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‘America's Recovery Potential Is Awesome’
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‘America’s Recovery Potential Is Awesome’

But it won’t come through politics. An exit interview with Sen. Ben Sasse.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.(Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images.)

Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse is resigning from Congress to become the president of the University of Florida. Sasse, the junior senator from Nebraska, has been a vocal critic of Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party. He joined Steve Hayes to discuss the dangers of infotainment, the increasing tribalism of American politics, the future of academic freedom, and why he believes he can affect more change by leaving Congress.

Below is a transcript of the podcast, which has been edited for clarity. 


Steve Hayes: Welcome to The Dispatch Podcast. I’m Steve Hayes. Joining me today is Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who has decided to leave the Senate early to pursue a job as the president of the University of Florida. In our conversation, we conduct an exit interview of sorts, talking to Sen. Sasse about his decision to leave early, about the state of American politics, the Republican Party, and the future of higher education. Senator Sasse, thanks for joining us.

Sen. Ben Sasse: Thank you for taking time with me.

Hayes:  You’re headed out of the Senate. How worried should we be about our country and our politics as you go?

Sasse: Well, I think that an experiment in ordered liberty is always fragile. We should always think that worry, that panicked or Flight 93-ish [thinking] is stupid. Worry that leads to generation to generation. Thoughtful reflection on what transmission of values of a free people being able to self-govern and build institutions that don’t run through Washington, D.C. We should always be mindful of that. I guess I probably would distinguish between how broken our politics are and how much still healthy potential there is for civic recovery and all the “Yuval Levin” three cheers for people building in their interest civic and business and not-for-profit lives where I’m still super optimistic. But, I think the data shows whether you’re surveying Republicans, Democrats or independents, and even if we’re not precisely calling ourselves independents, it’s the plurality winner. Most people dissent from having to be considered a member of either of these two parties. So Republican, Democrat or other, and other being the largest category, north of 80 percent of each of the three groups thinks America is in decline. That’s a big problem. But I think we chiefly think that because our politics are so tribal and stupid that there isn’t actually much discourse in the public square that’s focused on persuasion. There’s a lot of weirdos who have decided to substitute politics for what should be the healthy, normal communities in their lives. And it’s both a lot, in that it’s a large share of people participating in the public square are super tribal, but it’s not a lot in the sense that most people are checking out of politics because they regard those people as so weird. So, I think there are things we should put in both ledgers, and I’ll stop here and let you have the floor back. But I think America’s recovery potential is awesome and highly, highly likely to happen. America fixing itself via politics is almost certainly not going to happen.

Hayes: Can we fix our politics, though? I mean, you’ve been a proponent of a wide variety of reforms, some of them big and maybe crazy, and some of them less ambitious and maybe less crazy. And it could be that the big ones are also not crazy. Are there reforms? Is there a single reform to say the way that the Senate operates, which has been a frustration of yours from, from really the beginning, that would change the incentives in a way that would change behavior that could improve our politics?

Sasse: Yes, I’ll name one of my hobby horses here real briefly, but I won’t stay on it because it’s Don Quixote. It’s not going to happen. We should not have cameras everywhere in the institution. It creates really dumb incentives. And the most productive work has to happen in places that do workarounds for the fact that we’ve decided to let cameras dominate all spaces. The Senate Intelligence Committee is a very, very healthy place. Fifteen members of the 100 in the Senate have access to essentially all the intel via our oversight prerogatives, and that 8-7 Republican to Democrat or Democrat to Republican committee never does anything by an 8-7 vote. We’ve occasionally done a few 12-3 things, but we’re basically always 14-1 or 15-0. And it’s a really hard and complicated place. And yet the hard issues transition from essentially a counterterrorism mission at the CIA from 2001 until five years ago to the long-term technology race with the Chinese Communist Party. That’s really hard work, but it doesn’t align very well with the right-left continuum, and so nobody acts like it does in a place where there are no cameras. If we had cameras, we would act just as stupid, I’m afraid, as the vast majority of the Senate and especially the House do all the time. So should we pull cameras out of committee rooms? I still want transparency. Not that you can have that in the intel space, but I would love pen-and-pad almost everywhere. But cameras change incentives. Is that reform going to happen? Absolutely not. So I think that the reform in our institution is going to have to come from electing different kinds of people, and that’s going to require the American people to figure out, not to get into your lane, but what kind of mediated information they want and need, because politics as another form of, you know, boxing is—

Hayes: Entertainment, right?

