Republican Senator Ben Sasse has penned a op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today declaring that the very powerful job he does for a living can’t actually do much to fix people’s problems. His essential upshot, cribbing from formative pop sociology texts like Bowling Alone, is that increasing partisan polarization and the disintegration of belief in a common good is due to socio-economic effects caused by urbanization, higher education, dislocation, the internet and other factors. Senator Sasse further laments the loss of old community-building common activities like going to high school football game and “wearing the same colors” in our new accelerated economy–and he blames the culture of educated, upwardly-mobile “elites” for the problem. His solution is to fix “our souls” and engage in more local civic institutions.
It’s easy to mock Senator Sasse for stating that he, as one of the world’s most powerful people, is unable to solve these problems (perhaps he should retire and let someone try?) But there are far deeper problems with his thesis than just amusing excuse-making and shirking of responsibility.
First, the economics. Senator Sasse decries the competitive hyper-comparmentalization of modern life: the bustling to put our children into so many activities that real friendships are difficult, the geographic breakup of families by moving long distances for higher education, the constant job switching, long work hours, high divorce rates, etc. True, these are all problematic in their own way–but they are the direct result of the social darwinism that conservative ideology demands.
American capitalism is not a meritocracy: the laziest and least talented children of the rich tend to do better in life than the hardest working, most talented children of the poor. But insofar as there are so-called “deserving” winners and losers, the winners tend to make extraordinary personal sacrifices just to achieve the economic security that conservatives continue to insist are mere privileges rather than rights. No one wants to put their children through hellish activity schedules for minute competitive advantages on a college application, so that they can send their child off to a college far away. No one wants to spend a decade or more paying off student loans. No one wants to spend 60 hours a week just to be able to afford to see a doctor without going bankrupt. Almost no one wants to switch jobs and companies every few years so that they can actually see salary increases and so that their resume won’t seem stale. Few people want to delay having kids until their late 30s or 40s just to feel secure enough in their economic situation to be able to do well by their children, and no one actually wants to spend so little quality time with their spouse that relationships fray and divorce becomes commonplace. These are not voluntary choices born of poor values and ethics. These choices are forced by the cruel economic incentives conservatives insist on championing.
These are social problems directly resulting from economic exploitation and income inequality. We could, in fact, have a society in which college is free and universities select children who are academically socially well rounded rather than aggressive resume-builders. We could, in fact, provide housing, healthcare and economic security as well as limits on work hours, so that people could actually afford to pursue hobbies, interests, community activities and family time so that intra-familial and extra-familial social bonds could be strengthened.
All of those things are within Senator Sasse’s control to achieve. He simply refuses to lift a finger to achieve them.
But that’s not all. There’s also a racial and gendered provincialism to Senator Sasse’s rose-colored vision of the glory days of small-town community baseball games where everyone can cheer and participate equally regardless of politics.
Such an America never actually existed. America’s cities have always been uneasy melting pots of immigrant cultures and experiences, with the concomitant tensions, prejudices and variety of competing activities and pastimes. As for small towns and rural communities, those supposedly “common” and “universal” activities were not common and universal at all: women, people of color and other socially marginalized groups were actively excluded from these environments and continue to be so. Worse, the sort of “Friday Night Lights” culture that Senator Sasse extols has all too often been the predicate cause of entire communities covering up and protecting the perpetrators of rapes, hate crimes and sexual assailants, because defending the local good ol’ boys and high school quarterbacks was more important than doing right by women and society’s marginalized. Most of the activities that Republicans look upon today with a Norman Rockwell lens had to be forced open by protests and legal challenges. To this day, conservatives are looking to eliminate the Title IX protections that allow women to participate in civic sports life, the President of the United States attacks black athletes seeking to address racial injustice, and community ostracization of the victims of local high school sports stars continues to this day.
It is laughable to suggest that a trans woman seeking acceptance in society will find solace in the local Elks Lodge, or that an undocumented woman hoping to protect her children from deportation and trafficking will be benefited by going bowling with one of the many exurban white people actively calling ICE on anyone who doesn’t speak English in public. Even if they could, they typically lack the time or economic resources due to structural discrimination to participate in these voluntary forms of civic life. And, indeed, nearly the entire conservative program is organized around intentional cruelty toward these groups. When white people are calling the cops on black people for having legal outdoor barbecues or babysitting children, it is hardly justified to blame the victims for not participating openly in traditionally conservative civic activities. It is not obligation of hated and oppressed groups to put themselves in harm’s way: it is the obligation of ethnic majorities and socially empowered groups to make society a welcoming place through legal restraints on oppressors and economic supports for the oppressed.
Both economically and socially, Senator Sasse is blaming the victims of cutthroat economic policy, institutional discrimination and good old boys networks for their own victimization–while minimizing his own role in protecting those oppressive systems and pretending he cannot do anything about them.
The communitarian, pro-social and pro-family values Senator Sasse and other conservatives claim to support are achievable if they really want them. But the path to achieving them is expressly political: increasing economic security and protecting the vulnerable. This will make racists, sexists and wealthy plutocrats very angry–indeed, even modest attempts at social and economic justice have already done so. It’s a big reason why Trump is president.
But that is hardly the fault of the victims of bigotry and greed. It’s directly the fault of powerful men like Senator Sasse who refuse to do anything about it.