Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How We Heal
st. martin’s press, $28.99, 253 pages
Republican Senator Ben Sasse’s latest book is enjoyable and insightful, but its theory of political polarization needs revision.
According to the Nebraska senator, social, political, economic, and technological forces have left Americans isolated—alienated from themselves, their neighbors and communities, and especially from those with whom they disagree politically. As humans, though, we desperately need to bond. In place of our traditional communities, we have formed what Sasse calls “anti-tribes.” These groups are defined not by whom they support, but by whom they oppose. Society is fractured, and angry politics is how America reacts. “We’re angry, and politics is filling a vacuum it was never intended to fill,” Sasse writes. “Suddenly, all of America feels marginalized and ignored. We’re all standing there in the dark, feeling powerless and isolated, pleading: ‘Don’t you see me?’”
Sasse contends that this hatred weakens America and threatens her long-term viability. We can, however, reverse the trend and strengthen the country by rededicating ourselves to building our communities, reinvesting in them, and getting to know our political opponents. When we have stronger communities, America will have a more functional political system. Citizens will no longer see themselves as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans first. We’ll be able to dialogue with less acrimony and find more solutions to the problems afflicting the country.
Sasse’s argument is a well-blended synthesis of academic studies, popular works, and plenty of anecdotes from his time as a private citizen and a senator. His discussion of social dislocation, economic disruption, and the like seems to accurately describe what is going on in America today. Of course, he relies on well-known works like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. But he also refers to lesser-known studies, like Eric Klinenberg’s research, which showed how those with weak social ties were more likely to die in the Chicago heat wave of 1995. Perhaps more persuasive are his descriptions of eminently relatable phenomena. When remarking on smartphones, he notes, “We use phones to look busy at uncomfortable parties or in awkward social moments.” Who hasn’t done that?
Sasse’s description of America's many ills is accurate, but his overall argument about the state of our politics is too broad. He writes, “all of America feels marginalized and ignored. We’re all standing in the dark….” It is true that American politics demonstrates hatred, animosity, and, sadly, even violence. But it is not clear that the negativity translates into a widespread “anti-tribe” mentality, much less one that poses an existential threat to the country. Sasse himself notes, “Political addicts are weird. (And there aren’t that many of them. They’re just loud.)” If most people actually are not “weird” or “loud” or “political addicts,” they probably also do not hate their political opponents and are not likely to be members of “anti-tribes.” Beyond that, anger can coexist with distaste for the anti-tribe mentality. For all the rancor, it is just as likely that frustrated Americans still appreciate and expect mutual respect in politics.
Plenty of people who suffer from the loneliness and social dislocation Sasse describes are not lured into anti-tribes. What about the many Americans who don’t bother voting or engaging in politics? One of my friends who doesn’t follow politics is reminiscent of Sasse: “Since the American people have lost a lot of faith in the efficacy or integrity of elected politicians, the parties rely on fear of the enemy to drive people to the polls,” he wrote. However, he said “angry” was too strong a descriptor. An anti-tribe isn’t for him. Nor is it for other politically inactive citizens: In May, Drew DeSilver of the Pew Research Center wrote that the U.S. ranked 26th out of 32 in turnout of the voting-age population among the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Meanwhile, in a April 2018 study of non-voters by the Suffolk University Political Research Center, over 50 percent said a third or more political parties were necessary to “do a good job of representing Americans’ views.” These Americans are not copacetic with politics, but they aren’t joining partisan anti-tribes. They are just dropping out.
None of this is to say that Sasse is entirely wrong about anti-tribes. It’s hard to deny that media malpractice stokes animosity among some highly engaged citizens. After all, Sasse cites multiple instances of media figures admitting that rage sells. His theory likely works best when explaining the behavior and mentality of hard partisans, the “loud” and “weird” people Sasse refers to. The other Americans, however, probably have not signed up for the anti-tribes.
Though Sasse overstates his case for the anti-tribes, his suggestions for how readers can reorient their lives to their own communities are excellent and may even diminish some of the anger associated with politics today. Take a “tech sabbath.” Watch the other party’s preferred cable news station and read their blogs. In fact, consume less political media; serve others instead. Even if you are only in a community temporarily, give your time. Foster life-long friendships. These are good suggestions regardless of one’s level of interest in politics.
A couple months ago, Politico published a story wondering whether Senator Sasse plans challenge President Trump in the 2020 election. It noted that his decision to publish Them under a month before the 2018 midterm elections might be a sign he is seeking higher office. Perhaps he might someday want to run for president and Them is part of that plan. But if that’s not the case, one does get the sense that he would be content to return to his home in Fremont, Nebraska, and strengthen the community there.
Timothy Lang is Research Director of Congressional Institute.
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