Sasse: “Infotainment politics” will yield something not worthy of a small-r republic.

Hayes: I want to move on, but—

Sasse: Thanks for saying my answer is too long-winded. I understand what you’re saying.

Hayes: No, I mean, actually, I mean, if we had two hours, I would actually love to spend an hour on that—your answer and those problems—because I think they’re at the heart of certainly my own personal frustration with a lot of what’s going on. But I think they’re at the heart of the problems plaguing the republic. But I want to get to sort of more forward-looking things here in a minute. But let me just ask one follow-up on that. Is there any reason to be optimistic that we’ll move on from these kind of performative politics in this kind of, to use your phrasing, stupidity? Because I don’t see one, and there’s a reason that you think that such a reform will never take place, or it’s Don Quixote. It’s because it won’t. So absent those kind of reforms, I mean, do we suddenly expect the American voting public—the exhausted majority that you’ve talked about, that David French has written about so compellingly—to become activists and crowd out the fringes?

Sasse: I mean, I think, let’s think about it as a supply and demand side equation for what politicians focus on. Right now the supply side doesn’t look good, but the demand side has a lot of potential, right? People do not want performative B.S. That isn’t what they want. And you can look at the elections of 2018, 2020, and 2022. The more of a performative moron you were, the less share of a vote you got relative to the more traditional Republican or Democrat in your electorate. You see this in the 2022 midterms on the most grandstanding people in the House on both the Democrat and the Republican side were well underperforming the median politician and even the median politician is rightly really unpopular. But I think maybe the simplest way to think about this is three cheers for the American people when they’re focused, two cheers for the Senate as an institution, properly conceived, you know, maybe only one cheer for how the Senate functions today, because little bits and pieces of it still work. But zero cheers for tribal politics. And I think the American people really don’t like tribal politics. It hasn’t worked itself out yet to create clear signals to change the supply side. But I think more and more people get that. And I think you look at the last couple of elections and you see that the people who act like the biggest weirdos to yell all day to one end, to get invited on cable, to yell all night, where less than 2 percent of the public is ever paying attention, the median voter says, “Screw that.”

Hayes:  And yet they have a disproportionate, you can make an argument that they have a disproportionate amount of power, in say, in the institution itself. I mean, to cite one example, Marjorie Taylor Greene was everybody’s favorite and worst example of this phenomenon, I think gives a speech two weeks ago in which she effectively endorses insurrection, says that if she had been in charge on January 6, the protesters, the rioters would have been better armed, the kind of thing that even 15, 20 years ago would have gotten you disqualified from politics, it wouldn’t have been accepted. And a week later, Kevin McCarthy wants to be speaker of the House for Republicans touts her endorsement as a reason to vote for him for speaker. Aren’t they getting more powerful? And if that’s the Republican Party today, is that a Republican Party worth saving?

Sasse: So I’ve probably commented on Marjorie Taylor Greene enough. I think I’ve probably called her a lunatic enough times that we don’t need to linger there. But I think ultimately the GOP is going to have to pick between clown shows and the Constitution. And I don’t know anything about how you build a coalition of 218 in the House in a nation that’s this divided about politics and policy. So I don’t really have anything to say about the House. But I will say to your point, aren’t they gaining more share? I think the Senate election says the opposite, right? President Biden was incredibly unpopular, and yet my party didn’t pick up seats, which has happened the second year of every presidency for over 30 years with the sole exception of W. After 9/11, he held his own. But every other time the president loses seats two years in because people get elected, not chiefly because the Americans regard them as this aspirational genius, but because usually, people are voting for the lesser of two candidates they’re not thrilled about. And then, as soon as somebody wins a presidential election, they’ve confused themselves and believe they have a mandate or the Ron Klain-type “junior presidents” confused the staff and say that they have a mandate, and they start to do a bunch of stuff that overreaches. And so there’s a congressional election in the first midterm that’s always a correction. We didn’t get that this year in the Senate, and it’s because we ran bad candidates who were trying to do the kinds of stuff you’re saying. Had we run half-asleep generic Republicans, we would have won four or so more races than we won.

