Senator: U.S. problems bigger than presidential race |

Senator: U.S. problems bigger than presidential race

Jim Patterson
Steamboat Pilot
U.S. Sen Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, right, speaks with attendees of the Eighth annual Freedom Conference in Steamboat Springs. Sasse delivered the conference's kickoff address, titled "The American Idea After 2017," at noon Friday.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — During his kickoff address Friday to the eighth annual Freedom Conference and Festival, U.S. Sen Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, told attendees he had decided before even arriving in Steamboat Springs that he would not discuss the contentious 2016 presidential race between former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and billionaire business mogul Donald J. Trump.

“I’m not here in any way to talk about the presidential election of 2016,” he told a packed lunchtime audience in the Korbel Ballroom at The Steamboat Grand. “The issues we’re facing are much bigger than who occupies the White House.”

And for the most part, Sasse remained true to his self-imposed determination, weighing in on the Clinton-Trump race only when directly asked during the Q&A session following his talk. And even then, he addressed the race in only the most cursory of terms.

“I’m not supporting either of these candidates,” said Sasse, who has recently garnered criticism for his outspoken opposition of Trump.

Challenges before the nation are rooted in a general lack of understanding about what the American idea really is and a general mischaracterization of why the nation is currently in the grips of an historically “disruptive” era.

But this year’s presidential race — and the caustic rhetoric it has aroused in the American electorate — might easily be seen as symptomatic of the “bigger issue,” which Sasse — a first-term senator who has never before sought or held elected office — said is facing the United States as the proper, constitutional roles of the government and the governed — as well as the relationship between the two — have essentially been reversed.

He said challenges before the nation are rooted in a general lack of understanding about what the American idea really is and a general mischaracterization of why the nation is currently in the grips of an historically “disruptive” era.

“We live in a uniquely disruptive moment, and the disruption is going to get larger,” said Sasse, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and served as president of Nebraska’s Midland University from 2010 to 2015. “What we’re going through really is historically unique, and the economic change — that maybe we think about as disintermediation writ large — is affecting nearly all our institutions right now.”

The founders — in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — were really telling the rest of the world it had been wrong about government and wrong about the core ideas from which government is derived.

Sasse offered his audience an analogy of an island in the midst of a vast ocean.

“The island is the enumerated powers of the government, and the ocean is the limitless rights of the people,” Sasse said, drawing thunderous applause. “Think about why the Constitution is the most exceptional political document ever written. What’s unique about the Constitution is that it’s an exclusively negative document … it’s simply us giving the government power.

“… The Constitution doesn’t give you any rights … these rights are outside of the document (in the Bill of Rights). Our founders did this on purpose. All of our kids should understand this. … Our rights predate government.”

Sasse said this interpretation of the proper relationship between the American government and the American people is no longer being taught or practiced.

For example, he said, a recent survey found that 41 percent of respondents 35 or younger thought the First Amendment — which encompasses several rights, including freedom of speech, religion and the press — is dangerous.

Media disruption and the phenomenon of people living and listening to only those with whom they agree is the antithesis of education, which, in its best form, challenges students to wrestle with ideas and viewpoints they’d never before considered.

“The American idea that we have to pass along to the next generation is, when we get to this new, disrupted fourth world of the digital economy, what will entrepreneurship look like?” Sasse said. “What will cultural pluralism and a robust defense of the First Amendment look like? What will it mean to be able to say that the meaning of America is still centered in institutions like the Rotary Club, where people actually live, where they know and love their neighbors and where they actually want to do good, not just wear tribal labels about some distant fight in Washington, D.C., that isn’t anywhere near up to the task of the moment we face.

“That’s the challenge before us.”

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