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Ben Sasse bids farewell to the Senate before heading to Florida

Posted at 5:26 PM, Jan 03, 2023

Senator Ben Sasse delivered his farewell speech on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon.

He is resigning from Congress after eight years in order to take the top spot at the University of Florida as its president.

Sasse thanked his family and the people of Nebraska who trusted him to represent them in Washington. He said there's no other place like the Senate and it’s an honor that wasn’t lost on him.

"I rise to speak from this floor for the last time. Serving the people of Nebraska as their senator has been a unquie honor and I will remain grateful for all that I have learned from the folks who do more to feed the world, more than any people, time or place in all of human history."

Read the text of Sasse's speech below or watch the video in its entirety:

Ben Sasse farewell speech in total

"Thank you, Mr. President.

Mr. President, I rise to speak from this floor for the last time. Serving the people of Nebraska as their Senator has been a unique honor and I will remain grateful for all that I've learned from the folks who do more to feed the world than any people, anytime or place, in all of human history - quite literally. I know that I speak for my team as well, some here on the floor for the first time, some in the gallery, in saying to Nebraskans: thank you for these eight years. Eight years of us getting to be a part of a team much bigger than just ourselves. That is a special privilege, and none of the 32 of us now on the team and the dozens who have already departed take that for granted and so we say thank you to Nebraska.

Running for office is a dangerous business and by asking someone to give you their vote, you're asking them to give you their trust, to put their trust in you that you will rightly prioritize and sequence their long-term interests. You're asking them to trust your judgment, your conscience, and your common sense.

Our wrestling together, Nebraskans and me, over the last eight years has had some market ups and downs, as you gave me victories in all 93 counties when I ran for office the very first time in my life in 2014, and then made me the most censured public official in the history of Nebraska over the next six years, but then proceeded two years ago to reelect me again, again winning all 93 counties and securing the most votes of anyone in the history of our state. Many times it felt like a noogie and a slap and a head butt and a hug all at once.

Besides my state and my wonderful staff, I obviously want to thank my family. My three ladies and Breck not just for supporting and encouraging me, but for charging out to embrace learning across all of Nebraska with me. Visiting all 93 counties, many, many times, climbing all over combines and tractors. Learning so much about cattle and pigs and seed corn. My kids can tell you more about artificial insemination and how to turn a breeched calf that you wouldn't be able to eat again for 72 hours. They got to know a beautiful state from east to west, from city to country, and from old to young. They have seen and learned more about and respected and learned to do more hard work. Ours is a special state.

Breck, our youngest, got to feed 2000-pound bulls with names like Petrone. He got to bring home stray dogs and ranch animals, with or without permission. He got to live off of an RV for about 16 months which I will now confess, given that there probably is less regulatory reach, that we probably violated a good bit of code on that RV. He got to stand with me dozens of times as we sent soldiers off and welcomed soldiers home to the running embrace of their families.

Alex, our middle daughter, has given so many tours of this Capitol, and she knows the stories of our country and the tributes etched and strewn throughout this building to people who preserved a republic. These are experiences that bore a hole in her soul as she grew. And though she knows that America is imperfect she knows to never take it for granted.

Corrie, our eldest, had a chance just this last summer to join me at the Polish Ukrainian border, joining groups who were visiting soldiers in hospitals who'd given their limbs to defend their homes, coloring and drawing pictures with orphans whose parents won't come back because of an evil man who thinks he can seize land that is not his. She drank vodka with Ukrainian officers.

And most importantly, Melissa. I have missed hundreds and hundreds of family dinners, both the good and the bad, the tears and the laughter at that table. And I want to thank you for loving me, for forgiving me for those missed dinners, for your giant brain and your bigger heart, for your conviction and your love of passing on an inheritance of liberty to the next generation, and for a shared growth mindset. And I know, you’ll kick my butt if I tear up.

Melissa and I, as Nebraskans understood from day one on the campaign bus back in 2013, never planned to spend a lifetime in Washington.