Hayes:  Moving on to your next steps, you’re leaving the Senate to go serve as president of the University of Florida. Why did you make that decision?

Sasse: I couldn’t pass it up. I, as you know, have been focused on the future of war, the future of work, and the First Amendment for a lot, almost basically my whole eight years in the Senate. And, the future of war we do great work on in the Intel Committee. The future of work, which is fundamental to identity and love of neighbor and community and place is massively disrupted. And I’m very interested in the question of what kind of institutions, what kinds of institutions we should be building to serve 15 to 35 year olds in a world where there’s just not going to be lifelong work at any firm or any sector for the vast majority of Americans going forward. And all the Yuval stuff that you and I scream “Amen” to, this is it. The University of Florida is the most important institution in the nation’s most economically dynamic state. And so there is so much going right in Gainesville, and there’s so much new stuff to build in south Florida and across Florida’s 67 counties and across the country with reach from Florida. University of Florida is one of only three or four schools in the country that is simultaneously flagship and land-grant. And so it’s the elite institution in the state, but it’s also the most important institution in probably 45 of 67 counties in Florida, because it’s the land-grant place. And, AgTech in a state like Florida with 200 commodity crops, agriculture is the No. 2 sector in the economy as a whole, but it’s the No. 2 sector in two-thirds of all the counties in Florida. So there’s a ton of stuff that I care about that’s about technology disruption and sector after sector after sector, but most fundamentally, workforce and coming of age. And there really wasn’t any other, I wasn’t looking to leave, but there really wasn’t any other opportunity like this. I can’t think of any other higher ed institution that I would have said yes to. But Florida pursued hard, and ultimately Melissa and I, after a lot of prayer, concluded we couldn’t say no to that. We’re pretty fired up.

Hayes: What was the moment like when they first approached you? I mean, it seems like a weird thing to do for a search committee, for a university to go after a sitting senator who had recently been reelected. Was your first reaction, you know, “This is crazy.” Or were you immediately intrigued?

Sasse: You know, I’ve been called by search committees for universities once every two weeks to two months for a few years. And I didn’t return any calls until about a year, year and a half ago. And then I got lawyered up and realized that one of the things I could do that was aligned with my interest about the future of workforce disruption, again, not thinking I was going to take a university leadership role, but thinking more about portfolio strategies, about tech companies that are going to disrupt things like higher ed. I finally decided again 15-ish months ago that I might say to some of these search committees, “Though I’m not a candidate for a job and not planning to become a candidate for a job, if you’re interested in having me as a member of your search committee, I would learn with you about what it means when Google says we’re less and less interested in four-year bachelor’s degree people who went to eight semesters of 13 weeks per semester, four classes for those 13 weeks, three contact hours, everything in a pro forma assumption that you’re living entirely in an academic institution for four years straight.” And a lot of tech companies are saying, “No, we’d rather have more come and go programming, we’d rather have some internships and externships. We think you could have more rigor and push people hard for 18 to 24 months.” And so the higher ed partnership world, sorry, the tech world partnerships, looking back into extant, accredited, higher ed is what I thought I was going to get out of engaging the search committee. And when I got to know the board of the University of Florida, I got really excited because their board has been presiding over an institution that’s been rocket ship on a whole bunch of metrics and dimensions. And yet they’re not at all satisfied. They’re super entrepreneurial folks. And so I think there’s an opportunity to sort of thread the needle between an extant institution of scale. It’s a $9 billion a year place, and it’s more health care than education, and yet they want to do more, faster, newer, different. And so I’m pretty excited about the entrepreneurial half of the job. Both half, but especially.

Hayes:  How much freedom do you expect to have to do that? You can’t be a successful entrepreneur unless you’re able to be creative and be disruptive and do crazy things.

