America is fractured. A divided land.
America is distracted. A land of novelty.
America is lonely. A home for none.
We are a people given over to loneliness, obsessed with technological marvels, distracted by the same devices at which we marvel, and utterly divided on an array of economic, social, and political matters.
This is the doomsday scenario into which first-term Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse provides a bracing antidote to our shared malady. Them: Why We Hate Each Other…and How to Heal, his second book in as many years, engages a genealogy of American declension—from smaller crowds at Friday night football games to backroom Washington gridlock, from consumerism gone amok to technology gone awry—and offers several basic proposals for stemming the overwhelming feeling of disquiet.
Sasse spends the first third of his work addressing the fall of local community spirit & institutions, while focusing on his bailiwick (political and cultural ‘anti-tribes’) in the second segment. By “anti-tribes”, he indicates the tendency for individuals to clump and self-identify into similar sub-groups or tribes. While this communal shift is easy to mark today, Sasse goes deeper in his classification. Instead of tribes grouped around positive social or personal goods, he argues that Americans are catechized into hatred, into trusting only selected sources which depend upon outrage and demonization of one’s opponents. In short, we are grouped by our hates, not by our loves—and we love it. So a member of the ‘progressive’ anti-tribe may be fed a dogma of bigoted alt-right conspiracies, while the ‘conservative’ anti-tribe is bred on the evils of the left-wing media. The poles increasingly become the majority and threaten to rend asunder the social fabric. After perusing some causes for this anti-tribalism, in his final hundred pages Sasse provides his proffered solutions to the dire condition of a lonely, disconnected, and outraged citizenry.
Commendably, the book is not another jeremiad whose ends just so happen to mesh with a reelection campaign. One gets the sense that Sasse sincerely seeks to edify and to inform. Them reaches its apex when Sasse sidelines his charming senatorial anecdotes about Chuck Schumer or Daniel Patrick Moynihan and instead centers on sociological analysis. While the tales of his small-town upbringing and married peripatetic travels across America give leaven to Them’s prose, Sasse’s claims lie on safer ground when they collate anecdotes with incisive analysis.
For instance: consider his repeated exhortation for a greater calmness in civil debate, combining an unwillingness to paper over true divisions while acknowledging the unnecessary tribalism in the political sphere: “Many of the issues we face today are too important to approach timidly or dishonestly. They are worth arguing over—passionately” (252). Though Sasse is not the only one to make this claim, his display of that unheralded and often-counterfeited virtue we label courage is noble.
Another example: the chapter on technology is worthy of sustained reflection. Sasse does not break new ground in what he offers (Melvin Krantzberg was advocating tech “fasts” and identifying the way devices changes us over three decades ago), but his combination of prose and data synthesis is surely valuable. Warning of the potential of smart phones to distract and form bad habits is now commonplace, but the astute twist Sasse provides is his unstinting commitment to virtues and habits which require humility. Such an Augustinian awareness of the potential for sin in the best of us is a bedrock of Sasse’s approach, which mixes knowing our bent towards depravity with a joyous trust in the shared American heritage and value of freedom.
When he speaks of the grandeur of American freedoms, you can almost hear your 10th grade civics teacher beaming: “What binds us together as Americans is our unwavering conviction that, in spite of all our differences…we share a belief in freedom for all. We believe that every American should be permitted to follow her conscience, speak her mind, exercise her deepest beliefs” (165). His defense of the freedoms of the first amendment in the same chapter gives hope to Americans of any stripe, combining talking points from both sides of the aisle.
And such hope is needed, because Sasse’s description of the torn fabric of American life is sadly accurate. Though recent works have highlighted the resilience of small-town America (see James Fallows’ Our Towns), others point to the inadequacies of 20th century frameworks and methods in 21st century locales (Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak give penetrating critiques along these lines in The New Localism). Here lies one of the subtle distinctions Sasse provides—some readers might simply take Them as a nostalgic longing for a supposed golden era of American prosperity, ingenuity, and decency. If Sasse were simply counseling a return to Little League, PTAs, and Boy Scouts, his proposal would flounder on sentimental idealism. Wisely, he eludes those dangerous shoals as he doubles down on the need for commitment to local organizations, nearby neighbors; as he says, we need to put down roots where we are by working alongside friends. Thus, the most welcome area of his proposal is the turn towards prescription, particularly when Sasse melds freedom and localism. Appeals for Americans to commit to their local community, coupled with his novel recommendation on how to approach housing is allied with the strange picture of a politician who recommends less politicking. Sasse argues that we have far more in common than we do in division: “chief among those [common] goals, raising our children to become kind, thoughtful, gritty, respectful adults who use their skills and talents to serve others.” With penultimate, earthly goods in mind (friendship, neighborliness, and a sense of community chief among them), Sasse wishes to save us from distracted and alienated anti-tribalism. His way forward inspires a renewal of the American idea, yet as Sasse gestures towards the national heroes of the American landscape—Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr.—the astute reader wonders if his generally conservative reading of our country’s history will find traction among pluralistic or multi-ethnic readers. In other words, around which American ideals are we able to unite? If we are enmeshed in anti-tribalism, distracted by technology, what model has the persuasive power to bridge the gaps which divide Americans? If we are a people increasingly formed by aesthetics and experience (see the remarks of Carl Trueman and his mediation of Phillip Rieff on this point), appeals to natural law or common American freedoms will ring hollow in the ears of Americans whose greatest heroes are not the Founding Fathers. To attain what Sasse (and truly, I myself) desire, Them would benefit from alternative perspectives and disciplines which provide buttressing for these common goods in an anti-tribal age.
Thus, Sasse’s work may find a difficult reception among some bedfellows. First, he prefers to identify common institutions, refusing generally to point Americans to the Christian church. We might object as Christians (should not the church be a city set on a hill?) but given Sasse’s focus on common polities, his approach may provide a path forward for terrestrial and penultimate, if not eternal, goods. The occasional lack of a balanced method in his examples (as he admits in a footnote) and in his own experience does limit the persuasiveness of his argument; if you’re not interested in Nebraska football, you may find segments of the work less appealing.
Second, the task he assigns himself is quite daunting for a single book. Similar publications by writers like Jaron Lanier, Jonathan Haidt, and James Fallows discuss social problems (the role of small towns in America, the impact of social media) in the same vein as Sasse, but each focuses on a single issue. Them takes a wide-lens approach, seeking to give a scattershot analysis. (For a more explicit theological examination of these social concerns, see the recent work by Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness.)
Nonetheless, for anyone who’s exhausted by the relentless ‘politainment’ industry (if incessant “news alerts” are causing blunt force trauma) for anyone who’s tired of being ‘alone together’ or wondering how to grow lasting and meaningful friendships, Sasse’s Them is a salutary, levelheaded synthesis for the 21st century citizen and human.
John Stovall currently serves as Pastor of the Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, Georgia and is a doctoral candidate in history at the State University of New York, Albany.