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Another Sasse Treatise on What Ails Us

The cover of the new book by Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) is a trompe l’oeil rendering of a piece of paper that’s been torn down the middle, and on either side of this fault line, the words don’t quite match up. The idea seems to be to illustrate visually the book’s title, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal. And in case you didn’t get the message, the identical faux fissure symbolizing a cultural divide appears on the verso page facing every chapter heading, accompanied by a quotation from Aristotle, the Bible, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, ancient Greek and African folk wisdom, and other sources that frequently make uplifting appearances in policy books.

Some readers will find this graphic trope cute, others will find it gimmicky and irritating; but it does drive home Sasse’s overarching theme: the “partisan tribalism” of America’s bitterly divided political Left and Right. “We’re all reduced to shrieking at each other,” he writes in the first chapter. “Good versus evil politics” is “the problem that’s ripping us apart.”

Three years into his time as the junior senator from the Cornhusker State (preceded by a stint in the George W. Bush administration and a successful four-year stretch as president of a small Nebraska college), the 46-year-old Sasse has developed a reputation for being ripped apart himself—mostly by his party’s nomination of the bumptious Donald J. Trump and by the subsequent decision of voters, including those of Sasse’s own state, to send Trump to the White House. Highlights of Sasse’s regularly expressed Trump-centric moral angst have included his Facebook manifesto in early 2016 announcing to his constituents that Trump’s focus on “tearing down rather than building back up this glorious nation” wasn’t to his taste; his declaration, as the election neared, that he would be voting for some third candidate, not his party’s nominee; and his admission in September that nearly “every morning” when he wakes up, he thinks about leaving the Republican Party altogether.

Conscience of a Cornhusker

Some of Sasse’s hostility to Trump stems from policy differences—especially on trade, where the senator seems to be an open-markets absolutist, Chinese mercantilism and technology piracy be damned. But it is Trump himself who primes the needle on Sasse’s delicately calibrated sense of virtuous nuance. In a seemingly endless succession of media interviews he has denounced the President as “creepy,” a “megalomaniac strongman,” and lacking in “core principles.”

Sasse put his exquisitely agonized soul on its most vivid display this fall during the protracted hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh and Sasse are in fact near-clones, sharing boyish, blue-eyed good looks, fervent Christian faith (Catholicism for Kavanaugh, evangelical Protestantism for Sasse), youthful athletic prowess (basketball for Kavanaugh, football and wrestling for Sasse), Ivy League educations (Yale and Yale Law School for Kavanaugh, Harvard and a Yale Ph.D. in history for Sasse), Bush administration resumés, and a wholesome family life (Kavanaugh has two young daughters; Sasse, two daughters and a son). But Sasse, sitting on the Senate Judiciary Committee, couldn’t bring himself to utter any public statement of support for the embattled jurist whose hearings consisted largely of attacks by Democrats who, worried that Kavanaugh might vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade, aired uncorroborated and even outlandish allegations of supposed sexual misconduct on his part as a teenager and college student.

Instead Sasse bemoaned the fact that Trump hadn’t chosen a woman for the Supreme Court, and wept during a floor speech in which he declared his support for the #MeToo movement. He castigated Trump for making fun of Christine Blasey Ford, the most prominent of the self-described Kavanaugh victims, who disappeared right back into the woodwork after an FBI investigation revealed that none of the witnesses she named to her alleged assault by Kavanaugh at a high school party could back her up. Then, at the very last minute, Sasse announced that he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, after all—although not without some sententious words about the “broken and politicized” confirmation process and his belief that “most Americans are yearning for more than tribal blood feuds.”

Them was already at the presses by the time of the Kavanaugh hearings, and there is no mention of the jurist in this book. But its theme is of a piece with Sasse’s stance at the time that the problem wasn’t, say, the Democratic Party’s having moved way to the Left and its being hell-bent on, among other things, assassinating the character of a blameless man in the name of abortion rights. No, Sasse shook his finger at a bipartisan fanaticism of which conservatives (or at least conservatives who aren’t as devoted to “core conservative principles” as Sasse believes himself to be—see page 120) are just as guilty as liberals.

Everybody’s doing it. “There’s something comforting,” he writes, “in joining people of a similar mind-set (‘we’) to denounce ‘them.’”

The Sasse Theory of Loneliness

In line with this studiously even-handed psychologizing of the current American political rift, Sasse assigns the root cause of the problem to a psychological factor: loneliness. His theory is that, what with the current technological disruption that is rendering many jobs obsolete, the breakdown of the family thanks to widespread divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing, and the loosening of traditional ties to churches and local civic organizations such as Rotary Clubs, Americans have lost their sense of rootedness and thus of a shared identity that might transcend their political differences.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Sasse, as he himself admits, draws heavily from other people’s books: in this case Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000), pointing to a decline of “social capital” owing to a decay in local civic participation, with some nods to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012), describing the stratification of white Americans into a highly educated, high-IQ, high-achieving, and politically liberal elite, and a New Lower Class characterized by minimal cognitive skills, poor work ethic, and low levels of religiosity and family commitment that condemn them to seemingly permanent loser status.

