In this election season of sound bites, bluster, and bombast, more unexpected than the rise of so-called outsider candidates is a junior Senator who is trying to elevate the tone of political discourse. Recently, Benjamin Sasse of Nebraska has been defending the peculiar inefficiency—yes, inefficiency—of the body to which he was elected, while invoking obscure moral philosophers on the Senate floor. Now he’s taken his message of deliberative democracy outside the Beltway into the heat of the presidential primary season.
It’s an unlikely proposition at a time when both liberals and conservatives eagerly embrace the “Washington is broken” narrative. What we need, they say, is someone who can take on Washington, not defend it, who can transform, if not destroy, old ways of doing things. Praise the traditions of the Senate, as Sasse does, and you risk earning the label “elitist” or the popular invective of being part of the “Establishment.” Ironically, despite his elite education, Sasse is a conservative Nebraskan, whose grass-roots campaign garnered support from Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz.
The junior Senator agrees that Washington is broken. But the problem isn’t gridlock so much as the disappearance of a deliberative approach to governance just when it is most needed.
In his maiden speech—which, following a tradition now rarely observed, he waited a year after his election to deliver—Sasse argued that the upper house of the U.S. Congress was intended specifically by the framers to preserve minority opinion by enshrining a process of long-form debate to preclude a legislative fast track. This, in turn, keeps the majority—or minority—from imposing its will on the nation. Deliberation, in other words, was intended to be a democratic check on that ancient drift of democracy toward demagoguery.
In a Wall Street Journal article defending the importance of the Senate filibuster, Sasse made the case that the impulse—prevalent among Democrats and, increasingly, Republicans—to circumvent this process in order to effectuate a particular result is in fact “radical,” not “conservative.” Here Sasse echoes the dispositional conservatism of English philosopher Michael Oakeshott. It may be no coincidence that Sasse, like Oakeshott, was trained as a historian. (Sasse holds a doctorate in history from Yale.)
Consider the issue of Congressional power. The senator worries that through the use of executive actions and federal agencies, the executive branch has begun to usurp the law-making power that the Constitution invests in the U.S. Congress. The consolidation of the powers to make and to enact law is what James Madison described as an essential characteristic of tyranny. But the solution, Sasse cautions, is not to bypass—much less to change permanently—the conventions of the House or Senate in order to bring about the political results currently favored by the majority. Such ends-justify-the-means logic is shortsighted; worse, it further undermines the framework set out by the Constitution. That medicine might be worse than the disease.
So what’s the solution? In a recent speech, Sasse invoked the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, C. S. Lewis, and the British moral philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe as exemplars of a deliberative spirit that he thinks is needed for healthy democratic governance—one rooted in a philosophical, and specifically Socratic, virtue.
Why “philosophical”? Philosophy in its classical sense is the pursuit of wisdom, literally the “love of wisdom.” And essential to that pursuit is a critical reflection on one’s own beliefs. Socrates framed this as a cooperative type of inquiry—now known as the Socratic method—in which an inquirer asks questions of his or her critics in order to pinpoint weaknesses or hidden assumptions in a belief system. The result is a realization of what one does not know—that one does not possess absolute truth.
For the Senator, it is this Socratic spirit that must inform our politics.
In the political arena, this means a willingness to put one’s ideas to the most withering criticism by one’s interlocutors, who try to make the most defensible case for the opposing view. It means even changing one’s mind or accepting defeat—if only to regroup or reformulate one’s ideas—while respecting one’s political opponents. (Today, Senator Moynihan and President Reagan are both lionized for such qualities). The assumption here is that no proposition worth its salt should be shielded from criticism.
Hence deliberation does not preclude disagreement—even impassioned disagreement. On the contrary, deliberation is, if you like, nothing but the capacity to disagree in a reasonable way.Nor does it preclude governance. Sasse, who formerly worked in business and served as president of a small university (returning it to fiscal solvency), is no stranger to effective leadership. Deliberation offers a way to govern precisely when we cannot agree.
This politics of humility is a refreshingly high-minded—yet pragmatic—vision of government. Innumerable divisive political issues would benefit from such an approach to legislation, from immigration reform and climate-change to religious liberty and privacy. But there is no silver bullet.
Consider the current Senate energy bill, which was believed to have bipartisan appeal. Democrats (the minority) have blocked the bill because it does not contain an amendment to help the Flint, Michigan water crisis. (Sasse was among the majority of Senators who voted against cloture, guaranteeing that debate over the bill will continue.) Another example of Congressional gridlock? Perhaps. But on another level, here is genuine disagreement over the obligations of our government: are federal lawmakers morally obliged to seize an opportunity to help a local community in need—even if that means sidetracking the legislative process—or to respect the autonomy of local and state governments and thus to avoid special treatment or bad precedent?
What deliberation provides is not a fast track to the most popular legislative outcome but a forum in which rival political goods and principles can be weighed against one another and balanced, if not harmonized. This process is not necessarily satisfying or efficient. But it preserves the plurality of opinions that the framers took as their starting point for our representative democracy. And it makes it a little less likely that the citizenry will be made to suffer folly, no matter how popular.
M. Anthony Mills is associate editor of The New Atlantis and a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.