That's not what our founders envisioned for the people they would send to the federal city. They envisioned, rather, congressmen, senators, and presidents who thought of DC as a temporary stay. Washington is a place to do a good bit of neighbor loving work, but then to go back home to the more permanent work of life and flesh and blood whole communities. Americans in the 1870s and their cannon actually knew well the story of Cincinnatus, they named towns after him, who gave up the burden of power, who took up the burden of power in a shaky Rome, then exercised it responsibly to restabilize things and then laid it down again, to go back to his vegetable garden, which was the real world. Our founders envisioned citizens who would govern themselves, not be governed by a distant imperial city, who would, as George Washington said and then repeated here, as we recite every year, in his Farewell Address, that folks would, “sit safely under their own vine and fig tree again.”

We're a long way from that picture, of course. The vast majority of Americans now say it feels like we're in decline. 80% of folks on the left, north of 80% of folks in the middle, and fully 90% of folks on the right, tell pollsters that they think the country is not just headed in the wrong direction, but perhaps permanently in decline. I'm going to argue, in a moment against the pessimism of our age, but we should first acknowledge that there are legitimate, big reasons that people are worried. Fatherlessness, the epidemic of opioids, the depths of despair, the loss of community, the foreign policy humiliations, the ugly inflation, it feels like we're inundated with terrible news. And at a time when folks feel so disoriented, when the future seems obscure, when danger seems to be signaled from every direction, it's not surprising that false prophets of power would suggest that the only answer is more centralized power – “I alone can fix it.”

It's not surprising that five of the richest counties in the nation now are the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia that touch Washington DC, a city who has an entire industry that has grown up around the sprawling bureaucracies and a permanent political class. We seem to be in the process of exchanging a republic of self-governing citizens and the virtues of a federalism in which states would tussle and compete with the vices instead of administrative centralization, in which experts from Washington DC who don't have to stand for reelection would try to impose uniform rules on a diverse continental nation of 330 million people. It seems so obviously silly.

We seem to be on a foolhardy path of trading the vigor of civic pluralism and consensus building with a disease of “my way or the highway” political zealotry. But we get distracted by the differing flavors of the zealotry. We get captivated by the declining brands “Republican” and “Democrat” and we regularly think that the problem in the city might actually be that the policy divides are taken so seriously, that the deep divide is red-jersey screaming versus blue-jersey screaming. That would be a mistake. It would be to misdiagnose what is actually happening in our time, for the prophets of despair, both right and left are actually telling Americans a really similar story. And the story is this: we're weak. Whether they stand on my side of the aisle or the other side of the aisle as they yell. The political addicts who prize short-term power over long-term dignity and liberty are the ones who now dominate the nation's conversation and their story is roughly symmetrical. “You're getting victimized by the other team. The things that are wrong are coming from the politicians on the other side. The nation is in decline. Give us more power, for we alone can fix it.”

On the left, media personalities and activists often weirdly and ahistorically denounce the idea of America itself, calling the Founding racist and our institutions unjust. To them, our history is exclusively a story of victimhood and a narrative of oppression. There can be no redemption, no progress, and no hope. Political zealots on the left don't see much of anything worth “conserving” in America, and if you disagree with them, it must be because you're an irredeemable deplorable clinging to some phobic backward-looking vision. There's no possibility of honest disagreement.

But on the right now too, victimization is a story we trumpet. Demagogues denounce the idea that there could be anything left to “conserve” in America. According to these zealots, we lost the idea of America long ago and it's naive to think it could be recovered, much better to burn things down than try to rebuild. Cynicism is supposedly cool. They shout that persuasion can't work and the left will turn us into their victims if we don't stop them first. Persuasion is a crutch for the weak for those who are too cowardly to fight.

The particular policy agendas obviously differ, but ultimately the message of all politics-first folks is basically the same: The only way to put an end to the culture war is to move beyond the outdated idea of a limited constitution and instead grab more power for the “good guys” while there's still time. The Left's plan is more unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats. The Right’s plan is now to give similar kinds of power to a strong man. But ultimately, there's not much difference between these so-called “plans”. Anti-pluralists are against dissent, they're against minorities, they're against diversity, they're against place, they're against liberty and human dignity. The factions differ on who should be Caesar, but beyond that, there's much on which they agree. They salivate on the idea of chaos and our disrupted age that can be the excuse for seizing more power. They foment anger and fear because they think if we're angry and scared enough, we’ll assent to some Caesarist solution.

