The US senator and former college president joined Tyler for a conversation on adolescence, adulthood, driving for Uber, loving Luther, hate-reading Rousseau, the decline of small towns, backpacking across Europe, America’s peculiar fondness for age-segregation, the source material behind his funny tweets, and why his latest book contains so little sex.
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TYLER COWEN: Ben is from Fremont, and he is a fifth-generation Nebraskan.
Just to be clear, this is the conversation I want to have with Ben Sasse, not the one you want to have.
COWEN: That’s wrong.
COWEN: So I’m interested in Nebraska.
SASSE: As all freedom-loving people should be.
COWEN: Exactly. I’ve been to both states — they have almost an identical per capita income, median income, age structure, demographics. Yet when I’m in Kansas and Nebraska, they feel to me like very different states. How would you describe that difference, and where do you think it comes from?
SASSE: When I was a kid, the joke was, if you go back to Kansas, you have to set your watch back 24 hours — 24 years. Ahhh, I ruined the joke.
SASSE: My dad is going to be so disappointed.
I didn’t know you were going to ask that. I have no idea what the difference is. They have a lot of wheat; we don’t have a lot of wheat.
COWEN: So it’s alfalfa versus wheat.
SASSE: We have corn, beans, and we’re the largest cattle state in the union.
COWEN: Willa Cather said you’re a newer state. John Gunther says you’re a state with fewer do-gooders. It seems you have more northern European immigrants, very different history with slavery, and Kansas is more dependent on Missouri. And somehow when you stack those up, you have two states, each very independent in its outlook. Nebraska to me feels more progressive and almost, in a way, ornery — in a positive way, ornery.
SASSE: We’d have to define both progressive and ornery, but I think your list, just the fact that they’re Missouri-dependent, and we’re not Iowa-dependent, means we win.
COWEN: You win.
COWEN: Cultural appropriation. Bruce Springsteen, he’s done this album called Nebraska, but once he starts singing, it’s actually all about New Jersey. It’s about Mahwah —
COWEN: The turnpike, the wee, wee hours; there’s a mention of the word bleak — and then he goes back to New Jersey. Are you offended?
SASSE: I think we should let Tyler monologue for a while. This is good stuff, and I don’t think I’m going to add a lot of value here. Just keep going.
COWEN: Here’s what else to me is striking about Nebraska, and as a fifth-generation, you might have insight into it. There’s a certain generation of performers, and so many of my favorites come from Nebraska: Fred Astaire, Johnny Carson, James Coburn — tough guy, incredible actor — Marlon Brando, and finally, Henry Fonda, who we might think of as grandpa on Golden Pond, but the young Henry Fonda was a bit more like James Coburn: tough guy, very strong, lots of charisma. James Baldwin admired him greatly. So what is it about Nebraska that has produced this stream of charismatic men?
SASSE: I don’t know, but let’s be clear that Kansas doesn’t have that list.
COWEN: Another striking feature of Nebraska — I’m sure you’re familiar with it — you’re the only state —
SASSE: [George Mason University] President Cabrera made it clear that you do your homework, and I just want to say that he’s right.
COWEN: You’re the only state that has a single legislature, right?
SASSE: We are.
COWEN: And that dates from 1937. George Norris, who was a great senator from Nebraska, not exactly my politics but a smart, very driven man, very independent, always independent of his party — that’s a longstanding Nebraska tradition. But what’s your view on the notion of having a single legislature at the state level?
SASSE: It’s an interesting option that more states should consider. There are pros and cons, but we are not just a unicameral as opposed to bicameral legislature. We’re also nonpartisan. Our legislature meets five months one year and three months the off year, basically whether or not it’s a budget year.
The culture of the state senator, the state legislature is really different than most legislative bodies across the US. There are 99 of them. We have one, and all the other 49 states have two each. Because it’s a nonpartisan unicameral with no caucusing — officially it’s about 2 to 1, Republican to Democrat, if you actually had everyone declare their affiliation — but the culture of the place allows different kinds of coalitions to emerge. I believe strongly in the separation of powers and in the decentralization impulses of our founders to divide power both vertically and horizontally. But there’s no obvious reason why state legislatures should need to mirror what the federal legislature does. So I think more states should consider a unicameral, and even a nonpartisan unicameral, structure.
COWEN: George Norris’s original case for a unicameral legislature: he hated what he called the “conference committees,” that the two houses would each have a version of a bill. Then a time would come when the two versions had to be reconciled, and then, in his view, the voters would disappear. Deliberations would take place secretly, and this was what Nebraska needed to abolish. How does that analysis seem to you now that there’s many years of experience with a single unicameral legislature?
SASSE: Yeah, George Norris had a bunch of different transparency impulses, the vast majority of which are good. Some of them are complicating. So, all public searches in Nebraska are supposed to be declared. Well, when you’re searching for a new president of a university system, that changes the culture quite a lot in ways that takes away a whole bunch of candidates.
