production more directly does.”

I can think of at least two types of people who might recoil at this. The first type: secular liberals who aren’t open to considering Sasse’s worldview and who will scoff that Sasse’s recipe for happiness (earned success) is too earnest and facile—especially coming from someone they might view as a privileged white guy. Others might simply not agree with the Christian worldview that undergirds Sasse’s perspective. This is not a preachy book, and it does not aim to strong-arm anyone into converting to Sasse’s faith. But approaching this book with an open mind might help.

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The second group of people who will not like this book are conservative Republicans who are interested solely in partisan politics and current events. You might think of them as the typical Fox News viewer. This is not a book about the temporal and petty world of politics. Instead, this book encompasses a wide range of topics including history, philosophy, and theology. And some of Sasse’s ideas (consumption doesn’t bring happiness, we should have rites of passage for adolescents, and we live in a broken world) might even sound like hippie talk to some on the right today.

For everyone else, this book will be a welcome respite from the distraction of our smart phones blowing up over the latest news and scandals plaguing Washington, D.C. Our ongoing struggle in life is how to balance responding to the urgent and devoting time to the important. The Vanishing American Adult is decidedly for people who want to focus on the latter.