Books In Conversation
ROSS BENES with Christopher Heine
“Living in a small, conservative town, it was almost instinctive to hate Big Government.”
Ross Benes introduced himself to me with a cold email shortly after he moved to New York City in the fall of 2014 on a recommendation from Dionne Searcey, an old friend of mine from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). The three of us were UNL J-School grads, though Benes was nearly a generation younger. Looking for work, his professors told him to seek out Searcey, as she was known to be gracious and obviously going places, building a noteworthy career reporting for The New York Times that culminated last year in a Pulitzer Prize. Since Benes gained experience in 2013 writing for the publication Crain’s Detroit Business, she told him to contact me because I was, at that time, technology editor at Adweek magazine.
At that publication, it was not uncommon for me to have more than 20,000 unopened emails. The VC-fueled technology sector made sure people like me were getting hundreds of PR pitches every single day, and, after a while, one becomes too blinded by bullshit to open more than a few at a time. So Ross was wise to pull on his target’s prairie-born heartstrings with “Nebraska” in his first subject line directed at me, and I agreed to have a beer with him at The Central Bar near my East Village workplace.
I had to be a bit of a buzzkill right away and inform him that I didn’t have much of a freelance budget to work with, yet I told him I’d help with my contacts throughout the city as much as I could. And then Ross filled me in on some of his past, as well as his long-term and short-term aims. He hadn’t been in NYC but for a few months and was a wide-eyed, 24-year-old kid from Brainard, Nebraska (pop. 420), which was about 125 miles directly south from the farm I grew up on near Bow Valley (pop. 116). He noted that he was stricken with not one but three lifelong illnesses—autoimmune hepatitis, ulcerative colitis, and primary sclerosing cholangitis. He told me he was interning at Esquire and was in talks for contributing to Deadspin, all of which seemed like a more-than-good start to a journalism career. He then told me he had a literary agent, which he obtained while he was still finishing college. Even though his agency was a small shop that sounded like a bootstrapping startup to me, I was astounded. He found someone to represent him while in college at Nebraska? After ending our conversation after two beers and subwaying home to Brooklyn, I later couldn’t help but think, That agent situation must be, like, a half-step removed from self-publishing, right?
Later that fall, Ross began joining my motley crew of fellow Nebraska natives to watch our college football team on Saturdays at dive joints like Canal Bar in Gowanus. On such occasions, Ross’s freestyle sense of humor and wonky curiosity became apparent, foreshadowing his first book, The Sex Effect, published by Sourcebooks in 2017. I later learned that Ross was a practicing Catholic who held strong to his midwestern sensibility. Even so, here was a guy who was so genuinely interested in the history of sexual politics that he talked to porn stars and attended BDSM clubs to gain fodder for The Sex Effect, and researched the arcane sexual histories of the Vatican, Greek military, US Navy, and Corn Flakes. All of that digging produced a book that spotlights the hypocrisy and trivial nature of sexual policies held by organized religion and national governments.
So when he told me he was writing a book about Nebraska politics, I wasn’t all that surprised, because it seemed like a similar kind of research toil, or an academic itch to scratch. When I got my copy of Rural Rebellion: How Nebraska Became a Republican Stronghold (University Press of Kansas) in January, I was expecting a matter-of-fact-but-somewhat-irreverent tone because Sex Effect was written that way. (I have regrettably not read his second book, Sex Weird-o-Pedia.) From one of Ross’s podcast appearances, I knew Rural Rebellion focused on the last 10 or 12 years of Nebraska politics. As a history nerd whose great-great-great-grandfather was an elected Nebraska territorial representative in 1866 when the state first put the wheels in motion to become part of the union, I looked forward to geeking out about the motherland—especially stuff from recent decades, since I hadn’t resided there since 1999.
But Rural Rebellion is much more than a history lesson. It’s the story of trying to make sense of modern America through the lens of a young dude, Ross Benes, who was raised on steak, potatoes, and God but now—as a South Park Slope resident—lives in a place where the menu of cuisine, religion, and politics is much different. It explores his attitudinal evolution around healthcare, immigration, and other policies that have benefited his experiences in recent years, turning him from a firebrand of western individualism to a part-liberal, part-pragmatic species of American that too often gets brushed aside in the media’s monolithic coverage of “likely voters.”
Christopher Heine (Rail): Let’s jump right into something in the news today (Feb. 13) that points to some of your book’s underlying messages about partisan division. Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, a Republican in a state that Trump won more than easily twice, voted to convict former president Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6th insurrection. Generally speaking, what does your book, Rural Rebellion, say about Sasse's likely fate back home due to that vote?