These factions are dangerous, to be sure, but here's what we fail to appreciate most of the time: they’re are factions and they're small, and they command nothing like majority opinion.

When they appear to win, what they're really only doing is putting together a temporary majority coalition of folks temporarily more disgusted by the other side's arrogant overreach. That's why every midterm election, or almost every midterm election for three decades now, we've seen a new president, two years into his term, lose the Congress. Why does this happen every cycle? It isn't because the Congress is suddenly popular, it's because the president who usually won a lesser-of-two-evils election in the eyes of the American public, then populated his White House with foolish folks who believed that they were elected with some sweeping mandate to transform America, and they prompt a backlash.

It's also the single most obvious and important explanation of what happened in 2016. Historians are not going to look back on 2016 as about who won. What happened in 2016 was a race to the bottom by statistically the two most unpopular majority party candidates in the history of polling. One guy won simply because he was the second most unpopular person in the history of polling. Go to any corner bar, a supermajority of Americans already know this.

By the way, we roughly did the same thing again four years later. Forget the nonsense about a new FDR administration. America elected a new guy because they were sick of the old guy.

This is also the most basic and obvious explanation for the crap show that's happening at the other end of this building right now. Nancy Pelosi’s party quite obviously lost a referendum on the stewardship of the House of Representatives 60 days ago, but no one won, least of all, Kevin McCarthy. Nobody in America is crying out for ambition for ambition's sake.

So let's restate this overreach and repulsion hypothesis in a more positive way, because it turns out the American people are quite ahead of the political classes. It turns out the American people don't like political addicts. They don't like political zealotry. This is good news. To quote one correspondent to my office literally this week, “The Senate today reminds me of a lunchroom full of insecure adolescents trying anything and everything to get attention. Not everybody, of course, but the loud ones. But most of us eventually learn to grow up. Let's hope that someday the electorate kicks the Senate out of its extended puberty by letting folks know that mooning each other really isn't that cool.” Nebraskans have a way with words.

Stated with a few less naked butt examples, here's the good news that we need the ears to hear: Americans overwhelmingly don't want power to be at the center of our shared experience. They don't want a left-wing nanny state telling them how to live and they certainly don't want a right-wing potentate promising to crush all of our so-called “domestic enemies.”

We want America to be America again. Americans don't believe the Constitution is obsolete. They don't believe that principled pluralism can't work anymore. They don't accept the notion that we're all so weak we have no agency.

Yes, it's true -- it's hard to look away from the addictive horror of a 24-hour news cycle, rubbernecking is deep inside all humans, but what the Zealots preaching Jeremiads of doom and decline don't understand either about America's history, or about Americans preferences, is that despite some of the pessimism of our uncertain technologically disrupted moment, Americans are fundamentally grateful to be here in the greatest nation the world has ever known. We are optimists by the miracle of our birthplace.

We know that politics won't save us, but that doesn't mean that we're hopeless; it just means that we know what's best about America comes from outside the centers of power, same as it ever was. We need to regain our bearings and to recall our original construction and our architecture.

We need Americans to be confident about self-governance for men and women who've been given a republic to hold. We need to be able to see clearly the three immense and enduring reasons for our hope: the Constitution, our institutions, and most fundamentally, the people themselves.

The U.S. Constitution is the greatest political document ever written. The central principles that undergird it, the universal dignity of human beings and thus the rejection of absolute power, because souls cannot be compelled by force, this is the soul of America. When the country is at its best, we're making good on that promise, and no country has been more blessed with wise political arrangements than we, the separation of power both vertically and horizontally. It's a glorious inheritance. And despite attacks by demagogues, the Constitution endures.

At the convention in Philadelphia, George Washington called this document "the standard to which the wise and the honest can repair." So long as the Constitution endures, we too, can repair and recover and hope again in this system.

The second reason for our hope: Americans are institution builders. Building is in our DNA. We built towns on the frontier railroads across the continent Hoover Dams and Empire State Buildings, but more importantly than this important physical architecture and infrastructure, we built the human institutions that support and sustain us across institutions and generations. We know that we're weak and fragile on our own but the bonds of community enable us to flourish.

