Books authored by sitting politicians can take a number of non-fictional forms, but the books themselves tend not to be very good. Whether the work is a memoir or policy briefing, self-help or polemic, these authors can’t be expected to take the risks necessary to produce something great. Considering how busy their day jobs keep them, politicians can’t even be expected to actually write the books with their names on them. If politicians’ books are known for anything, it’s that their campaigns buy big piles of them in a sketchy way. For his book, Senator Ben Sasse (Republican of Nebraska) made an unconventional choice: He wrote a parenting manual.
Sasse has tried to cultivate an unconventional image for a senator: A young faith-and-family-first prairie Republican, Sasse distinguished himself in his first term, after being elected in 2014, by refusing to endorse or vote for his party’s 2016 presidential nominee. As a leader of the failed #NeverTrump movement he may be on the outs with the executive branch for a while, but Sasse is only 45 years old, and in the long run he kept his dignity intact by declining the President. It’s the kind of test that every God-fearing Christian should have passed, but among elected Republicans it took a guy with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale.
The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild A Culture of Self-Reliance was in some ways a brilliant premise for a politician’s book. Railing against the young wussy generation—with their safe spaces and iPods and blah blah blah—is an easy shortcut to perceived seriousness. The media knows this strategy well; the New York Times op-ed page in particular has been running the same play once a month or so for the past few years. And if it works for op-ed writers, it might work for a politician: Sasse gets to position himself first and foremost as a dad. He is not the cool dad who lets you stay up late, nor is he the stodgy dad who can’t imagine why you’d want to. Sasse is the tough but fair dad who has loaded you with enough responsibility (the ethic) and responsibilities (the tasks) that you go to bed early so you can get up and do your chores. After a term or two of Trump, it’s not a bad bet that the American people would be open to someone like him.
Sasse focuses on five habits that he sees as centrally important in the development from child to adult: intergenerational experience, limiting consumption, developing a work ethic, travel, and reading. It’s a list that could come out of a parenting guide from almost anywhere on the ideological spectrum, and honestly, it’s not a terrible one. Sasse is extremely corny from time to time (“We have some friends who camp occasionally not because they like it, but so that they appreciate their home even more”), but that seems like more of a feature than a bug. He doesn’t pose traditionalism as a new counter-culture because Sasse doesn’t have any interest in being part of a counter-culture. And yet, his fidelity to timeless values feels almost refreshing in a political moment when all the compasses seem to be spinning. Even Rand Paul starts to sound good when no one else will speak against a blank check for war.
In the book, Sasse goes far out of his way to be uncontroversial and extend his appeal across the board. Policy disagreements are reduced to asides, and he spends roughly zero time complaining about Obama, something I don’t think many elected Republicans could manage over nearly 300 pages. Sasse doesn’t foam at the mouth. More interesting is the way he reflects a growing willingness on some parts of the right to incorporate left-wing critiques of capitalist society. The senator cites hippie favorite Paul Goodman on public education, C. Wright Mills and John Kenneth Galbraith on consumerism, and even concedes that Karl Marx had a point about the “alienation of labor.” Sasse is a big supporter of traditional values, and it doesn’t bother him to take a shot or two like: “Our global systems of production have radically reduced the prices of almost everything, but they have also come at the cost of promoting a new mentality that everything is disposable.” Compared to the grinning nihilism of the neoliberal consumer implied by popular television (and overrepresented by both parties), it’s easy for even a Christian conservative of conscious to appear progressive.
I have no doubt that there are political consultants already very excited about Sasse and his future. He manages an inclusive, above-the-fray rhetoric, while remaining one of the most dogmatically conservative legislators. His ratings from various interest groups are highly polarized: the Heritage Foundation rates him the second-best member of the Senate (behind Mike Lee), while the NAACP thinks he’s among the second-worst (also behind Mike Lee). Sasse wants to force women to bring their pregnancies to term, put Christ back in the classroom, and cut taxes to make sure that’s all the government can do. At his day job he lacks even the occasional rogue streak; he is as consistently and as conventionally conservative as anyone (except Mike Lee). But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from his parenting advice. Whining about millennials could be coming from pretty much anywhere.
The biggest publicity hit The Vanishing American Adult has received reduced the book and the author to afterthoughts. Sitting one-on-one with Bill Maher, Sasse invited the comedian to come out to Nebraska and “work in the fields.” Maher couldn’t resist. It was a big swing and a miss on Maher’s part, which is too bad, because it was also an opportunity to poke at a weak spot in the guest’s argument. Sasse’s section on developing a work ethic is based on his own experience as a kid weeding soybean fields and detasseling corn (a detail mentioned in nearly every article about the senator, as well as the book’s short biographical note), but there aren’t enough ears to go around, and for most young Americans work experience is less picturesque. It’s not clear how a summer behind the counter at Starbucks drives home the value of “Work first, play later; and limit your play as much as necessary to get back to bed to be able to work first thing again tomorrow.” I’d agree that there is value to midwestern communalist agricultural practices, but to focus on that would require Sasse to consider the social relations of production instead of individual virtue. Easier to say that kids should work harder, like he did, weeding the soybean fields and detasseling corn.
Perhaps Sasse foregrounds his idyllic Nebraska childhood because the rest of his biography doesn’t gel quite as well with the brand he wants to project. When contemplating a worthy work life, Sasse quotes Martin Luther’s advice to a cobbler convert: “Make good shoes, and sell them at a reasonable price.” Except Sasse doesn’t make anything. As an adult, he has bounced between academia, the worlds of consulting and finance, and the government. That would all make more sense if he placed a high value on scholarship or public service, but despite his degrees Sasse relentlessly attacks schools—and as for public service, don’t forget about his Heritage rating. He exalts earthy labor that connects men to the land they live on, but he worked as an outside advisor to McKinsey: a consultant to consultants.
Reading Sasse’s book, I was interrupted by a persistent thought: Why isn’t this guy a youth pastor? All of the values and advice he so passionately dispenses sound like they should be coming from someone who has dedicated himself not just to service, but to modest service. Even with the ultra-conservative policy preferences, there’s nothing in Sasse’s set of declared principles that suggests pursuing that agenda is of life-defining importance. Many people oppose abortion in many different ways; very few of them become Republican senators. If anything, Sasse’s small government ethic should make him uneasy about living off the taxpayers. But maybe for him ambition isn’t a general-purpose value. Maybe he thinks most people should be humble, and others should not.
One of Sasse’s claims to fame is that he turned around a small, struggling hometown college. In the book he mines the tenure for credibility and a hard-to-believe anecdote about an entitled student. But the way Sasse reformed Midland owes more to his experience in private equity than wisdom about hard work. As president, Sasse rebranded Midland Luther College as Midland University, swallowed up half the students from a nearby de-licensed for-profit college, survived his own close call with the licensing board, invested in sports and a business program, and changed the school colors. For that he was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, at a university with an enrollment smaller than that of many public high schools. There’s nothing folksy or visionary about his work at Midland; it’s straight out of the corporate consultant playbook. And there’s no sign from Sasse’s professional life that he knows how to do much else.
Writing in favor of delayed gratification and attempting to channel Augustine, Sasse says, “I remain selfish and impatient today, but it is surely not fake or wrong to seek to sublimate these traits.” When he was in his late 30s, Augustine sold his property, gave the money to the poor, and pursued a life of preaching, introspective scholarship, and monastic friendship. Sasse is a little behind, but it’s not too late to try.