Ross Benes: It says that Ben Sasse will face a hell of a lot of resistance for speaking against his party's dear leader. Sasse will likely be censured by his own party, talk radio will hammer him, and activists and donors within his party will try to primary him should he choose to run again. Good news for Sasse is that he's nearly six years away from having to win another election. By the time he actually is up for office again, I don't think our memory spans will hold onto this moment long enough for it to hurt him significantly. Should Sasse decide to run again, he'll have a major name advantage and probably a money one, too, unless he's running against [current Nebraska governor Pete] Ricketts. Nebraska Democrats are too inept to pose a significant challenge for him. But I get the sense Sasse is priming himself for either a presidential run in 2024 or to become a cabinet member should a non-Trump Republican get elected president in the foreseeable future. So, he may not have to win over Nebraska voters again anyway.
Rail: Your book explains what happened to Nebraska in the last 10-12 years. What's the No. 1 issue? Why have things changed so much in the Cornhusker State?
Benes: Well, I know it sounds trite, but I think the biggest issue is the parties are so nationalized that the Nebraska Republican Party now is really not much different than the National Republican Party, and the same goes for the Democratic Party. When the Republican Party is nationalized and the national party goes crazy, that drags the state further to the right. People used to be able to take their own stances more against the party.
Rail: Like former Republican senator Chuck Hagel and Democratic senator Ben Nelson, Sasse has gone against his party—or more specifically, Trump—a few times. That maverick mindset used to be a sense of pride in Nebraska.
Benes: Now, every politician is very similar to their party peers across the country. Anyone who belongs in the Republican Party, their voting records are not going to differ a hell of a lot from the top to the bottom. You're going to have 99% loyalty on the high end and probably 85% loyalty on the low end. So, I see Nebraska going to this deep far-right because it's the local example of the Republican party going off its rails.
Rail: The first chapter of Rural Rebellion is called “Pro-Life License Plates.” Roman Catholics make up 23% of Nebraskans, 25% of its citizens are Evangelical, and only 24% are "mainline Protestant." The rest of the population is non-Christian, mainly a mix of Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and people who give non-answers on surveys. So, as much as half of the people are getting told in church every Sunday to only vote Pro-Life. Which explains the license plates to a certain degree. But do those numbers explain the state's allegiance to the GOP?
Benes: I mean, Nebraska has a lot of people who don't just identify as Catholic or Protestant, they're in the pews on Sundays. And all those small towns have churches. The [Roman Catholic] Diocese of Lincoln has more priests per capita than any other diocese in the US. When we consider the Christian Right’s influence on the Republican Party, I think Nebraska's high level of clergy and Christian identity is strongly correlated with their allegiance to the GOP. The churches had a huge part in driving people to that. Hearing sermons every Sunday that want you to basically vote Republican, that had an effect. And I don't think the churches were as involved with parties in the 1970s and 80s.
Rail: They weren’t; I was there.
Benes: Yeah, the culture wars really took off during my lifetime in the 1990s. And it's obviously not just the Catholic thing, but the Christian aspect, I believe, is a big part of that. I don't think Democrats have done a good job of appealing to Nebraska Christians.
Rail: As you know, I grew up near a Nebraska small village and was raised Catholic. But yet I was raised in the Omaha Diocese (234,000 members) and you grew up in the Lincoln Diocese (97,000 members), which might be the most conservative diocese in the United States.
Benes: Oh, yeah.
Rail: Honestly, what was that like? Because those of us who grew up in the Jesuit-leaning Omaha Diocese and who went to church maybe a few times in the Lincoln Diocese, we could notice a difference just by attending a mass.
Benes: It's more conservative culturally. And I've lived in Detroit and I've lived in New York City, and when I've gone to mass in those places, it wasn't all sermons about abortion and gay marriage. But that's so much of what it was in the Lincoln Diocese, and it attracts people who are into that. So, Fabian Bruskewitz was the most conservative bishop, and he was in Lincoln forever. We have more priests per capita than anywhere in the US because we have a ton of priests who aren't from Nebraska. They come from surrounding states because they don't think their own bishop is conservative enough. Therefore, we're getting the most conservative aspiring seminarians because they want to be led by this ultra-conservative person who wants to apply 1950s morals to the world and all of these things.
Rail: They're much more of a Benedict vibe than Francis, in other words.
