This past Saturday, at our senatorial district convention, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick dropped in to say a few words. He used to be our state senator, so he’s at home here. He’s been on the road, helping with the Ted Cruz campaign, seeing people around the country. He told us, “There are lots of people who love the country like we do, and they want it to be restored.”
|My blurry phone photo of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick|
from the Senatorial District 7 Convention, March 19, 2016
I’ve been thinking about that lately. Last week I watched an Uncommon Knowledge interview with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a Constitution lover frequently coming to my attention lately. This was the longest interview I’ve heard with him. He had more time to give context and background. I recommend watching the whole thing, but I thought I’d quote a few things here today.
The overarching question here is, how bad are things, and how can we get back to the constitution? Peter Robinson is the interviewer:
PR: How recently did Congress work?
Sasse: Well, let’s define what work meant. In the mid-1960s there was a radical revision of what the federal government’s role was in the 1964, 1963…
PR: Great Society.
Sasse: Right. So we should celebrate the Civil Rights Movement at the same time. But in the Great Society program, there was a radical expansion of the federal government’s role in life. And it begged all sorts of questions about why we have limited government. We have limited government for a whole bunch of reasons that I hope we talk about some today. But after the 1960s, promises that were obviously bogus when they were made were never really revisited. The Medicare expenditure, the Congressional Budget Office equivalent from the mid-1960s, that projected what will Medicare cost from 1965 to 1975, was off by 1100%. What Medicare as of 1975 was costing—the original projections had been that it would be 9% of what it was actually costing. Where are the adults that have tackled that problem? It was a mess, obviously. But the mid-1970s—all sorts of things have been on autopilot since those mid-60s, and big problems are not being addressed.
So the deviation from the Constitution has been going on for a while, and seriously awry for half a century. Some of it has to do with a loss of understanding about what philosophy is behind out Constitution:
Sasse: If you sort of tried to think about, let’s teach the American Revolution to the present day, and create the sort of arc of what it means to have this really breathtaking experiment in self-governance, this idea—this big, anthropological claim that humans are created with dignity, and government doesn’t give us rights, but government is a shared project to secure those rights—that idea has really been under assault in certain ways since the middle of industrialization. It’s true that there was lots of complexity as the economy shifted from mostly agrarian to mostly urban and industrial.
I didn’t know, until this interview, much of Senator Sasse’s background. He graduated from Harvard, got a doctorate from Yale, worked at the Boston Consulting Group. He held a job at the Department of Justice, a job that was once held by Antonin Scalia. Then he taught at the University of Texas, and if I understood right, he was President of UT.
Then he moved back home to Nebraska, a small-town suburb of Omaha, to raise his children. And run for the Senate. He’s still young. Very energetic. Very down-to-earth for someone that academically qualified. He has the valuable skill of being able to talk about important, deep, philosophical ideas in simple words that any thinking person ought to be able to understand.
I am beginning to think that simplifying skill, because it is too rare, is extremely valuable. Especially in our day, when clarity, and getting the message through in a few short words, is needed to match how information gets exchanged.
He even uses Twitter to good effect. He was asked about a recent Twitter exchange with Donald Trump. Among other things, he connected Trump’s infidelity—and in fact his bragging about having sex with married women (who brags about that?)—with a failure to understand and keep his oaths.
There was also a challenge to Trump’s penchant for executive unilateralism. Here’s the Tweet, followed by Sasse’s explanation:
@realDonaldTrump The President’s job is NOT 2 “run America.” This is precisely Obama’s error….
Sasse: Yeah. We believe that all three branches are separate but equal, but the Article 2 branch, the executive—I mean, in some of the founders’ deliberations, president wasn’t even the term they used some of the time; they talked about the administrator. And president really just means presiding officer of the executive branch, and it’s supposed to be somebody who takes an oath to faithfully execute the laws that were passed by the Legislature.
PR: Donald Trump displays no evidence that he has any constitutional understanding?
Sasse: It is really hard to find him ever saying anything about limits and restraint, and executive restraint, which… I’m not going to have accused him of any of these particular, you know, ugly analogues, but, man, of the things that he says about winning and power.…
The Senator tries to understand those who approve of Trump. Some of that comes because of the feckless president we’ve had on foreign policy—unfortunately combined with unilateral executive overreach. Sasse is kinder than I would be about Trump, but he says,
He’d be great to have a beer with, and he’s funny, and he’s got charisma. I get all that. Where does he ever articulate a constitutional sense of the limits of the executive branch?
Looking at solutions, he offers this:
Sasse: So, first of all, let’s just recognize that America is much much much bigger than the federal government. And so let’s not start by identifying the two. Washington that thinks it can solve every problem caused far more unintended consequences errors, mistakes, new troubles, than anything they’ll possibly solve. So first of all, we should have an American vision that can transcend what we think the federal government can get done.
Then, inside the federal government, we should want all three of these branches to all be vigorous defenders of a constitutional system of limited government.
But then, underneath that, policy initiative should ideally be coming—in the domestic policy space—should ideally be coming from the Article 1 legislative branch….
We should yearn for more deliberation that can bring us together as a people. And the supermajoritarian requirements of the Senate, to go back to your opening questions about the differences between House and Senate, we should desire solutions that can bring along a lot of the America people. That happens in dialogue. That happens among people over dinner tables. And a hundred people who should get to know each other in the Senate trying to not always put the worst construction on your policy opponent’s position. You should actually try to understand it before you reject it.
