Speaker discusses period of American ‘disruption’
Steamboat Springs — During his kickoff address to the eighth annual Freedom Conference and Festival on Friday, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, told attendees he had decided before even arriving in Steamboat Springs that he would not discuss the contentious 2016 presidential race between former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, and billionaire business mogul Donald J. Trump, a Republican.
“I’m not here in any way to talk about the presidential election of 2016,” he told a packed lunchtime audience Friday in the Korbel Ballroom at The Steamboat Grand. “The issues we’re facing are much bigger than who occupies the White House.”
And for the most part, Sasse remained true to his self-imposed determination, weighing in on the Clinton-Trump race only when directly asked during the Q&A session following his talk. And even then, he addressed the race in only the most cursory of terms.
“I’m not supporting either of these candidates,” said Sasse, who has recently garnered criticism for his outspoken opposition to Trump.
But this year’s presidential race — and the caustic rhetoric it has aroused in the American electorate — might easily be seen as symptomatic of the “bigger issue,” which Sasse — a first-term senator who has never before sought or held elected office — said is facing the United States during a highly disruptive period in American history, when the proper, constitutional roles of the government and the governed — as well as the relationship between the two — have essentially been reversed.
“The things that the presidential election of 2016 are showing us are anxieties and issues and a cultural amnesia … that are much deeper than anything about one particular presidential election,” he said. “What I’m interested in talking about is much bigger than who occupies the White House or who presides over one-third of the federal government from January 2017 to 2021. I think the challenges in front of us are actually quite a bit larger than that.”
He said these challenges are rooted in a general lack of understanding about what the American idea really is and a general mischaracterization of why the nation is currently in the grips of an historically “disruptive” era.
“We live in a uniquely disruptive moment, and the disruption is going to get larger,” said Sasse, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and served as president of Nebraska’s Midland University from 2010 to 2015. “What we’re going through really is historically unique, and the economic change — that maybe we think about as disintermediation writ large — is affecting nearly all our institutions right now.”
Sasse spoke of the American idea as contrasted with the American identity.
“America really is historically unique,” he said. “American truly is exceptional.”
This is true, he said, because the founders — in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — were really telling the rest of the world it had been wrong about government and wrong about the core ideas from which government is derived.
Sasse offered his audience an analogy of an island in the midst of a vast ocean.
“The island is the enumerated powers of the government, and the ocean is the limitless rights of the people,” Sasse said, drawing thunderous applause. “Think about why the Constitution is the most exceptional political document ever written. What’s unique about the Constitution is that it’s an exclusively negative document … it’s simply us giving the government power.
“… The Constitution doesn’t give you any rights … these rights are outside of the document (in the Bill of Rights). Our founders did this on purpose. All of our kids should understand this. … Our rights predate government.”
Sasse said this interpretation of the proper relationship between the American government and the American people is no longer being taught or practiced.
For example, he said, a recent survey found that 41 percent of respondents 35 or younger thought the First Amendment — which encompasses several rights, including freedom of speech, religion and the press — is dangerous.
Complicating the issue, Sasse said the U.S. is currently in one of the most disruptive periods of its history.
Saying such disruption typically accompanies periods of social and economic change, Sasse likened the current period to earlier transitions from a hunter-gatherer society to a settled agricultural society to an industrialized society. He said the current change and attendant disruption have yet to be given a formal name, but what it essentially means is that jobs are no longer permanent prospects.
During the Carter Administration of the late 1970s, Sasse said, the average duration of an American worker at a single company was 26 years. Today, he said, it’s four years and getting shorter.
This increasingly transitory nature of employment and career path is causing repercussions in other areas, he said, specifically citing the field of journalism.
“… Going from a world where we had too much central control of three large media channels to a world where everybody everywhere can offer stuff … what is likely to happen next is not a lot of higher quality journalism,” he said.
He added this change has also made it much easier for people to “silo themselves into an echo chamber,” in which they hear only the ideas they already agree with.
Sasse described this as the antithesis of education, which, in its best form, challenges students to wrestle with ideas and viewpoints they’d never before considered.
“The American idea that we have to pass along to the next generation is, when we get to this new, disrupted fourth world of the digital economy, what will entrepreneurship look like?” Sasse said. “What will cultural pluralism and a robust defense of the First Amendment look like? What will it mean to be able to say that the meaning of America is still centered in institutions like the Rotary Club, where people actually live, where they know and love their neighbors and where they actually want to do good, not just wear tribal labels about some distant fight in Washington D.C. that isn’t anywhere near up to the task of the moment we face.
“That’s the challenge before us.”
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