Benes: Oh, yeah, definitely.
Rail: Abortion is such a deciding issue for so many in Nebraska and many other places around the country. From my perspective, I have talked to my native-liberal friends in New York and have tried to explain to them why this person or this Democrat just couldn't get elected in my home state or maybe someplace very similar like South Dakota or Kansas. I just say, "Well, they're Pro-Choice. That idea ain’t gonna fly in those parts."
Benes: It's all mostly about abortion. And no one likes cognitive dissonance. So when [Catholic leaders] find that they can have an influence on one of the two major political parties, and the party listens to them by being Pro-Life, that's addicting. And they tend to overlook the other flaws in Republicans. Because if you look at the tenets of Catholic social teaching, both political parties are flawed. Obviously, Catholics are against abortion, so that excludes them from the Democratic position on abortion. But the basic tenets of social teaching also say that we should treat the environment well. We should treat the poor well. We should have good labor laws. We should treat immigrants well. It is like if politicians are Pro-Life, other blemishes are forgiven. My friends in Nebraska have told me that our governor, Pete Ricketts, was at some of these conferences that Nebraska Catholic bishops would put on, and he was an honored guest. And while he was attending these functions, he was dropping $300,000 of his personal cash to bring the [then-repealed] death penalty back, and Catholics have never been for the death penalty.
Rail: While the majority of small-town Nebraskans are true believers in the pews, therefore, abortion is this singular wedge issue. At the same time, in my opinion, that wedge issue gets supported across a lot of their media. So, is it really about abortion with all of these people? In some cases, I think abortion becomes an excuse for them to vote for their favorite team more than that it’s really a persistent idea on their minds.
Benes: That's definitely the case for some people. It does become like voting for a team. And even if Trump hadn’t nominated Pro-Life judges, they still would've made excuses for him.
Rail: Conservatives and liberals alike love them some judges.
Benes: But it gets really crazy when it's a mayor or a city council member running for election, and abortion comes into the race. What the hell does the mayor of Omaha got to do in deciding whether or not abortion is legal?
Rail: One of the more interesting characters in your book is Democratic Mayor Jon Knutson of Schuyler, Nebraska.
Benes: He totally is a regular guy. He told me what helps him is that party names aren't on the ballots in Schuyler. He said, "Well, I'm a Democrat, but a lot of people don't even know I am." Effectively, when you're the mayor of any small town, your party affiliation really shouldn't matter. You want to make sure the police department is fine, the roads are fixed and things are just running well in town. What's in national politics shouldn't suck up all the oxygen. And thankfully, in Schuyler, it seems like those people have been able to work cross-party well. So I think a big reason why that is, is it's a non-partisan office.
Rail: Can that idea be an emerging roadmap for Democrats to win in red areas—to not run as the home team or the visiting team, but to run on actually what you want to do? Can that work beyond the municipal level?
Benes: It could if you got more races to be non-partisan and open primary.
Rail: Nebraska has the only unicameral legislature in the US, meaning it has one nonpartisan branch of legislative government that works with the executive branch—the governor’s office. Your book describes how Ricketts has moved the unicameral to the right.
Benes: It's still not nearly as far-right as Kansas's legislature has been for the last 15 years and some of these other states in our region. And that's because of the way the unicameral was set up to have non-partisan open primary elections. And you can do this [system] in other races. The way to do it would be through a court decision or through a constitutional amendment like a ballot measure. So, Democrats in states that are red, it'd be in their interest to try to get it mandated that basically, beyond the federal level, you don't really need partisan labels on things. And an open primary system helps because it reduces the likelihood that you're going to get a crazy person.
Rail: You are less likely to get elected officials who grandstand for media and national party attention instead of serving their constituents. New Yorkers may want to know a little bit more about Ricketts, who you examine pretty closely in Rural Rebellion. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could run for president, right?
Benes: It's definitely not out of the realm of possibility.
Rail: And he's got a billion dollars and is a ruthless politician.
Benes: Oh, yeah.
Rail: So what makes him tick? As your book lays out, he is trying to turn Nebraska’s unique unicameral system into a partisan vessel. Is he trying to reprogram the power structure of the state for future generations to come? Is he doing it for his immediate gain? Or is he just all about these right-wing policies, and that's all he cares about?
