Ben Sasse is a controversial figure. To his detractors, the first-term Republican Senator from Nebraska is an indecisive dilettante, someone who actively disdains President Trump but votes passively for his agenda. To his fans, the PhD historian is an intellectual voice crying in the wilderness about Trump’s degradation of public life, an evangelical Christian who many hope will run against Trump in 2020. It is against this polarised background that Sasse’s latest book, Them, must be judged.
The book’s full title – Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How We Heal – speaks to its grand ambition. Sasse argues that the whirling cesspool of American politics need not be so ugly and futile, that we can recover our sense of decency and our national pride. It’s an appealing message, but only Sasse’s biggest fans will be satisfied by this book. Its diagnosis of our ills is superficial and one-sided; its proposed solutions are feeble. Were it a book from nearly anyone else, its lightness would be laughable.
But Sasse is not anyone else; he may seek to stand for President in 2020 and, now 46, will still be young enough to run four years later. Let’s wade into the book’s shallow pools, therefore, to see why he falls so short. We will also find nuggets of wisdom there that may, in time, grow into a mature understanding of America’s maladies and help him fulfill his substantial promise.
What does America want?
Them is really two books. The first of these (I’ll consider the second in my next article), addresses the purported decline in America’s sense of community, which Sasse blames for both a decline in life expectancy and individual happiness. He says this isolation, this loss of community, simply transfers our natural needs for meaning and belonging to a national, political stage, where we are easily manipulated by an unscrupulous but highly profitable ‘politainment’ industry.
Community is at the heart of Them. As Sasse tells it, America was once filled with towns like the one he grew up in, Fremont, Nebraska. Children grew up under the watchful eyes of a league of parents. The Friday night football games at the local high school were where “everyone showed up”, where “there were no rich and poor – there were only Fremont Tigers”. In these “tight-knit places so many of us had called home”, “the town was in it together”.
Today those places, according to Sasse, either don’t exist or are quickly fading away. Parents are not “keeping an eye out on the roving bands of kids, making sure they aren’t up to no good. No longer is the town packing the stands for the game.” The result is loneliness, and loneliness is tearing America apart.
People used to have one primary community for all of their lives. Sasse’s own family lived in Fremont for four generations; his maternal grandfather had carved the altarpiece that is still used by the local cemetery. These days, though, economic opportunity draws people into the vortex of the city and the suburb.
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Sasse cites a dizzying blizzard of social science to support his claims, along with references to the work of Charles Murray and Robert Putnam (men who also grew up in small, Midwestern towns and also noted a decline in community cohesiveness). He fails to note, though, that Putnam’s most important work dates from the 1990s, chronicling decline in the period Sasse (who graduated high school in 1990) recalled so fondly.
Ambitious people like Sasse, though, become nomads. Sasse paid taxes in a dozen states in the first decade of his marriage. The result of this rootlessness: no one knows each other and everyone retreats into their own, social media-fuelled echo chamber, replacing real attachments with virtual ones.
Sasse argues that the very survival of our republic and our happiness as individuals is at stake. With such a challenge, what could the remedy possibly be? Not what you’d think. Sasse is one politician who seems to genuinely hate politics. His opening chapter is entitled “More Politics Won’t Fix This”.
And so we come to his wholly unsatisfactory recommendation. He says challenges which are global in nature can only be addressed by tiny individual steps. The ones he proposes – limiting internet screen time; spending time in your community; making regular time to meet old friends – are not going to make Fremont great again.
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They might, at a push, reinvigorate community on the margins, but they’d take an awful lot longer to change mass behaviour. It’s like Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War saying that slavery is an evil that is ripping America apart, and then saying that rather than ban slavery in the territories it’s important to follow St Paul and be nicer to the slaves. As they say in the South, that dog don’t hunt.
Sasse’s diagnosis is also seriously flawed. Even if we accept his glowing description of 1980s Fremont, the fact is that most Americans stopped living in these places decades ago. The explosive growth of the automobile dependent suburb, subsidised by the federal government through its housing and transportation policies, meant that by 1970, 70% of America’s population lived in a metropolitan area. By 1990, the year Sasse graduated from high school, that share had risen to 77%. In short, Fremont’s Dodge County, which remains a non-metro area, has long been a throwback to America’s distant past.
