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The Vanishing American Adult (Part XI) – Chapter 9: Make America an Idea Again

Senator Sasse foresees three challenges in the near future:

1) Accelerating technologies are going to make a lot of current jobs disappear.
2) The coming-of-age crisis that he’s discussed in this book.
3) The fact that in times of economic disruption we see the rise of people who offer quick fixes, nativist campaigns, and more centralized powers as a way out.

In other words, he believes we need to solve the second so that the first does not bring about the third. If we want to avoid tyranny, if we want to avoid discipline and control from without, we must become self-disciplined and self-controlled.

Right now only a third of US adults know the three branches of the federal government. People who cannot identify the branches of government are probably equally hard-pressed to explain the roles of the different branches. (Over one third can’t even name one branch of our government.) 85% of US citizens cannot define “the rule of law”; 82% can’t name at least two of the three “unalienable rights” listed in the Declaration of Independence, and 71% aren’t aware that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.

And yet though many people don’t understand our government far too many people find their ultimate meaning within politics. This is backwards. The government exists so that we can find joy and happiness outside of it.

Sasse believes we need to return to foundational ideas and character traits that made America great. What makes America great? Sasse, building on Tocqueville, says that it is not our government, not our bureaucracies, and not our politicians. What makes America great is the existence of many small, voluntary associations wherein people build their lives together: things like churches, the Rotary club, and this school. Our system encourages individualism, which in turn discourages people from fully participating in public life. Without local communities to connect to, places that create a shared sense of civic purpose, we will drift toward materialism. Materialism makes people shallow and vapid, unable to embrace hard work and face challenges head on. This is what we are seeing happening. And according to Sasse, if this continues to happen we will lose something great.

Ben Sasse believes that ultimately our national destiny depends less on what happens in Washington and more on what we do at home. If we want to live in a free and virtuous society we must raise our children so that they value and are able to embrace both freedom and virtue. We must teach them to read and to embrace hard work; we ought to encourage them to travel and show them that consumption does not lead to happiness. This will help them to live better, happier lives and it will create a society where virtue and human flourishing can advance together.

This concludes this series. I hope you have found these messages edifying.