Benes: I don't really think he's all about the right-wing policies because when he ran for the Senate in 2006, the first time he entered politics, he was actually very moderate on immigration, and he got his ass kicked by Ben Nelson. Nelson actually ran to the right of him, even though Nelson was a Democrat, and that hurt Ricketts. At the time, there was this anti-immigration fervor building in Nebraska. And Ricketts wouldn't have won the race anyways—he lost by a big margin. But he came back to run for governor in 2014 and all the people, talk radio and all these other far-right people, tried to say, "Oh, this is a guy who believes in amnesty.” So, he went far-right on immigration, and he used that to win the Republican gubernatorial primary. Therefore, I doubt in those eight years Ricketts really grew to despise immigrants more. I think he saw that as a way to win with the GOP base. So, he flipped on that issue. And I think he would do that on other issues if it would help him win the election.
Rail: Your book states that his dad, Joe Ricketts, who was born in Nebraska City and grew his multi-billion-dollar financial company, Ameritrade, in Omaha, now lives in Wyoming to avoid paying his home state’s higher taxes.
Benes: Yeah. And he spends an asinine amount of money on Nebraska political races, too.
Rail: All of that is sorta remarkable. That story would be such a scar on most any other family name in any other state while trying to run for a top political office. The taker vs. giver narrative is normally an unshakeable ensnarement for a politician to find oneself in.
Benes: And if you think about how Pete Ricketts got into power, he had the lowest winning percentage of a primary in Nebraska history because it was a six-way race, and, in such a case, you only need to have 20-something percent of the vote. And [2014 GOP primary candidate] Jon Bruning would have won if he didn't screw himself and get caught up in a scandal about [student loans mega-corporation] Nelnet. Ricketts wasn't really that popular, but he won the GOP primary. And Democrats are so ineffective these days, he then was guaranteed the governorship. So what I think he's trying to do now by being so ruthless is he's trying to gain recognition within the National Republican Party. That's why he's such a Trump toadie. That's why he basically always conforms to the National GOP agenda on any issue, no matter the local context. He wants to be a name in that party for a long time to come. And he's got so much money that he can always make himself a candidate on a shortlist. Even if he doesn't run for president in 2024, he's building this thing so he could be part of the National Republican Party for ages to come.
Rail: OK, Ricketts’ eight-year evolution or political pivot on immigration underscores one of the major points in your book. In 2006, as a business person, he was like, "We're an agribusiness state. We need immigrants."
Benes: He was being reasonable.
Rail: And then, the national party started going hard against immigration, and boom, here we are, 15 years later, and it's all about the national narrative and not what the local economy needs.
Benes: Oh, it totally is. That's why North Dakota supported the border wall. They border Canada, for chrissakes.
Rail: Your book explains your time in Lincoln teaching refugees ESL classes and how those experiences personally transformed your views on immigration.
Benes: Forming relationships with immigrants had a considerable impact. In my hometown, most people opposed illegal immigration strongly because it was viewed strictly in legal terms. To be against illegal immigration was to support an abstract principle. I say abstract because our town had no immigrants or any diversity, really. But after you actually form relationships with refugees or immigrants, those policies no longer are abstract. They become more real because they have an impact on human beings that you care about. That’s why support for the border wall was strong in rural North Dakota. But in places where many immigrants live, like Brooklyn, there isn’t support for those restrictions because in Brooklyn the benefits that immigrants bring to our country are much more clear than they are in small towns that lack newcomers.
Rail: You detail in your book how the Republican Ricketts has maneuvered to make the unicameral partisan by putting money in primarying GOP—GOP—state senators who are not right-wing enough. Is the unicameral going to hold up during his reign or is it in trouble, Ross?
Benes: I think it's getting a little bit better. The biggest trouble spots were probably two to three years ago, and it's definitely more partisan than it was before Ricketts. And it's gotten increasingly to the right since 2000 when the state adopted term limits. But I don't think it's totally screwed. And the reason I have a little bit of hope is the committee chairs they selected this year weren't all far-right Republicans like they had been in the recent past. For instance, there was this nut job, [Mike] Groene, who was heading the education committee, and he's a very anti-education Republican. He's out this year. Now, they have a reasonable, moderate Democrat in that position. And when Ricketts leaves, I don't know if the next governor is going to care or have the resources to exert this much pressure on the legislature.
Rail: That seems like good news. Let’s move on to former Nebraska governor and senator Ben Nelson, a Democrat. You have a chapter dedicated to his vote for Obamacare—the vote that made it a law, more or less. The chapter is called “The Cornhusker Kickback.” Around the time of the 2010 Senatorial vote for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare, I was in the Omaha airport and about to fly back to NYC when I saw Ben Nelson and his LEGO haircut in one of the terminals. And he was getting hounded by constituents wanting to talk to him about Obamacare. They looked a little upset, and I will never forget it because he was actually handling it well. I thought, God, that would suck. Just trying to get on an airplane and people are in your face, and you don't know how mad they are going to be.
