The Volokh Conspiracy

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Senator Sasse on Pluralists v. Zealots

Outgoing Senator Ben Sasse on what divides Americans.


Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), who will soon take leave of the Senate to become President of the University of Florida, has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on "America's True Divide: Pluralists vs. Zealots." It begins:

The most important divide in American politics isn't red versus blue. It's civic pluralists versus political zealots. This is the truth no one in Washington acknowledges but Americans must realize if we're going to recover.

Civic pluralists understand that ideas move the world more than power does, which is why pluralists value debate and persuasion. We believe America is great because it is good, and America is good because the country is committed to human dignity, even for those with whom we disagree. A continental nation of 330 million souls couldn't possibly agree on everything, but we can hash out our disagreements in the communities where we live and the institutions we build. The small but important role of government, for the civic pluralist, is a framework for ordered liberty. Government doesn't give us rights, or meaning, or purpose or permission. It exists to protect us from the whims of mobs and majorities.

Political zealots reject this, holding that society starts and ends with power. Government in their view isn't to protect from the powerful or the popular. More than anything else, zealots—on the right and the left—seek total victory in the public square. They believe that the center of life is government power. They preach jeremiads of victimhood and decline. On the left, they want a powerful bureaucracy. On the right, they want a strongman. But they agree on a central tenet: Americans are too weak to solve problems with persuasion. They need the state to do it.

Sen. Sasse identifies how te zealots have made Congress dysfunctional and drive tribal divisions.

The stupidity of tribalism has made politics primarily about partisan identities, not persuasion or policy. The screamers on the right and left fuel one another. In a nation as big as ours, there is always someone somewhere saying something stupid—but tribalism takes this fact as its lifeblood. And it's the excuse for otherwise civic-minded Americans to ignore the nuts in their own party and obsess only over the nuts in the other party. We're tempted to think that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It takes a genuine leader to remind us that most of the time, the enemy of our enemy is still a jackass.

In the past, Sen. Sasse notes, the U.S. Senate was a bit of a calming force against such pressures, a place where tempers could cool and political leadership could flourish. In recent years, however, Sasse believes the Senate has been AWOL. (And let's not even talk about the House, where the zealots are making the election of a Speaker into a farce.)

While Sasse focuses on how these divides affect politics, his experience becoming the next President of the University of Florida highlights the fact that zealots are not confined to the political sphere, and the divide that concerns him is alive and well in academia. (Indeed, the dynamic we see in the House Speaker contest, in which a few extremists seek to hold an entire institution hostage, is a familiar scene in academia, albeit with a different political valence.)

Although he is leaving the Senate, Sen. Sasse believes the institution has a role in solving this problem (though he apparently sees no role for himself in driving this change).

if recovery is to come, here's what it will look like: Senators will have to acknowledge that a politicized echo chamber is unworthy of the world's greatest deliberative body. Citizens will have to see that recovery means resisting the temptation to reduce fellow Americans to caricatures of their political affiliations. Recovery requires investment in things that will outlast partisan preferences. We must steward the present age, and play our small but vital parts in the work of self-government.