DES MOINES, Iowa – At The FAMiLY Leader’s Celebrate the Family Banquet held at the Marriott in Downtown Des Moines on Saturday night the focus was off of politics, even for the United States Senator who was the keynote speaker for the evening.
“I have no intention to talk about 2016 at all tonight, or frankly 2012, 2020, or 2024. I have no intention to talk about Republicans or Democrats tonight. Because frankly, one of the things that is great about civically-engage Americans is that we understand that it is almost a little bit unAmerican to organize your life around 24-hour news cycles or around two and four year, even numbered or quadrennial election years,” U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, the Republican junior Senator from Nebraska, said to the 550 evangelicals and social conservatives in attendance.
“Who we are as a people are not things that are primarily defined by what happens in the Iowa State Capitol or the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Government is really important to provide a framework for ordered liberty, but most of everything that is really, really interesting in the world can’t be done by compulsion, it can’t be done by force, and that is really the domain of government. Government’s tools are the tools of power, and we believe in things that are much more human, much more fully textured,” he said.
“The really interesting things are things that happen by persuasion, by love, and by volunteerism,” Sasse added.
He noted there is a lot to be done through government, but it could not solve the big problems the nation faces.
“The most important crises we face in our time and place are not crises that can be reduced to Republicans versus Democrat, for the 535 people that I work with, we aren’t that interesting. The really, really important debates of our time, the really big things that we need to do, really can’t be reduced to a political spectrum or right versus left. But rather, the really big crises of our time and place are about our present obsessions against both past and future because we live in a time of great historical amnesia. We live in a time when we don’t know what we are trying to preserve from the past. We are not very good at passing the stuff on to our kids and grandkids right now. And we live in a time where we do not have a lot of shared understanding about what we need to build for the future,” Sasse asserted.
Highlighting themes from his recent book The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse noted the three major challenges Americans face today – the transformation of the workplace, the growing relational isolation people have, and whether kids have any understanding of the American civil project – are never discussed in Washington, DC.
Future of Work
Sasse said before the industrial revolution people did not really choose their jobs. With the Industrial Revolution, many people changed jobs but stayed with that job until retirement or death. Now America enters a time of uncertainty.
“The world we are entering right now. It is the world that all of our ancestors were scared to death about a hundred years ago. We are entering a world of perpetual churn and change and new job formation over and over and over again, and the course of the lives of our kids and grandkids and neighbors’ kids and grandkids, and people are scared,” Sasse said.
He noted with the AI revolution, the machine learning revolution, and digital learning revolution the job landscape is going to dramatically change. He said in 37 of 50 states the number of one is being a driver. “Many folks in Silicon Valley believe almost two-thirds of all driving jobs will be eliminated within the next ten years,” he said.
“Think about the angst and the turmoil we feel among a lot of our neighbors when we hear a breadwinner for their family and forty or forty-five getting laid off, and what that feels like. Now imagine a spiking curve when that becomes the experience of almost everybody you know,” Sasse noted.
“The average graduate of a small college in the Midwest will not just going to change jobs, but they were going to change industries three times in their first ten years after college,” he explained.
“We are entering a world where not one of your neighbors is going to get disintermediated out of their job or their firm, but their whole industry, their skill set, when they are 40, 45, or 50. Not one of them, but most of them,” Sasse asserted.
“When you are 45, and you lose your job, by and large, you never get employed again,” he added. “We are headed into a world where lots and lots of people are getting disintermediated at 45 or 50 we are going to have to figure out how to become a civilization of life-long learners although no one in human history has ever done that before,” he said.
“We are entering a time when what is happening to work is truly unprecedented in human history.”
He noted that over the next 30 years as we go from 7.2 to over nine billion people on earth we will also go from a world that needs three-and-a-half to four billion workers to three or two-and-a-half billion workers.
He asked what Americans are going to do when people in their lives don’t know how to find work. He added that one of the most fundamental drivers of human happiness is whether or not someone has meaningful work.
Growing Relational Disconnectedness
Sasse noted that in the midst of this uncertainty in our neighbors are looking for tribe and another challenge Americans face is what comes next in neighborhoods and communities.
“There is an epidemic of loneliness among us right now. Epidemiologists think the greatest public health challenge of our time is loneliness,” Sasse stated. “The average American has gone from having about 3.2 friends 25 years ago to about 1.8 friends today.”
He noted a longitudinal study in the United Kingdom. He said the study found that the average Brit has 235 Facebook friends, but said they only had two people they could count on in a crisis.
He said the problem is likely worse in the United States.
“Forty percent of American adults said they had zero confidants, no one they can talk to about anything important,” he stated.
“One of the challenges of our time is that we are going through a massive disruption of the most basic human anchors – work and place – and we don’t really know what comes next, and there is enough fear in our souls that they are looking for somebody to blame,” Sasse said.