Benes: The Cornhusker Kickback was major because that was the last time a congressperson gave Nebraska a significant vote to pass progressive legislation in Congress. And of course, no good deed goes unpunished. A lot of congressional Democrats like him who voted for the healthcare law either got voted out or they decided not to run because it became so controversial. Nelson left, and that was the last gasp for the Nebraska Democrats nationally. I mean, they had no one to replace him who was actually ready. In 2012, they had to go get [former Nebraska governor, US Senator and 1992 Democratic presidential candidate] Bob Kerrey, who had been in New York for a decade. That idea didn't work. And every Democrat who tried to run statewide since then has done worse than the one before. If Nelson was never asked to make that crucial vote, I don't know if he would've left. Maybe we could've got someone like Ben Nelson for another term or so.
Rail: Nebraska expanded Medicaid to more than 10,000 low-income people last year. So, Nelson’s been vindicated in a way. As you explain in your book, his vote for Obamacare has been important to you due to your illnesses and the healthcare law’s stance toward pre-existing conditions.
Benes: Living in a small, conservative town, it was almost instinctive to hate Big Government. Obamacare was certainly Big Government. But I became more receptive to those types of programs because I personally experienced how beneficial they could be. When I developed numerous diseases, and then had to pay my medical bills as an adult, I really realized how valuable government-sponsored healthcare could be. And that led me to be more supportive of programs like Obamacare, which I would have been against when I was younger and healthier.
Rail: We both know people in Nebraska small towns who decided, "No, I'm not going to vote for this Trump guy." And then we know someone from that exact same household who did vote for Trump. What's the difference between such voters?
Benes: I think a lot of times, it's the media sources they ingest. The people who I know from back home, even if they're really conservative, some of them may have supported Trump reluctantly. Some of them may have not voted for him at all. Those people tend to not listen to much talk radio, not be on Facebook all the time, not watch much Fox News. They read the newspaper. They may watch the news on the local affiliate of ABC or CBS or NBC or whatever. The ones who are like, "This is my president. I think the election was stolen," and like, "I'm going to keep defending every terrible thing he did, and I'm fine with whatever is done." Those are the ones who are on Facebook more. And that doesn't explain away everything, but I think it's a big chunk. I think that's a big reason why my parents didn't vote for Trump—they didn't get so caught up in it because they get their news from ABC.
Rail: How did you come to write Rural Rebellion?
Benes: After Trump was elected, at parties or conferences, someone would almost always ask, "Where are you from?" I’d say, "Nebraska." They’d respond, "Oh, my gosh. Ah, they really liked Trump there. What's that like?” Or, “Oh, those people there are really conservative." Actually, they've always been conservative, but in fact, Nebraskans really got people's attention after Trump. And all of that got me thinking this book could be a good idea.
Rail: Some people are going to think of Thomas Frank’s What's the Matter with Kansas? when they see your book. Did that book affect your decision to write this one at all? Or is there any connection to it?
Benes: Well, there's a connection because it covers a similar topic in that it’s getting back into the story of the far right. I think the biggest difference is that I show a stronger appreciation for Nebraska than Thomas Frank for Kansas. I enjoyed his book. It was really funny, but I really love Nebraska. So as much as I hate the far-right drift of the state, I talk more about the things I like about Nebraska rather than shitting on it. His book was—he shat on Kansas pretty hard in that book. Therefore, I'd say a big difference is I am more empathetic toward my family and friends and even to my former self.
Rail: How the hell did you get an agent while still an undergrad in Nebraska? Nothing against you or our alma mater, but it's not like you had a poem published in the Library of Congress or some other unusual line item on your resume.
Benes: I got an agent through persistence. I got rejected/never heard back about 90 times before I landed one.
Rail: One last question: Rural Rebellion is a notable departure from your Sex Effect and Sex Weird-o-Pedia books. Have you heard from your more sex-minded fans?
Benes: Actually, I did a radio interview this week with a Cape Cod station. And the interviewer asked, “Ross, can you tell us how porn started e-commerce?" [Laughs.] And we talked about those things. And then, like, at the end of the interview, he's, like, "And by the way, Ross is also a serious journalist. He has this new book called Rural Rebellion."