Thus, Sasse opines, these two groups of Americans, each equally alienated from the genuine tribal affiliations generated by place and local culture that constitute “real belonging”—“healthy tribes,” in Sasse’s lingo—join up with “anti-tribes” facilitated by access to an artificial electronic world of television, talk radio, and Internet and characterized by political extremism on both sides.

He condemns the leftwing bias of the mainstream media, make no mistake. Yet he seems far more energized when excoriating the “balm of contempt” with which the “lonely souls” of the Right soothe themselves when they turn to their television screens and social media accounts. Although Trump and his caustic tweets come in for expected castigation, Sasse’s real target seems to be radio and television host Sean Hannity. The Fox News personality takes up at least 10 pages of this book (with a side lob at Rush Limbaugh), and is described as “tell[ing] a lot of angry, isolated people what they want to hear.” Hannity’s “core cause is to rage” rather than to “offer coherent arguments against liberalism,” says Sasse. (Hannity has responded in kind, ridiculing the senator as “Mr. Civility” and telling reporters that he had been “totally conned” into supporting Sasse, then a friend, in the latter’s 2014 senatorial campaign.)

Them moves on to a “to-do list” of Jordan Peterson-style rules for those of us who might wish to recover our lost sense of belonging. They range from the bromidic to the highly specific. For bromides, we get a chapter called “Become Americans Again” that includes a seven-line quotation from We Shall Overcome, a scolding for conservatives who aren’t wild about uncontrolled immigration, and the declaration that, “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.” The specifics are offered in the chapters entitled “Set Tech Limits” (turn off your smartphones, quit obsessing over politics, and make time over dinner for family conversations) and “Buy a Cemetery Plot” (shorthand for developing an attachment to a particular place so strong that you want to be buried there).

Guide for the Smarter Nomad

There follows a chapter entitled, “Be a Smarter Nomad.” Since Sasse is opposed on principle to Trump’s trade policy-linked efforts to return industrial jobs to America, he casts his lot with the gig economy, envisioning a future in which most Americans will be “freelancers” cobbling livings together out of whatever will pay them some dollars, undergoing periodic “retraining,” and moving incessantly to wherever the gigs might be. Here, Sasse’s Virgil is Michael C. Munger, a Duke University economist whose new book, Tomorrow 3.0, envisions a nation of Americans who will own practically nothing (probably because they can’t afford to) and live short-term in tiny-house dwellings equipped with security-coded “Internet of Things” pods that will enable the instant rental and delivery of whatever they need.

This wanderlust vision of the future doesn’t accord well with “Buy a Cemetery Plot”—or with “Set Tech Limits,” for that matter. But Sasse is confident that if we try hard enough, we will “be able to build new institutions of community that can bond increasingly mobile people together.” In the bipartisan name of so doing, he throws some nice words in the direction of former President Barack Obama and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and makes sure to mention that in the Senate he sits at the desk once used by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic moderate who, Sasse says, “grasped that legislating requires . . . a common understanding of what challenges we face.”

Whom doesn’t he flatter? Well, one notices scant praise for—even some griping about—his own constituents back in Nebraska. He mentions the mail his Senate office received in 2016, in which religious Nebraskans asked why he planned to throw his vote effectively to Hillary Clinton, whose Supreme Court nominees would likely have permanently ensconced Roe vs. Wade in American jurisprudence. Given that their own votes went 58 percent in favor of Trump, it could be they won’t relish being characterized as ill-educated, low-IQ, “lonely,” and “angry” social isolates. (Why didn’t Sasse just go all the way and call them “deplorables”?)

The Culture War Is Real

But the worst flaw of Them is its author’s blithe insistence that the Left-Right chasm these days is simply a matter of free-floating anxiety generated by economic disruption and click-seeking media. He seems not to realize that the culture war is quite real—and also, although he tries to paper this over—quite one-sided. The “partisan tribalism” of which he accuses Trump-supporting voters is actually more like an effort to push back, or at least to hold the line, against a managerial and cultural elite with an aggressive agenda: to obliterate the very same locally and religiously grounded values that Sasse claims to champion.

The senator and his wife homeschool their children, so perhaps he is unaware of the helpless outrage that many parents felt when the Obama administration issued rules requiring their daughters to share public school bathrooms with biological males. (Trump rescinded those directives soon after taking office.) Sasse doesn’t seem to understand that today’s Democratic Party has little patience with Moynihan-style moderation, or that such once-radical positions as open borders, gun-confiscation, socialized medicine (“Medicare for all”), draconian limits on energy consumption, and forced support for abortion and same-sex marriage are now pretty much mainstream among Democrats. Does Sasse really think that today’s socialist-leaning millennials, half of whom favor restricting First Amendment rights in the name of curbing “hate speech,” share a “belief in freedom for all”? Does he think Chuck Schumer cares one whit about “a common understanding of the challenges we face”?

The unfortunate thing is that Them does pinpoint some things that have indeed gone fearfully wrong in recent years: the deterioration of family life and the devolution of American politics into trench warfare. But they’re problems that can’t be even adequately analyzed, let alone solved, by anodyne declarations that we need more of the “tight bonds that give our lives meaning,” uttered by someone who has decided he is too above the fray for the profession—politics—to which he was elected by desperate constituents.

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