DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse shares something in common with President Trump. Both are serving in elected office for the very first time, but the similarities pretty much end there. Before his election in 2014, Sasse was a federal health official and president of Midland University which is linked with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. He earned a doctorate in history. And he's a conservative Republican who refused to back Trump for president.
Last week, he questioned Trump's firing of the director of the FBI. Sasse also addressed what he considers bigger questions in American life. His book, "The Vanishing American Adult" grows out of his experience as a parent, and he talked about it with our co-host Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Where are you from?
BEN SASSE: I'm from a farm town that when I was a kid was about an hour outside of Omaha. Now it's about 20 minutes outside of Omaha. We haven't moved. Omaha is growing toward us. But we have three kids, and they have an idyllic experience growing up. And we force...
INSKEEP: In the same town where you grew up.
SASSE: ...Just outside this town - yep - where I grew up. And we ship our kids out to the farms and ranches in the area to suffer. We want them to have dirt under their fingernails, and we want them to have to get up at 4:30 a.m. when they don't want to.
INSKEEP: Did you get sent out into the fields when you were a kid?
SASSE: Oh, yeah. My buddies and I would tackle each other into the mud when the irrigation pivot had stalk. I mean, it was - it was boring, but you knew you were building scar tissue for the soul.
INSKEEP: Scar tissue for the soul - what do you mean by that?
SASSE: I think we - we are doing a bad job of helping our kids understand that they have huge resiliency. Persevering and getting through hardship makes you tough, and at our house we celebrate stitches. As long as we didn't do permanent damage to their spine that's going to have lasting effect, we applaud and celebrate stitches at our house.
INSKEEP: I think we are sneaking up on a critique that you may have of parenting in general or the way that young people are growing up today so to speak. What is it?
SASSE: I do worry that we're failing in a whole bunch of fundamental ways to distinguish for our kids between needs and wants. And we're failing to distinguish between production and consumption. So to be clear, this book is not an old man screaming get off my lawn. It is a question of how do we do better...
INSKEEP: It's please leave my lawn.
SASSE: (Laughter) No, it's please work in my lawn.
SASSE: I think that this category of perpetual adolescence - it's a new thing, and it's a dangerous thing. So it's come back to...
INSKEEP: What is perpetual adolescence?
SASSE: Yeah, so adolescence is a pretty glorious concept. It's about intentionally transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Being stuck in adolescence - that's a hell. "Peter Pan" is a dystopia, and we forget that. Neverland is a bad place to be. It is good for kids to learn how to work. Right now we're acting like keeping our kids free from work is a way to treat them really nicely, when in reality thoughtful parenting wants to help free our kids to find meaning in work.
INSKEEP: You have a chapter here called, "Embrace Work Pain."
INSKEEP: What do you mean by that?
SASSE: It's not natural to have to suffer when we work. We're made to be productive. And yet, the world we live in, there's a whole bunch of suffering. And what they need to understand as 10 year olds, so that when they're 15 and slightly less protected and when they're 20 and they're moving into a truly semi-independent state, they need to have experienced that memory of persevering and having gotten through hardship.
INSKEEP: How do you embrace work pain when your work is as a United States senator?
SASSE: Oh, come on, that's dirty pool right there. Work pain for me in this job means trying to be a happy warrior in an institution that's not nearly urgent enough. This city is filled with people who are addicted to their own incumbency. The longest-term thought many people have in D.C. is how can I be sure I don't do anything that so annoys either my base or my general electorate that I might not be able to get my job back? I don't think that's the right way to think about it.
INSKEEP: I feel there's a connection between your discussion of parenting and your discussion of your political job because there's a quote in the book that I'll paraphrase here. I think it is, luxury is perilous to a republic. Do you mean that our interest in wealth, our comfort with wealth is actually making us soft in some way - we'll lose our freedom some way?
SASSE: I worry about that. I worry that we're not having conversations about virtue. When you hear the word virtue it echoes in our ear now as a highly moral or even moralistic term. And there's of course a piece of it that's that. But virtue comes from the Latin root that is about strength. And we're not having a conversation of what it means to create strong people that can navigate all these disruptions that are coming.
And if we fail to distinguish between production and consumption, we will become weaker because work makes you strong. Work gives you meaning. Work turns you into a servant to your family and to your neighbors and to your local community. Consumption, consumption, consumption creates a kind of cotton candy effect that's not really good or any of us. And I worry that we're creating a cotton candy experience for our teens in particular where we've so insulated them from work that I think we are making them soft.
INSKEEP: Maybe in some way you agree with President Trump then, because during the campaign he talked a lot about America getting soft and we got to get tougher and football players shouldn't wear so many pads and things like that.
SASSE: Yeah, I don't...
INSKEEP: You're smiling as I say that.
SASSE: ...The president has, you know, has a rhetorical flourish that has him cover lots and lots of topics inside of a single sentence at times. I would say that an example of a place where I would pretty strongly disagree with the president when he would use that rhetoric of toughness is he would look at a lot of what's happening in deindustrializing communities and pretend that somehow if we became protectionist, if we sort of told falsehoods about what trade has actually done in the world, we can go back to a world with lots and lots of our workforce involved in industrial jobs. That's not going to happen.
The high watermark of American industrial employment in all of our history was in 1955, '56, where almost 31 percent of the workforce was involved in big tool industrial jobs. Today, it's about 7 percent. The main reason for that change is not trade. It's technology. And what's going to need to happen next is a lot more honesty about America and Americans getting tougher. And that involves telling the truth about the reality of how technology is going to more rapidly transform people's experiences in a midlife and a mid-career way. We've not had to grapple with that before. We need more honest leadership.
INSKEEP: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse is the author of "The Vanishing American Adult." Thanks for coming by.
SASSE: Thanks for having me.
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