Life in a metropolitan area is defined by the separation of work, life, and play. You work in one place, drive or take public transit to another to shop, go to yet another place to worship, and none of these places needs be within a mile of your home. You share these different experiences with different people in each place, and these people also share their lives with different people in each place. You may not know any of your neighbours, but that does not mean you do not know plenty of people or that you do not form friendships that matter with them. It’s just that the human interactions you do have are by choice rather than by accident and are unbounded by geography.
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A serious attempt to return to the geographically-bounded communities that Sasse remembers would mean tackling this separation head on, forcibly rebundling them – a gargantuan undertaking, and one unlikely to succeed. Maybe America could do something like Britain does: create mandatory green space between discrete towns, to nudge people into identifying with a small area and thus subtly encouraging the informal interactions upon which genuine community depends. Doing this now, however, would leave America’s vast suburbs largely in place, committing tens of millions of people to the allegedly inferior life there.
American politicians who propose limiting the growth of cities are almost always found on the Left – and are criticised by those on the Right for sacrificing consumer preference and cheaper housing on the altar of social planning. If the community deficit is as serious as Sasse proposes, perhaps it’s a sacrifice worth paying. But given Sasse cannot bring himself to consider limiting of the size of cities, perhaps this isn’t quite the problem he makes it out to be.
That’s because his real aim is not in recreating community; he aims to heal America’s political divide. Sasse implicitly acknowledges that in his youth Americans did not hate each other because of politics. Yet most Americans did not live in tight-knit communities during this time. Something else must have happened to bring about the intense vitriol and anger that makes Sasse and millions like him despair.
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We can begin to see what that might be by looking at what’s missing from Sasse’s own description of Fremont. Fremont High and its Friday night games looms large in his retelling, the place where “everyone” went. But it turns out Fremont High was not the only high school in town. Archbishop Bergan served many of the town’s Catholics and fielded their own sports teams. Indeed, despite their tiny size their basketball team won the Nebraska state championship during Sasse’s freshman year, something that a self-described “gym rat” who spent “enough hours there that it came to feel like an extension” of his home was surely aware of. Everyone, it turns out, does not mean everyone.
People like Sasse who extol tight-knit communities almost always miss those on the margins who don’t quite fit in. Possibly because these people generally avoid outing themselves. They’ll show up at mandatory events like pep rallies and cheer the obligatory cheers, and then go back to their quiet closeted lives where they can carve out a space of dignity far from the maddening crowd.
If they are lucky, like the kids at Archbishop Bergan, they can carve out their own space to establish their own community. If they are not, like countless outsiders, punks, theatre kids, and anyone else who has ever found themselves on the margins of high school, they cling to the shadows and ensure they remain unseen.
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America was once a nation of communities dominated by people of faith like Sasse. Coincidentally, Sasse’s life spans the period when this group passed from a majority to a distinct minority. This, not the supposed decline in community, might have something to do with the change in the tone of American politics since Sasse’s youth.
There’s an old medieval German expression that’s relevant here: “Stadtluft macht frei” – city air makes one free. Under German feudal law, a serf who could escape to a city and remain there undetected for a year and a day was freed of his obligations and became a freeman. Cities and their modern suburban equivalents have always been havens for those who don’t care to fit into tight communities, for the people who want to be free.
Visit Americas cities and suburbs and you will find all those people who want to be free from old-time community – career women, ethnic minorities, non-Christians of all stripes, LGBT people. Analyse America’s political divide and you will find the cities and suburbs on one side and the rural and small towns on the other.
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Scratch the surface of any angry debate, such as the one surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and you will find partisans on both sides of this divide, each convinced that the other means to force them into the shadows.
This divide between those who reject traditional American community and those who revere it is at the heart of the bitterness that typifies today’s politics. Sasse, as we will see in the second part of this review, is not wholly unaware of this. Feckless paeans to a fading communitarian past will not heal our divide, but in parts Sasse is on to something which, properly developed, might.