The Disappearance of Virtue From American Politics

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

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

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.”

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Emma Green

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