That Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate confirmation hearings devolved into mostly partisan squabbles should surprise no one. One notable exception to their general tenor was the performance of Sen. Ben Sasse. Instead of engaging in political gamesmanship, Sasse tried a different strategy: giving Americans an eighth-grade-civics refresher course.
A former college president and the author of two books that explore America’s crumbling civic order, Sasse is perhaps the senator best qualified to speak about the growing divisions within the American mind.
He noted that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia held strongly opposing views on the Constitution but were confirmed by Senate votes of 96-3 and 98-0, respectively – a marked contrast with the partisan gladiatorial contests that we see today. What’s changed since then? The political class has forgotten the crucial distinction between civics and politics, he says. They’ve “allowed politics to swallow everything” in our public life.
American civics has nothing to do with partisanship. It is, rather, the “stuff we’re all supposed to agree on,” no matter our policy differences. It’s the bedrock principles that we were supposed to learn in school – for example, “Congress writes laws, the executive branch enforces laws, and courts apply them,” as Sasse explained.
The American founders believed that all citizens needed a basic working knowledge of republican principles and how the government should properly function. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.”
Sasse contrasted civic knowledge with “subordinate, less important” disputes on issues of the day, such as tax rates, immigration, and foreign policy. The problem comes when we move from debating, say, the amount of tax that corporations pay to arguing about whether government really needs to obtain the consent of the governed.
Regardless of their party affiliation, all Americans should agree on the basic principles of republican government, Sasse contends. The timeless truths taught in the Declaration of Independence and embedded in the architecture of the Constitution – Lincoln likened the relationship of the two documents to an “apple of gold” framed by a “picture of silver” – should bind all Americans together.
In order to reestablish the primacy of civics in American life, Sasse urged Americans to affirm the protection of religious liberty, which he called the “positive, grand, unifying truth of America.” As he understands it, “Religious liberty is not an exception” but the “default assumption of our entire system.”
While the federal government has many responsibilities – from protecting our borders to waging wars – it “cannot save souls.” An individual’s faith or lack thereof, Sasse noted, “is none of the government’s business.”
Here Sasse stands squarely in the tradition of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson wrote, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Sasse charged that judicial activism and court-packing, two ideas that have gained ascendency recently, are anathema to American civics and should be rejected. Judicial activism occurs when Americans are wrongly taught to view the Supreme Court as “just another arena for politics,” where unelected judges advocate for their desired policies and outcomes. Sasse called the politicization of the Supreme Court a “violation” of the constitutional oath that every senator takes on entering office.
Court-packing and other measures designed for explicitly partisan purposes, he argued, “politicize the judiciary,” “reduce public trust,” and would fundamentally change the Senate’s “deliberative structure.” Sasse said that originalism is the “antidote to judicial activism,” describing it as “the old idea that . . . judges don’t get to make laws” but instead simply “apply them.” He urged Americans not to view judges “as politicians who hide behind their robes.”
As increasing numbers of Americans reject the principles and institutions that have defined the nation, a deep and meaningful civic education that examines American history, warts and all, is becoming essential for national renewal. All Americans should take some time in the coming weeks to study the foundations of the American republic and strengthen the ties that bind us together. RealClear’s American Civics portal, the Bill of Rights Institute, and 1776 Unites are three places that readers can go if they’re interested in learning more about the true story of America and her people.
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.