Books of The Times: In Two New Books, Unhappy Conservatives Ask: What Now?

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Sasse (B.A. from Harvard, Ph.D. from Yale) spends a great deal of “Them” honing his down-home credentials (Nascar, TGI Fridays). He emphasizes the importance of civil debate, denouncing Fox News and MSNBC, and laments the extreme partisanship that characterizes public life in the Trump era. But “the dysfunction in D.C.,” he says, stems from something “deeper than economics,” and “deeper and more meaningful” than politics. “What’s wrong with America, then, starts with one uncomfortable word,” he writes. “Loneliness.”

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Ben SasseCreditMatthew DeBoer

He shores up his argument by referring to scholars of social isolation like Robert Putnam and Eric Klinenberg — though the socially conscious Klinenberg (with his emphasis on the crucial role of publicly funded institutions) might find it hard to recognize the conclusions Sasse has drawn from his work. Community, Sasse says, is fostered by individual acts of charity and fellow-feeling; government does what it needs to do when it gets out of the way. “Citizens in a republic must cultivate humility,” he writes in a section titled “Civics 101.” It’s “the only way to preserve sufficient space for true community and for meaningful, beautiful human relationships.”

This is standard conservative stuff; a little cloying in the delivery, sure, but not shocking. After all, Sasse — who regularly boasts about having one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate — doesn’t have a responsibility to become a Democrat in the Trump era, much less satisfy Boot’s desire for a politician who can “make centrism sexy.” (I had to laugh before I cringed.) Even Sasse’s ability to sentimentalize “rootedness” in little communities in one breath and welcome the “uberization” of existing industries in the other can be chalked up to an old strain of techno-optimism among business-friendly conservatives.

What’s curious, then, is not so much the careful avoidance of politics — politicians are really good at this — but Sasse’s repeated assertions that political solutions are meaningless. “Ultimately, it’s not legislation we’re lacking,” he writes. Public servants like him “simply need to allow the space for communities of different belief and custom to flourish.” It’s a pretty idea, though anyone familiar with how “belief and custom” have long propped up local prejudices (Jim Crow being a glaring example) knows that there’s nothing simple about it.

As he did in his previous book, “The Vanishing American Adult,” Sasse talks a lot about the importance of “meaningful work,” yet he has chosen to be a United States senator, spending five days a week away from his family back in Nebraska in order to do whatever it is he does in Washington — which is what? Apparently vote with Trump close to 90 percent of the time and help his party try to bulldoze health care legislation and tax cuts through Congress, keeping crucial details secret until the last minute — all the while writing a book that solemnly proclaims the necessity of respectful debate and “engaging ideological opponents.”

“Our occupation links us to other people and gives us an identity and a sense of meaning,” Sasse muses, before waxing lyrical about a bedbug exterminator. For all his paeans to other people’s jobs, you might begin to wonder what the senator makes of his own.

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