Sasse: Yeah, I mean, I simultaneously think a lot is going incredibly well in Gainesville and therefore doesn’t really require a reorg and a ton of disruption, and yet higher ed in general needs lots of disruption and reorg. And so I think it’ll be a fun balancing act for us to be building new institutions on the platform that is the University of Florida and simultaneously tweaking and upgrading a lot of what comes from Gainesville. I mean, I think it’s—I’ve not been shy about my criticism that America is doing education on an old and antiquated model. And I say that as somebody who’s a historian by training, I believe deeply in the seminar table. The stuff that’s impacting your worldview should mostly happen in a bodily forum where you’re sitting around with people, breaking bread with them, looking them in the eye, wrestling over books and texts and ideas together on a seminar table of 12 to 18 people. But, learning accounting isn’t the same as wrestling through theology, philosophy, history, even literature, beauty. But, learning accounting—there’s all sorts of reasons why a hybridized-delivery model is often better than an all in-person model. And so, while I’m a skeptic of the way the old guild model works, I’m still a romantic about the purpose of education when it’s touching your worldview. But the pieces of it that are more training-like, I think we should be disrupting a lot of that. I want Florida to go out and steal talent from across the nation. If folks are the best, we want you to come to Gainesville or West Palm and Miami and Jacksonville and 67 counties. We’re going to poach a whole bunch of top tier researchers and innovators and partner builders from across the country. And so, yes, it requires a lot of entrepreneurial zest, and zeal, and energy, but that isn’t one guy. That’s the kind of partnerships that we’re going to build with new institutions and with new talent that we’ve recently hired or that we’re going to steal. One last fact, if I can be in full sales homer mode for a minute. Florida hired 680 new faculty members in August. To my knowledge, that’s three times more than the second fastest growing institution in the country last year.

Hayes: That’s a lot of words to say. The weather. I think the weather is what you really meant.

Sasse: You know, I’m actually scared about the character diminution of my kids, right. I mean, my two girls are off from college, but my 11-year-old, like, we’re going deer hunting when this podcast ends, and I’m pissed that it’s 34 degrees. It was -7 four days ago when we decided we’d wait a day thinking we’d go from -7 to 7 and it’s now 34. And I think there’s a good chance he goes to hell because he didn’t have the suffering in the tree stand that he was supposed to have today.

Hayes: Let me read your own words back to you from some testimony you provided to the trustees on November 1. You said, “A healthy university must challenge young men and women with new and even uncomfortable ideas. A healthy university must embrace debate. A healthy university will welcome complicated truths and explore eye-popping perspectives—eye-opening perspectives. A healthy university will challenge assumptions and consider alternatives.” If we accept that definition of a “healthy university” or prescription for healthy universities, how many “healthy universities” do we have in the country right now?

Sasse:  Not enough. But I think it’s useful to disaggregate inside institutions. Because there are often healthy [features], some in our classrooms and programs, inside larger institutions that are adrift. But I think this ties back to where you started, in a way, that the most important divide in American politics is also playing out on a lot of campuses in the country. The most important divide is not red versus blue. Like, people who have different policy preferences or even reads on the empirical data about marginal tax rates and what creates the most jobs. Those are important arguments, but they’re not deathbed arguments, right? The most important issue for our republic is the pluralist versus political zealot distinction. And we need to be pro pluralist. And I want the University of Florida and I want lots more higher ed institutions to be the kind of place where we say, “Oh, a whole bunch of different ideas should be wrestled with here.” Encountering things you didn’t already know doesn’t mean you were now subjected to some sort of microaggression. If you’re looking for a safe space where you never have to encounter an idea you didn’t already know, you certainly shouldn’t set foot on a campus because the purpose of a campus is to expose you to ideas you didn’t already hold. And so we should wrestle through those issues and you should be able to love your neighbor, even disagreeing about pretty fundamental things, because a nation of 330 million souls can’t possibly agree on everything. And what our polity is about is saying we distinguish between violence and argumentation. Violence is what government exists to prohibit and to protect you from. But argumentation is the thing that you’re free to do. And so on campus, we should be having a lot more of those pluralistic arguments, and we should have people wrestling through both big questions about the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the meaning of life, but also wrestle through pragmatic equations about, how do we get better battery technologies faster? How do we solve some of the AgTech issues that you were bringing up a little bit ago? How do we build a post-pandemic economy where lots and lots of people can still be gainfully employed, even if AI is going to eliminate the sector that their parents and grandparents used to exist in? So no, we don’t have very many healthy institutions as a whole, but I still think there are lots of sparks of opportunity. One more thought on that. I am surprised as a guy who’s, you know, policy conservative, but dispositionally and tonally moderate, before I agreed to this job at the University of Florida joining that team, I experienced liberal faculty members across the country reaching out to me all the time. I’d get outreach from a liberal faculty members at elite institutions saying, “Hey, I don’t have the same politics as you do. You’re pretty clearly a Republican and I’m a Democrat. But boy, I wish we had a lot more of the kind of persuasion-centric conversations happening on our campus.” And there are a whole bunch of policy liberal people who actually do want a pluralistic set of conversations to happen on campus and in the public square. And I’m a romantic about that. I’m a romantic about education. I’m a romantic about self-government. And therefore, I’m an optimist about where America heads, even though it’s not easy to connect the dots of how our tribal politics, our tribal politics aren’t going to lead the recovery.

