Ever since JFK’s Profiles In Courage, or perhaps AH’s Mein Kampf, ambitious politicians have been obliged to issue supposedly self-penned books in which they outline their national visions. Bearing titles like Reclaiming American Promise, Facing America’s Challenges, Quest For American Leadership, Restoring American Patriotism, The Promise of American Destiny, Patriotic Leadership Challenges of American Promise, etc., the US editions of the genre are usually marketed into instant bestsellerdom, no matter their literary failings or patently opportunistic purposes. Such is the case with Senator Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.
The core premise of The Vanishing American Adult is a reasonable one: today’s young people should be prodded towards more independence, seriousness, and personal responsibility than our affluent, media-glutted society currently affords them. Parents bear much blame for unnecessarily shielding their kids from realities of work and citizenship, the author asserts, and he prescribes a variety of means by which all generations can relearn the national maturity of earlier times. But Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, buries these points in page after page of campaign-style rhetoric about his own wholesome childhood, his own beautiful family, and his own sturdy Midwestern values imparted from his sturdy Midwestern ancestors, such that any provocative ideas are lost in his transparently political bids to Reclaim American Leadership. Coming from an ordinary academic or pundit, the book might be more interesting, but coming from someone competing for media attention and votes as part of his career, its underlying motivations are easy to suspect.
While Sasse is not as one-dimensionally ideological as some of his congressional peers – he was educated at Harvard and Yale, and knowledgeably cites media theorist Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death – he still evinces the telegenic Ken-doll blandness of most aspiring American political figures. He often refers to specific communities of “folks” (older folks, younger folks, middle-age folks, regular folks, intellectually disabled folks), and keeps returning to the formative personal experiences which have served him as a young man and as a father: camping in the Minnesota woods, traveling the world, assigning his three children regular chores and reading lists, and so on. Here and there Sasse also slyly plays to a conservative base, as when he chides the “caricature of science” offered by the likes of Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and recommends Orwell’s Animal Farm for exposing “the brutality of socialism,” which ought to go over well with his corporate donors.
More importantly, Sasse hardly addresses the economic conditions affecting Americans of all ages, especially those not raised among Nebraska’s amber waves of grain or the Cicero-quoting elites of the Ivy League. It’s hard to instruct high schoolers in the value of an honest day’s work when their own parents are laid off, or scrambling to get minimum-wage hours at Wal-Mart; it’s disingenuous to preach the benefits of exploring foreign lands when the only way many younger folks in the US get (or want) to visit other countries is in uniform and armed (Sasse recalls roaming Europe with “oddly cautious Americans who would sew Canadian flags on their packs” – why ever for?) And though The Vanishing American Adult was just published in 2017, Sasse never acknowledges the exemplar of adult ethics and wisdom represented by his own GOP President, or whether overprotected millennials ought to emulate such dignified, selfless, and self-made young public figures as Martin Shkreli and Ivanka Trump for the good of the American nation. If Senator Sasse ever makes his own run for the White House, which every cliché and platitude of The Vanishing American Adult portends, I’ll support whoever opposes him. As far as I’m concerned, this cheesedick Republican phony can folk right off.