When President Cabrera mentioned George Mason becoming the 67th R1 research university in the country, if you are just hypothetically speaking — I’m not naming where Nebraska falls in that pecking order — but if you’re research university 30 in the country, and you want to get a new president, and maybe you think you should reach up, and there’s a reason why person leading institution 20 should be at Nebraska. Or a person at university 40, who may think that he or she has a shot to lead a top-10 institution, and you’re the 30th institution, you want to go grab them. Most people are not going to be a party to a search where they might publicly lose.
So if you have a lot of opportunities in life, the impulse toward transparency in executive search is not always a great impulse. But the vast majority of what Norris wanted to accomplish with shining a spotlight on conference committees, I think he’s been right about a lot of that.
On the many counties of Nebraska
COWEN: Something else striking about Nebraska — a lot of states in the Midwest and the whole country — the country’s now well into economic recovery, but small towns, let’s say, below 15,000 population, are often having trouble with some of this across the country. I’m not asking you about particular policies, but conceptually, as a Nebraskan, what is it you feel you understand about this process of rebuilding, or maybe even shuttering up, a declining small town that the rest of us here may not understand as well? What wisdom could you carry to us on this?
SASSE: Wisdom’s too big of a word, but at the level of analytics, we’re not thinking at all, or we’re not thinking nearly aggressively enough about what’s happening as we transition from what I think of as the third-stage economy — industrialization — to this fourth-stage economy, where you’ve gone from hunter-gatherers to agrarianism to industrialization, mass urbanization, mass immigration to this new thing, which we don’t even know how to talk about yet. We don’t have a real name for it. The “postindustrial economy” is the way of throwing in the towel and saying we don’t know what to call this thing, that is, the IT economy, the service economy, the mobile economy, the digital economy.
It’s useful to map those economics on top of local community neighborhoods. You had nomads, you had villages, you had urban ethnic neighborhoods, and you have whatever this suburbia-exurbia-mobile thing is.
Lots and lots of our problems are that we don’t know what human capital is going to look like in this fourth stage. When you look at a state like mine, it’s a little easier to see what that transition looks like — I mean see what the disruption looks like, not transition, because that implies we know where we’re headed, and we don’t.
Nebraska is 93 counties. Long ago before I was a politician — I’m one of five people in the Senate who’s never been a politician before. I’ve never run for anything until I did this, and I used to feel really free to just say whatever I thought, even when I thought it was witty, regardless if it would get me in trouble. And I used to joke that we have 93 counties in Nebraska and 12 of them have people. It turns out people from the other 81 counties don’t like that kind of joke.
I’m from one of those places, and it’s fun to think you’re from a place that has 80 head of cattle per person. When you parse Nebraska’s 1.9 million people, we have 750,000 basically in metro Omaha, we have 250,000 in Lincoln and a few small towns that it’s swallowing up, and the vast majority of the rest of the state is essentially built along a spine on I-80 or on the Platte River, where you have 25,000-person towns that are where the meat-packing plant is, where the truck dealership is, where the tractor dealership is, where the grain elevator is. There’s a regional hospital in most of these 25,000-person towns. That’s basically the scale, and then all the other places are much, much smaller.
The third-largest city in Nebraska, we often joke, is the University of Nebraska–Lincoln football stadium on game day, when we have 95,000 people. But you fall from there to we have a 40,000-person town, then a bunch of 25,000s, and then these communities under 5,000.
The vast majority of counties in Nebraska right now are rapidly shrinking, but we don’t understand how much they’re shrinking because we’re unable to account for the age migration inside the county. In most of our counties, again 70-plus of 93, that are shrinking, the county seat is actually growing, so think about that. The county’s shrinking but the county seat is growing. What’s really happening is 65-, 70-, and 75-year-old farmers are moving to the town where they go out to dinner, or where they play golf, or where the assisted-living facilities are because they’re going to age and they’re going to retire in the community they’re from.
But technological substitution for labor on these farms is that — other than the breadbasket of the world — we’re getting more and more agricultural productivity out of these counties than ever before in human history, but with rapidly diminishing labor inputs.
I don’t think we’ve given much thought at all to what it looks like to think about these towns when you go from being a class B or a class C school to being a place that might not have many kids at all. I don’t think we’re thinking about the ex-urbanization of America as a reclustering around 100 to 250 towns in the country, or cities, but that’s really a lot of what’s happening right now. So there’s no wisdom there, but there’s analytics because you can see a lot of places in Nebraska that are rapidly going to shrink when this generation dies.
COWEN: You have a PhD in history from Yale University, American history, and I’m sure you’re familiar with Frederick Jackson Turner. This idea of a Turner thesis: America being shaped by its interaction with the frontier. In the physical sense, that frontier would appear to be closed; we’re not in the middle of the space race anymore. What today do you see as the American frontier that’s still shaping our dynamism?
