The disappearance of virtue from American politics

Even though Sasse is an elected official, or perhaps because of what he’s seen in politics, he believes culture—and the acculturation of the young—is more important than policy. “The heart of the problem we are tackling in this book is well upstream from politics,” he writes, explaining “why this wasn’t a policy book.” Americans “are a drifting and aimless people—awash in material goods and yet spiritually aching for meaning.” His proposals are about recovering this sense of meaning and establishing a shared language for talking about it, thickening the civic culture that serves as the foundation of political deliberation.

This is an increasingly radical idea. America has largely responded to the challenges of diversity and pluralism by pushing moral language out of public life. Democratic deliberation is almost uniformly tainted with the assumption of bad faith. Platforms like Twitter, beloved by Sasse and Trump alike, thrive on outrage, reduction, and snark. The fact that Sasse still believes in a shared American cultural project is remarkable, given the extent of its unwinding and intensity of the factors working against it.

Perhaps Sasse doesn’t take those challenges seriously enough. Throughout the book, Sasse crutches on the presumptive “we,” as in, “Because we are the richest people the world has ever known, our children know few limits.” Or: “In our efforts to develop kids’ talents, to provide them with a set of extracurricular experiences even more impressive than our own, many of us” may focus on the wrong goals. The “us” implied in these statements is slippery: While Sasse may claim he’s talking about all Americans, he’s really speaking to the upper-middle class, the privileged few whose only barrier to living “somewhere else for 60 days”—another of Sasse’s tips—is “a review of their family’s calendar” and “searching for the opportunity.”