Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) may be best known as an early and principled #NeverTrumper, but few are aware the former college president and Yale PhD. is among the most thoughtful members of either party. In a wide-ranging discussion with former ambassador Eric Edelman at a Foreign Policy Initiative conference, Sasse recently spoke about American exceptionalism, Alexis de Tocqueville, the Federalist Papers, civic education, failed states, Iran and trade (among other things) — all in 45 minutes.
He was not giving cookie-cutter answers, nor did he resort to partisan talking points. To the contrary, Sasse’s take on a number of issues, including American exceptionalism — which most conservatives use to attack liberals — provides critical insight into the challenges facing the right in the Donald Trump era.
Republicans, who seem to have drunk the nativist Kool-Aid, would be wise to heed his counsel. Exceptionalism, he explained, rests on America’s founding. The American founding is a claim “about human dignity,” Sasse reminded us. He said that we should recognize “what great peril we’re in right now” because we lack a shared sense that America is built on an ideal about the worth of every individual and on the principles of self-government. “We haven’t done civic or cultural catechesis,” he said. “We have not taught them about what this idea means, to have a creedal nation.” He went on to say, “We aren’t a nation rooted in blood. We aren’t a nation based in ethnicity . . . America was an idea that was about something much bigger than what tribe you come from.”
That message was entirely absent — and remains absent — in the xenophobic, nativist ramblings of Trump and his followers. Trump’s supporters rallied to his cry of white resentment and anti-immigrant blame-mongering. His authoritarianism and contempt for the First Amendment were of no concern. Put differently, the right, for all its Constitutional veneration, has become proudly ignorant about our founding principles and instead has adopted the worst aspects of the left: race obsession and class resentment. In the hands of misogynistic and xenophobic opportunists, the right now seems to be all about getting even, getting what some Americans imagine was taken from them. Lost is the aim to make good on the American ideal that all of us have worth and the right to pursue our aspirations.
It is here, perhaps, that the conscientious center-right and center-left can join forces. Both should reject the steady diet of xenophobia on the right and identity politics on the left. Both should insist on a revival of civic education. (When the president has not a clue that the First Amendment protects the press from printing things he does not like and that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees birthright citizenship to all of us, we can hardly expect the public to be any more informed.) Surely, a sense of shared responsibility for the fate of our neighbors, especially those facing economic or other hardship, should be the basis of our public policy discussion.
In the foreign policy realm, Sasse also provided intellectual clarity. “Let’s start by rejecting silly false choices,” he urged, “the idea that there is a choice between isolationism and some sort of machine internationalism.” He continued, “Realism done right is still going to affirm lots of long-term value propositions about the role of law, about stability, about when you make pledges to allies they know they should trust you and that your enemies should fear that you are going to keep your word.” He went on: “Conversely, idealism done right is going to be bounded by a sense that the world is broken and there are going to be a whole bunch of things that are beyond your ability to anticipate, and there will be unintended consequences.” That, too, seems to be a proposition — sensible internationalism — that center-right and left can agree upon.
On Iran specifically, Sasse warned that whether one was for or against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we now have the issue of Iran’s behavior beyond the nuclear realm, for which we lack a coherent strategy. Certainly center-right and left could agree with that, as well as Sasse’s proposition that the U.S. must rebuild credibility, draw “red lines” with care and prevent the reemergence of power vacuums that are sure to be filled with Islamist militants.
And in the realm of globalism and economic development, Sasse also rejected the Trumpian nonsense of protectionism and the illusion we can turn back the clock to some golden era. He noted that, when people are anxious, they “project” their worries into demands about trade. Nevertheless, in his state, people logically understand that, for example, if there is more trade with Asia, “whether you want to buy a Japanese pickup or not, you will end up with a cheaper Chevy and we will end up with more beef market for export.” He cautioned, “We can talk about a specific factory moving from Ohio or Indiana to Mexico and the jobs that might be saved or lost in a move like that, but the long-term factor is that each of those factories have so many fewer workers. We are talking about 7 percent of the U.S. workforce now working in industrial jobs.” Neither party, he said, is focusing on the real challenges — creating lifetime learners who can navigate through economic shifts we cannot now anticipate.
Sasse is unusual because, sadly, so few pols talk to voters like adults, addressing rather than denying complexity and appealing to American ideals rather than base fears and tribal prejudices. Perhaps it is because so few politicians bother to go beyond demands of rank partisanship and dumbed-down rhetoric. Sasse may be an outlier — but we hope he can be a leader in a thinking person’s movement to wrestle with problems in a global economy and a dangerous world while remaining true to the ideals on which America was founded.