This is from his consultant background. He spent his first year going around to meet and talk with each of the other senators, to get a full view of the system, including its culture and problems.
He’s asked to explain this quote from his maiden speech in the Senate, this past November:
“While I am in favor of more civility, my actual call here is for more substance. This is not a call for less fighting [in the Senate]—but for more meaningful fighting.”
It’s the meaning—the understanding of the Constitution, and the very idea of limited government—that needs to be explained, taught, and defended. As Reagan said, in his farewell speech, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
Restoration and preservation are about culture. At the 33-minute mark, Sasse makes this brilliantly simple point:
Sasse: It’ll sound too romantic, but I believe we’re incredibly blessed. We live in the most exceptional nation in the history of the world, and it’s based on an anthropological claim about the dignity of people. I really believe that people are created with dignity—the world is fallen; we need government to restrain certain kinds of evil, and to create and maintain a framework for ordered liberty.
But life is lived in neighborhoods, in our cities, and in small towns across cattle country. The center of the world is the Rotary Club in my town; the center of the world is your listeners, churches, and synagogues, in the small businesses that they’re founding, and the little league, and the PTA, and the fire department.
That is where life is lived, that textured, meaningful life.… and I want your and my grandkids to grow up in a nation that believes in limited government, because we believe in the nearly limitless potential of humans who have dignity.
He answers questions about Justice Scalia—because the interview was recorded the week after his death—and that he wasn’t “conservative”; he was about the written law.
Sasse: I read my Constitution; I see no party affiliation in the Supreme Court justices. And even progressive and conservative is wrong, because there are progressives and there are people who believe in doing their job, which is to hide anything about their own policy preferences.
The job of a Supreme Court justice is not to be a super-legislator. That would be an anti-democratic attack on a constitutional system where we the people are supposed to be in charge and be able to fire the legislators. And so if the court is going to be super legislators, they surely shouldn’t have lifetime appointments.
And so to call Scalia conservative, as the papers have done all this week, misses the fundamental point. His job was to protect the rights of the people against bad laws that overreached. He was an originalist. He was a constitutionalist.
One last section I want to share. Peter Robinson asks the senator about a quote from conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt:
“We may be seeing the eclipse of the Republic. I’m not an alarmist. It’s not the end of the world. But even as the ancient republic of Rome became a more imperial structure, our government has grown so large, its responsibilities so immense, under the burdens of the modern world, that it will be impossible to take it back.”
And then Sasse is asked, is it too late?
Sasse: We need a constitutional recovery. And we need to bring along the republic, which is three hundred and twenty million souls.
This is where he offers the Reagan quote, and reminds us that Reagan also used to say this while running for governor of California, teaching these truths to labor movement people along the railroad tracks. Then Sasse says:
It only goes on if you teach it. And I do think there is an obsession of the 535 [US legislators] to think their job is small-ball legislating. A huge part of our job is to be advocates and defenders and teachers and lovers of the constitutional system.
And we have to teach that system to the next generation. So I’m with Hugh, in that you can’t talk about the decline of self-governance as the only thing that possibly matters in a world where the reason we believe in the American system of government is because of all these other aspects of what make full lives well lived, what define human flourishing outside of government.
But I think we would be really naïve to not be having the kind of conversation that he wants to have about the risk of slipping from Republic to Empire.
PR: It’s not too late?
Sasse: It’s not too late. But, we need to recognize this president has repeatedly talked like an emperor. We have a president who says it isn’t that big of a deal “if the Congress doesn’t pass the laws I want them to pass—I have a pen, and I have a phone, and I can just make it up as I go along.”
That sounds like something that you might have heard at a certain moment in Rome’s decline. And we now have a front-runner in the Republican Party who says maybe president Obama has paved a new way, as far as its executive unilateralism goes.
If you talked constantly about power and strength—and, let’s be clear, our foreign policy needs to be defined more by power and strength, and when you make political promises you should keep your word with power and strength—and yet George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison didn’t believe when they became president that their aspirations should look like King George III.
They believed they had a servant leadership responsibility underneath the Constitution…. If you go back and read Washington’s farewell address at the end of his eight years as president, he worried that the constitutional system was in peril.
So we’re in uniquely troubled times, but not totally unique, because, in our system, you always need to teach it to the next generation. And we’ve not been doing that.
On Sunday I listened to a rebroadcast address on BYUTV, Lawrence C. Walters spoke on “Citizenship,” April 1, 2014, telling us how to incorporate being good citizens into the various aspects of our lives. Also worth hearing in full. But we're over our limit for today, so, he says there are five things we can make part of our lives as citizens, rather than as consumers or subjects.
Five Essential Attributes of Active Citizens:
1. Accept responsibility.
2. Do their homework.
3. Engage with others.
4. Take action.
5. Learn from their experiences.
I experienced these things in action the past week, culminating (so far) in Saturday’s district convention—even more than in past years, because I was on the resolutions (platform) committee. So, after all the work last week, we took additional resolutions and testimony, finalized our recommendations, and presented them before the body (about 375 attendees). I got to see first-hand how someone’s idea at a grassroots precinct meeting makes its way into the platform, which will be considered by legislators this coming session.
What we do really matters. I have hope that there are enough of us who love our Constitution to do this.