Hayes: What would you say— what advice would you give to parents of a young man or young woman heading off to college next fall? Hypothetically, if we have any listeners who are in that position, or hosts.

Sasse: I said a minute ago I’d go into homer-sales mode here. I’ll do anti-sales and probably get myself in trouble with the enrollment management people at the University of Florida. I think there should be a lot more of a clear pull to go to college or higher education rather than a push from having graduated high school. I think way too many people go to college at age 18, 19 without having thought through a broad enough menu. And I think that people who go work for a year, go travel for a year, have some gap experience, usually have a lot more clarity about why they’re there, as opposed to “I’m just drifting into the future like everybody else who was in my high school graduating class.” So I think you should be going to a specific institution of higher ed because the student wants to engage new ideas and there’s a real sense of pull into the place you’re headed, not just drifting.

Hayes:  Yeah, I’m going to make sure that my daughter doesn’t listen to that about the gap year, that’s not—

Sasse: “I encourage her to go work on a kibbutz for a year!”

Hayes:  I don’t mind a gap year. I’m thinking that it would come at the end of college rather than the beginning. But I take your point. I mean, I think, you’ve done this, right? I mean, you sent your daughter—it wasn’t a it wasn’t a gap year, but it was, what, a couple of months, right? To work on a farm.

Sasse: My oldest ended up getting a lot of attention because I was tweeting, you know, hashtag something. I don’t remember where it was. Tweets from the farm—text, texts from the farm. Maybe it was. Nebraska’s the largest cattle state in the union. And my oldest kid, who’s now 21, when she was 14, maybe turning 15, we sent her off for cow-calf season to help birth a bunch of babies in the cold of winter. And it’s you know, it’s an amazing character-building opportunity for her. And it ultimately stimulated her taking two gap years. Sorry to scare you, Steve, for your daughter. My daughter is pushing 22, and she’s still a sophomore in college. She’s kicking butt having a great experience. But she took a real gap year that was in high school, or late junior high, or early high school. Cow-calf operations are not the thing for everybody, but nothing will ever make you enjoy the leisure… of a freshman English class, like having to have ridden a four-wheeler out in zero-degree weather at 3 a.m. to help stop a breech birth or to turn that calf. But my kid, she then did a real gap year after high school and then because of COVID when there was going to be—she’s in school in Boston—when there was going to be remote stuff for that year, she went and worked at NIH and a biomedical engineering lab for a year before she went off to school. And I think all of those things have made her a much, much better student and more importantly, a healthier human.

Hayes:  Well, Sen. Sasse, thank you for this version of The Dispatch exit interview. We’ve enjoyed chatting with you over the years. We wish you the best of luck in this new endeavor, and we hope that you’ll come back and join us occasionally, to talk about all of these things again.

Sasse: Would love to do it. Happy New Year to you and yours.

Steve Hayes is the editor and CEO of The Dispatch.