Our institutions are the vital centers of our life together. Small and large, local and national, temporary and enduring, institutions are the gathering places where we find what we need to keep going. The churches that serve the needs of their communities, the schools that sharpen the minds of the next generations, the businesses that keep our households up and running, the little leagues, the ballet troupes, Fourth of July parades, Christmas carolers, the million and one other associations and organizations and clubs and groups through which we live and pass along our life together.

When our institutions are withering, America withers, but when our institutions bud anew, America is alive and new again. And that's why America will always belong to the doers, not the whiners. America belongs to the man in the arena willing to spend himself in a worthy cause. America belongs to the parents who eat on the go so their kids can eat at the dinner table. America belongs to the inventors and innovators whose garage tinkering changed the world. America belongs to the neighbors who see someone in need and go out and launch a soup kitchen and a clothing drive and an after-school tutoring program.

They don't wait for this city, they move. We've not fraught thrived for two centuries, because of power at the top and in the center. We've not thrived chiefly because of who was in office, or because of the rules and regulations that are handed down from Washington. Rather, we thrive because of the diversity in every city, in every town, in every neighborhood, though different - you find this sameness, the people who don't want to be served but to serve. Those who are not taking but giving. Those who are not tearing down but building up. This is who Americans are and it's a humble and beautiful thing for all of us to be a part of together.

And here is thus the third reason for hope: the American people themselves. For America does have a civil religion. It isn't a precise theology, but it's instead a shared anthropology. It's about people important enough and with enough dignity, that the state is not allowed in our system to get in the way of each of our individual needs to make sense of mortality and the afterlife to make peace with God and to consider carefully how we would redeem our days for those days are numbered and finite.

Ultimately, then, our faith in the Constitution and in our institutions flows from what we believe in common about people themselves and the universal dignity that the 330 million of us possess from our Creator. For we are one of a kind. You can come from anywhere in the world and be one with us, wild and wonderful and unlike any other country the world has ever known, we are equally characterized by a spirit of association and a spirit of enterprise.

We have the audacity to be optimistic even when things are the bleakest. We're brash and loud and reckless, kind of insane, to be honest, but there's a special vigor. We're the kind of people you want with you when things go sideways. We're the kind of people the world wants with it. When things go sideways, the kind of people who get the job done and keep our word. That's who we are as Americans, far before the less important question of our policy debate preferences, and what color partisan jersey we were. That's who we are as American pluralists.

And that's why recovery from our current messes is not only possible, but likely, but recovery comes with preconditions. And it comes only if we acknowledge the truth that the outrage and fear industrial complex wants to obfuscate. And that is that the zealots and the tribalists and the grand standers and the very online political addicts they will not fix anything. They won't because they can't. Recovery can come only from civic pluralists. Policy debates obviously matter, but the most important divide in American life today isn't red versus blue. It's pluralist versus political zealot. Recovery will come only from the pluralist and here's what it will look like – citizens that resist the temptation to reduce fellow Americans to caricatures of political affiliation. Recovery requires investment in things that outlast partisan preference. We must steward the present age and play our small but vital part in the work of self-government. Because yes, policy matters, and yes, there must be important and vigorous debate. And no, being polite for the sake of being inoffensive isn't the highest good and, no, mushy middle kumbaya-ism will not be a strategy, but more than debates about policy, we need Americans to believe they can build again, we need to believe that loving your neighbor is more important than the policy disagreements.

We need to be invested in those actually central institutions that make the nation vibrant. And this is why the Senate matters so much; for the Senate doesn't build the other institutions. But more than any other single institution, more than any other place more than any other room. More than any other room, this body, this place, and this floor has a special place to play and advocating for all of those other institutions, where people actually break bread and provide care to the dying.

The Senate has a special role to play in America's recovery. Senators, colleagues, and friends, each of us knows that this institution doesn't work very well right now. Each of us knows we should be taking a look in the mirror and acknowledging that lives lived in a politicized echo chamber are unworthy of a place that calls itself a deliberative body, let alone the world's greatest deliberative body. Too many of the so-called debates here aren't debates at all, not in the way that Webster, Clay, Dirksen, or Chase Smith could even recognize.