SASSE: Here I could tap this guy named Tyler Cowen who has an interesting new book about a lot of our sapped dynamism at the present moment. I think the absence of a clearly defined set of strategic choices around the next frontier is one of the things that leads to a real worry about declining ambition for lots of folks. So I’m mixed on the Turner thesis but the idea of a frontier . . .
David Brooks has done some really interesting stuff, talking about the way Americans have historically looked to the future in ways that there’s clearly a transition happening right now, where there’s enough worry that we have a lot of looking to the past.
The way we talk about deindustrialization is a pretty good example. The vast majority of transformation of industrial economy jobs is because of technology, and we’re pretending it’s because of trade because it’s easier to come up with a way to try to demonize somebody. I worry that there’s not enough looking to the future, and we need a lot more shared vision about what those big opportunities of things we can build together are.
On Sasse’s dissertation
COWEN: I think it’s 2004 when you finished Yale and your dissertation. There’s a copy of it here, which I enjoyed reading.
SASSE: You did not. Did you really? My goodness, I’m sorry.
SASSE: Like every grad student, I wrote a 520-page dissertation because I didn’t have time to write a 220-page dissertation. That thing is woefully under-edited. Sorry, brother.
COWEN: But it won two prizes. I know you don’t have perfect recall of all of the details, but if you could give us a very broad sense —
SASSE: I do not recall.
COWEN: — of what you wrote on. Even the field your degree was in.
SASSE: Well, thank you for giving me lots of room to talk. I wrote on the realignment of domestic politics, 1950 to 1980, in light of the Cold War. The title is something like “The Anti-Madalyn Majority:” (named from Madalyn Murray O’Hair) “Secular Left, Religious Right, and the Rise of Reagan’s America.”
The realignment of social conservatives and a lot of old Democrats into the Republican party, particularly in the South and in the Midwest, had many, many factors that drove it. If you listen to academic historians, usually, the story is very quickly reducible to one factor and one factor alone and that’s backlash against the civil rights movement. There’s a whole bunch of structural and personal racism in America that needs to be confronted, and some of the realignment does relate to backlash of civil rights movement, but the story is actually lots more complicated than that.
I don’t think we’ve done a good job of understanding our present moment and how we got to this place by understanding that, in the Cold War, grassroots America looked at Soviet communist expansionism as a threat, not just because of centrally planned economics, but because of a fear that Soviet atheism was going to be enforced in certain kinds of ways that might expand into the world and, ultimately, forcibly secularize lots of different institutions in American life.
For instance, one of the chapters in my thesis is about a letter-writing campaign to the FCC in the 1960s and 1970s that is arguably the largest letter-writing campaign in the history of the English language, that almost nobody knows anything about. More than 30 million people — Americans — wrote letters to the FCC to protest the fact that Madalyn Murray O’Hair was going to get religious broadcasting declared illegal in America.
There was actually no such effort. There was no Madalyn Murray O’Hair. The FCC was never considering making religious broadcasting illegal, and yet, the ways that people came to believe that that might be true and the way this conspiracy theory took root and led 30-plus million people to write letters, relates to the way school prayer prohibition came about in the Supreme Court decisions of 1962, 1963, and that has to do with a different interpretation of the Establishment Clause than the way Americans had understood the Establishment Clause if you read First Amendment before the 14th Amendment tries to incorporate it, not just against “Congress shall make no law,” but states and localities and local school districts can’t as well.
There’s a whole bunch of stuff that happened in American life in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s that’s really quite interesting and was scary to lots and lots of people. And I personally have no interest in prayer to the unknown God in schools in the 1960s for theological reasons, particular commitments that I have. Abstractions about that don’t interest me very much, but I have lots of sympathy for why people thought forces well beyond their control were making decisions that affected the local.
So I think the realignment that ultimately came to full fruit in 1980 has lots of variables that we have to understand against the backdrop of international understandings the Cold War brought home to local communities in the US.
COWEN: You also show a lot of that realignment had come as early as 1972. So the Southern Strategy, Catholics lining up behind the Republicans, and that year Nixon, that was earlier than people thought and that was tied into religious issues.
SASSE: Right. Before you leave that, I just want to say — because a lot of the stuff that we might talk about later tonight — I think the 1960s still produced a hangover for almost every fight we have today.
If you think about the long 1960s, it is amazing. There have only been four truly gigantic landslides in the history of presidential politics in America. I’m defining a big landslide as somebody winning more than 60 percent of the popular vote. That’s only happened four times in US history, but two of them were LBJ in ’64 and then Nixon in ’72. That swing in eight years from a landslide one way to a landslide the other is really amazing, and you could only understand that if you understand how disruptive the 1960s were in community after community across the US.