Heard on the Hill

A Historian-Senator’s Fight Against ‘Perpetual Adolescence’

Ben Sasse says his new book is about parenting, not politics

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s new book is more about parenting than politics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Can a senator write a book that is really not about politics? Ben Sasse has certainly tried. 

“The Vanishing American Adult,” which hits bookshelves Tuesday, is at its core about strategies for parenting and the effort to combat what the Nebraska Republican views as the problem of “perpetual adolescence.”

Sasse has received invites to customary stops on the Washington, D.C., book circuit, but he said in an interview Friday that those invitations came as a bit of a surprise.

“The sweet spot of the audience is just parents and grandparents and concerned adults,” he said of his target readers. But he said it was “fun” to find other interested groups, such as people interested in politics and policy, and an unanticipated younger audience.

Readers seeking just another traditional political memoir will be disappointed. But that should be no surprise with Sasse.

At least 95 senators would never write about the importance of the publication of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” but Sasse is a former president of the Lutheran-affiliated Midland University in Nebraska and a historian with a Ph.D. from Yale.

“This book actually started as an idea in late 2012, early 2013,” he said. “It was well before I ever decided to consider running for the Senate, so the genesis of this is my experience at the college, thinking about the kids that were arriving.”

The senator got an extra push to write the book after sending his then-14-year-old daughter to work on a ranch last summer. Sasse would tweet about her experiences tending to cattle. 

“Everywhere that I would go in Nebraska, it was kind of the only thing that people wanted to talk about for a couple of months, and it was even in the middle of the presidential race,” he said.

That was a surprise because Sasse was a skeptic of President Donald Trump throughout the campaign, even as many of his constituents got on board.

“At places where I thought people would only want to talk policy and politics, they really only wanted to talk parenting and kids,” Sasse said. “I think there’s a burgeoning movement of Americans out there that are public-minded, that are concerned about their own kids, but are also concerned about the republic, and this new troubling category of perpetual adolescence.”

It would be an honor to have Trump or anyone else in American public life read the book, Sasse said in a telephone interview.

“I am absolutely certain that the president is never referenced in this book, but I would be honored [to be read] by any of the people that I serve with, or that have a responsibility to try to be in a servant-leadership posture toward the American people,” he said. “I would welcome feedback and critique, obviously, including from the president.”

Sasse did suggest the book’s final chapter, in particular, for Trump’s reading list.

“There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Make America an Idea Again’ that is about the civic education that we in government need to be doing for our kids and for the next generation, and I would be very curious to know what the president thinks of that chapter,” the senator said.

There, Sasse discussed the historical origins of American exceptionalism, highlighting the visit of the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, and his landmark “Democracy in America.”

“What made America great in Tocqueville’s eyes in the 1830s — and what should make America great again — is not its politicians,” Sasse writes, to turn a Trump phrase. “America is not great because it has the best governing bureaucracies. Rather, America is great when its people share a belief in the Rotary Club and the PTA, the synagogues and churches, the small businesses and local town meetings.”

In a previous chapter, Sasse makes the case for raising a generation of readers, writing, of course, about the largely informal education of Abraham Lincoln.

“The Great Emancipator estimated that he spent less than one year in school across his lifetime — but he possessed something greater: he had an inheritance in the American literary tradition. The seeds of Lincoln’s great speeches and writings were planted by his and his mother’s childhood reading,” Sasse writes.

That a historian would make the case for understanding history is no surprise, but even as active as he may be on Twitter, Sasse presents a message for parents about the importance of seeing the real world.

“I don’t want my kids, and I don’t want the kids of America, just to see a mountaintop just by one of their friends who went on Instagram,” he said. “I want them to go to the top of that mountain.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.