As a new Congress began work on Monday, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said goodbye. NPR’s Steve Inskeep talked to Sasse about when government is effective, and why he retired from the Senate.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
As a new Congress began yesterday, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse said goodbye. The Republican retired from the Senate at age 50. His relatively short career in Washington covered a lot of history. In 2014, he was one of the newly elected Republican senators who captured that body from President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party.
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BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, Republicans had a good night, and they deserve credit for running good campaigns.
INSKEEP: Sasse was known as a Tea Party candidate then, sharply critical of Obama’s policies. He later criticized Obama’s successor, refusing to endorse Donald Trump in 2016 and voting for his impeachment after Trump tried to overturn a Democratic election.
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BEN SASSE: You don’t lie to the American people, and that’s what’s been going on. The American people have been lied to, chiefly by Donald Trump, and lies have consequences, and those consequences are now found in five dead Americans and a Capitol building that’s in shambles.
INSKEEP: That was one of several interviews the senator gave on this program over time, where he critiqued Washington as dysfunctional and devoid of ideas. Now he becomes president of the University of Florida. And as he prepared to leave the Senate, he came back on the line. Sasse recalled work he had done that was outside of the news, like a group studying cyberwarfare. That work focused on the future, and it was modeled on meetings from the past – U.S. strategy sessions early in the Cold War.
SASSE: When Eisenhower became president in early 1953, obviously, we had won World War II having to use nuclear weapons, but we didn’t have clarity about offensive and defensive doctrine. And so what we tried to do is use the commission that Eisenhower stood up in 1953 as an analog for the new era of asymmetric cyberwar. We don’t have offensive doctrine. We don’t have defensive doctrine. We don’t have human capital. We didn’t have sufficient strategy. So we put together a 9/11-style commission of 14 commissioners that met for 2 1/2 years. And I think that things like the White House now having a national cyber office that helps coordinate strategy across all federal agencies but also with the private sector is a pretty key way that we’ve been transforming the nature of how we fight the next generation’s war.
INSKEEP: Is that the side of the work that you preferred, as opposed to what made the news?
SASSE: Oh, by far. The Senate Intelligence Committee is the most important committee in the Congress, I think, by substance, but it’s also one of the only functioning committees in the Congress. Mostly it’s because we meet in a bunker, and there aren’t cameras present. So there’s no reward for people being jackasses. So that’s a positive. But it also is kind of a cautionary tale about how little of the institution functions well in the places where cameras are ever present, and therefore, people are preening like they’re, you know, 14-year-olds desperate for attention.
INSKEEP: I don’t want to suggest that we all agree on most things ’cause I think, as a country, we generally don’t. But do you think the blue-versus-red divide is overdrawn, nonexistent? What’s the word for it?
SASSE: It’s radically overdrawn and overstated. I think we’re a bell-curve country on most issues. The overwhelming majority of Americans are moderates on politics. Now, again, I don’t mean chiefly in terms of their policy preferences; I mean chiefly in terms of what role they want politics to play in life. They have a sort of one- or sometimes two-cheers-for-politics view of life. They’re – almost no one normal is a three-cheers-for-politics kind of person. And yet the loudest people on the right and the left who get all the attention right now are all people screaming that the end of time is going to come if somebody wins an election that doesn’t share their tribal policy preferences at the next November, and the vast majority of the American public doesn’t believe that.
INSKEEP: There are a number of Republicans specifically in recent years who have left their seats and, while doing so, have said in one way or another, I don’t feel like this party is my party anymore; It doesn’t seem to stand for what I believe I should be standing for. Are you one of those people?
SASSE: I think both of these parties are very small minority parties right now. What we have is a world where we’re getting a lot more information from a lot of places. When we went – I’m the son of a football coach. So when we went from three to four channels, getting an extra college football game on Saturday was pretty great. But when you go from four channels to 1,500 or 2,000 channels, what happens is there are no large outlets left anymore. Everything is narrow and deep, doing audience service and doing confirmation bias. And so you have lots of politicians that are confused that they might actually represent lots of people when these legacy brands, Republican and Democrat, are really sort of smoking old fumes.
INSKEEP: OK, so let me ask you a trick question now. You’re leaving the Senate and becoming the president of the University of Florida. Are you leaving politics then?
SASSE: (Laughter) I have had many colleagues tell me that, though I’m not politically addicted, I must be a glutton for punishment, going to a sometimes much more political job. I think that the University of Florida is just a spectacular institution, and this is a glorious moment in that state. So I’m a historian by training, as you know, Steve. Teaching history seminars again is going to be great. But as somebody from the breadbasket of the world, getting to be in a land grant institution that does just amazing stuff in ag and coming ag-tech is pretty exciting. There are 67 counties in Florida, and in two-thirds of those counties, agriculture is the No. 1 economic driver, and the University of Florida is the most important institution in all those counties. So I’m super excited about this.
INSKEEP: The trustees who hired you said you had a, quote, “bold vision for higher education.” What is it?
SASSE: That we ought to think that people coming of age ought to be able to appreciate lots and lots of different debates and perspectives. It’s what you and I have been talking a lot about, the divide between pluralism and political zealotry in Americans’ public square. But on our campuses, we often do the same thing now, which is we try to equate speech that you might differ with as violence. That’s fundamentally anti-American. We try to say that we need to create safe spaces for people. No, we don’t. We need to create spaces where we respect each other so much and we believe so deeply in human dignity that you want to understand people who have different perspectives than you do.
INSKEEP: Are you saying that if someone comes to speak at the University of Florida and you’re told this person is an extremist or just a political provocateur, you’re going to say, let them speak, argue with them?
SASSE: I think you know pretty well, Steve, that I don’t have a lot of tolerance for political provocateurs, but the range of debate that should happen on a campus should be a lot more interesting than it is right now.
INSKEEP: You mentioned the frustration with people, and the way you use the language, I presume you mean people on the left who try to create safe spaces or equate speech with violence. On the other side, of course, there are government officials, including in Florida, who have tried to crack down on what they see as critical race theory or define as critical race theory. Do you expect professors to advance ideas at your university on society, on race, even on the economy, regardless of where that goes?
SASSE: I – advance ideas is sort of an interesting verb, I guess. I – what I want is the students who graduate from the University of Florida to have wrestled with a whole bunch of different ideas that they didn’t already have when they got there, and they should come from all over the political and philosophical spectrum. Education, properly understood, isn’t primarily about transmitting information; it’s about learning how to humbly and meaningfully engage ideas you didn’t already hold.
INSKEEP: Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, it’s been a pleasure talking with you over the years. And good luck in your new job.
SASSE: Let’s keep talking.
INSKEEP: I’d like that. Thank you.
SASSE: Thanks, Steve.