When we're being honest with each other, which usually means when on one of the very rare occasions where cameras aren't present, we all know that a big chunk of the performative yelling that happens here and in every hearing room is just about being booked for even more performative yelling at night on TV. It might feel good temporarily a little dopamine hit to fire off a clever tweet or get booked on a supposedly prime slot. But honestly, almost nobody's watching and the share is getting smaller. Run the numbers. 99% of political tweets come from five and a half percent of Americans. The primetime lineups of the three biggest cable networks almost never hit 2% of the public. So much of the performative BS that happens around here is about getting invited on shows that don't have an audience. These small narrowly targeted programs run on outrage. It is infotainment fuel. Nobody goes viral for talking about policy tradeoffs, and hardly anyone gets booked for a nuanced debate. It is performative and it's beneath the calling of those called to serve in this place.

A lot of us behind closed doors when the cameras are off, say that we want a different Senate. We want a place that prioritizes long-term legislation that looks at the nation's most fundamental challenges. A lot of us want an institution that takes seriously the rise of an expansionistic, militant, imperialist China, and debates the best paths to attacking that challenge. And that does happen, but it happens in the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is both good, but also a cautionary tale about our more fundamental problem. Intel works largely because we have no cameras there to reward performative grandstanding. Intel works because it's classified and because it has the excuse of being classified. So where will be the meaningful beyond tribal debates about the hollowing out of local communities, about the increasing depths of despair? Where will we debate how we can more effectively address the crisis of family formation and the crisis of our long-term debt? What we say we want and what we actually do here, are worlds apart. Senators get cowed by threats from social media mobs, advocacy organizations, small-dollar donors, and cable hosts. Senators learn when they're up for reelection that they're supposed to have kept their heads down, not rock the boat, not talked about long-term issues, and take the path of least resistance to surviving the next election cycle. And that is making this body increasingly irrelevant. Something none of us actually want.

But there really is no substitute for the Senate. If recovery is going to come it will mostly be built in local institutions in a million different ways. But the Senate is an essential ingredient to enabling that no other place can serve the purpose of this room. Some people including weirdly, some who serve in this body, think that the public square has migrated online, that you can substitute debate of humans who actually know each other and take a long-term perspective with social media and with tweets. They're lying to themselves. Twitter is awesome for sports, to be clear, but if it serves any broader public purpose, it's basically just a public reminder of the lunatic asylum that has potential and all social contagion. Digital space cannot recreate what this chamber does, and hard thinking can almost never happen in 280 characters. We've always had angry people. We've always had crazy people. But what's new in our time, is that those who are politically addicted, being more willing to shout down more balanced people have new tools at their disposal to privilege the politically abnormal over the normies. It would be a disastrous mistake for the Senate to give similar disproportionate voice to the loudest and the angriest. Not just because the founders created this institution, largely as a warning against the dangers of zealous faction, but also simply because the data clearly shows that the angriest or not at all representative, most of our constituents don't like the loud and the angry. We're a bell-curve nation. And a tiny, tiny share at each extreme of the tail is getting almost all of the attention.

At one level, I'm just making a boring, mundane argument for a certain kind of moderation. But I don't chiefly mean policy moderation. Let there be debates across the continuum from far left to center left, to center right to far right. Debate policy with vigor, but we need a different kind of moderation. We need a Senate that is characterized by tonal and dispositional moderation. And tonal and dispositional moderation flows chiefly from humility, and wisdom, and for an awareness that we are ensouled and that souls cannot be coerced; and a government that recognizes and respects us as souls should elicit from each of us great gratitude. In this moment, what we need as a nation more than anything else, is more gratitude; not more grievance. We Americans have been given so much to be thankful for. We are blessed with a limited government that exists to protect historic freedoms. Stuff unprecedented on the world stage: free exercise of religion, free speech, free assembly, a free economy. There are real injustices in America's past and in our present, and we cannot and should not overlook them. But the answer to injustice is never wallowing in or trying to inflame victimhood.

The heroes of American history, the folks that we put in marble all around this Capitol, know that this country gets to write its own destiny, generation after generation fought to make this a better and a freer and a more just place. And theirs is the example that we should follow. The folks like Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King. They were too busy building. Let the same be said of those who would aspire to serve in this place. Let the Senate be the Senate again. Thank you, Mr. President."

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