“One of the problems of our politics at this time is that we don’t talk honestly about what things government might be able to do and what things government can’t conceivably do. The vast majority of the most really interesting things in life can’t be solved by government, but right now we have so little local community, we have so few Aristotelian friends (you hurt when they hurt, you are happy when they are happy),” he said. “Right now in our time, there is a hollowing out of friendship. One of the things that is happening when we become less and less rooted is we are looking for tribe and if we can’t find tribe then maybe I’ll at least do anti-tribe. I think that is really what is happening in our politics right now. You have a whole bunch of people trying to load up and weigh down American politics with the line being between good and evil being between these two political parties. Let me be clear, the people I work with are way too boring for you to project that much meaning on.”
“The challenges of our time are much bigger than the things being debated in the halls of Washington, DC right now,” Sasse added.
Ignorance of the American Civil Project
Citing Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America Sasse said, “Tocqueville was describing a kind of America that is unbelievably dynamic and interesting and that ultimately flows from the First Amendment were we say people with dignity and souls have inalienable rights. They have religious liberty, freedom of speech, press, assembly, protest or the redress of grievances – the five great freedoms of the First Amendment. All those freedoms that are one big nexus that flow from the idea that God and rights are first, and government is just a shared project to share them. It is an unbelievable sort of potpourri that creates the kinds of communities that can navigate even the kinds of job disruptions that are coming in our time and place. Here’s the problem: we don’t teach any of that anymore. And so it turns out for two generations, basically since the late 60s and early 70s we’ve stopped teaching our kids this, and they don’t know it.”
He pointed out the outcome of this on the left.
“It turns out on the left religious liberty is almost completely rejected. Freedom of speech is being rejected by young people on the left. Forty-one percent of Americans under the age of 35…tell pollsters they think the First Amendment is dangerous because you would use your freedom of speech to say something that might hurt someone’s feelings. Actually, that’s the whole point of America. Not to be intentionally rude and offensive, but to say that humans created with dignity by God, humans who are descended from fallen parents and grandparents and great-grandparents all the way back to the endemic fall. When we are fallen, we are not going to agree about everything. So what you want to do is created a framework where we are protected from violence so we can try to love each other and persuade each other,” he added.
Sasse said the right is complicit as well.
“We should note that polling on the right, there is a huge movement on the right to not believe in the freedom of the press. It turns out if you don’t have freedom of the press, you don’t have freedom of speech because what the press really is is not some particular journalist you may be mad at today that you think is biased, but the freedom to write down the stuff that happened when you assembled and when you spoke,” Sasse said.
“So these freedoms – press, religion, speech, assembly, protest – they are all of one cloth, and we need to preserve that from the past and figure out what we need to build for the future. But right now we don’t think about the civics we are retaining from the past or the new work culture and the new job retraining we are going to need to do for mid-career folks in the future because we’ve decided, we Americans have decided, to squat in this moment and to scream about politics as if these tribes are big enough for our ultimate loyalties, they are not nearly interesting enough,” he added.
What Do Your Neighbors Say About You?
“The word ‘secular’ has a very important meaning. ‘Secular’ is not anti-Christian as long as we understand that Latin word ‘secular’ has a limited purpose. What does ‘secular’ mean? It means the here and now that is what ‘secular’ means. There are a whole bunch of things that are about the here and now. Politics are only about the here and now. Sadly, football is only about the here and now as much as I am addicted to that secondary religion called football, I know that it is not ultimately eternal. The secular only works if we are people who believe and have the habits of consumption like and our neighbors know to be people who believe in the hereafter. Who believe in the already and not yet,” he said.
Sasse said he came to challenge the audience not as a “temporary public official affiliated with the Republican party” but as a Christian.
“Do we seem to be people who love our neighborhoods more than we want to scream about politics on Facebook?” he asked.
“I trust that is true of most of you in this room actually, but we know we live in a time where lots and lots of people whose tribe is becoming hollower and because we are people who are made to be relational. We have got lots of people tempting us to anti-tribe, tempting us….to say this election, this moment, is the most important moment in all of human history.
“Friends, there is no politician that is going to save America. Friends, there is no election that is going to transform your life to become so much better than it is right now, and into all that you want it to be. There are definitely reasons to walk precincts and to sign people up to register them to vote, but elections can make things worse and elections can make things incrementally better. But let us be sure we live among our neighbors as people who know that we actually believe, that we put not our hope in princes except we believe there is a Prince who is yet to come and we get the chance to live a life of gratitude that even if our politics are despoiled, there are still all sorts of callings I have in my neighborhood,” he added.
Watch his full remarks below:
Photo Credit: David Barnett