Is Sasse smart enough to unite America?
Credit: Joe Raedle / Getty   

Facile and fatally flawed – that is what I made of Ben Sasse’s analysis of American community in the first part of my review of his book Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal. His discussion of the toxic nature of American politics, as I discuss in this second part, is just as facile and flawed. Admittedly, Senator Sasse does end with hopeful insight into the nature of national identity – the centrality of the ideal of universal human dignity – that could lead to the very healing he seeks to provide.

Sasse has a simple explanation of why Americans have embraced a volatile and angry politics: loneliness and consumer choice. As he tells it, much as there was once a uniform community in which “everyone” participated, so too we once had a “common culture” and “news that the whole nation needs to hold in common” to make informed decisions. But as the number of broadcast and media options proliferated, “we’ve obliterated the gatekeepers who helped to ensure that information was important and reliable”. The result: people gravitate to the loudest and most entertaining opinions that confirm their biases and turn neighbour against neighbour without cause.

This simplistic view is appealing to those who, like Sasse, were not adults during the period he reveres. For those who were, however, it is as accurate as an image of yourself reflected in a fun-house mirror.

Take his idea that there was a once a “common culture” in our media. Sasse cites the debut of the celebrated television comedy I Love Lucy as evidence. He writes that “more than two-thirds of Americans turned in to watch” Lucy and Desi Arnaz premier their show. But that’s not true. American ownership of televisions was very low then. According to Time magazine, the show did not reach even 10 million homes until May 1952. Even then, its audience was a mere 20% of all Americans. “Everyone” did not mean “everyone”.

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The same is true of his more contemporary example, the final episode of MASH. This time Sasse has his facts right: roughly 54% of all Americans did watch Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen. But half does not mean all, or anything close to it. I remember watching it and telling someone who called me during the programme that “MASH is on”, as if she were disturbing me in a uniform cultural ritual. But she did not care – my ritual was not hers. And so it is for most cultural experiences that people choose not to share – they choose not to share because they do not care.

Conservatives were among those people who did not feel part of the “common culture” enforced by “gatekeepers” in Sasse’s imagined past. Sasse describes the news experience of his youth as one where the noble gatekeepers kept out the biased riff-raff to give people “reliable” information. But conservatives believed their views were uniformly excluded by these gatekeepers, and fought mightily to remove the legal provision that gave the gatekeepers their power, the so-called Fairness Doctrine.

This provision, enacted in 1949 by the Federal Communications Commission, required broadcasters to ensure that all points of view were included in any attempt to discuss matters of public import. Predictably, this pushed serious discussion of public affairs out of the public view more than it pushed for inclusion of a variety of views. The policy was repealed by President Reagan’s FCC in 1987, and conservatives ferociously fought liberal efforts to reinstate it via legislation in subsequent years.

It was this repeal, not the proliferation of social media and the internet, which allowed Rush Limbaugh, conservative talk radio, and FOX News to wield influence over conservative voters. Much as with the Catholics in Sasse’s home town, who formed their own high school community rather than participate in Sasse’s imagined paradise of Fremont High, conservatives felt at home in a community that reflected their values instead of living the shadows of a community created by largely liberal and urban gatekeepers.

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Sasse does elsewhere acknowledge how unrepresentative this elite is. He notes how 92% of journalists have a bachelor’s degree, only 7% are Republicans, and “most national political reporters live in one of two cities, both of them wealthy, liberal, and on the East Coast”. These are the people who were the gatekeepers in the past and would be the gatekeepers were their power restored. Sasse never explains how they could fairly present an unbiased and informative set of facts given the clear similarity of background and prejudices that they share.

This division between an urban elite and a non-urban near-majority is at the heart of what actually divides America. Sasse back-handedly acknowledges that when he cites examples of people who are upset with politics or are case studies of our divisions. Whether it is the progressive attempt to keep the Christian-owned Chick-fil-A franchise from opening in New York City, or the belief that if Trump were not elected, a “7-2 Hillary Court” would mean people would be “hunting Christians in the street for sport” – Sasse cites each as an example of the difference in world view between Christians and others.

As he’s an evangelical Lutheran, who grew up in a predominantly Protestant town apart from a metropolitan area, it’s not surprising that Sasse is sympathetic with the evangelical world view. But evangelical Protestants are no longer the American majority. And the country that they largely formed and ruled for nearly two centuries now includes millions of people who do not look fondly on their stewardship.

Those millions include a wide variety of sects and people. They include LGBTQ people who believe that “love is love” and do not want to return to the days when they could be arrested for acting upon their sexuality. They include non-Christians – Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and others – who do not want Christian theology enshrined in law. They include the millions of black Protestants who may share a theology with their White brethren but who were enslaved or suppressed for centuries by people who professed to worship the same God. They include women who want to be treated as equals in their jobs and their marriages and who do not want to live under a theology that often places males as the God-given heads of households. And they include the over 20% of Americans who identify as having no religious beliefs at all.

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America’s two political parties are broadly representative of each of these two groups. According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of Republicans believe in “God as described in the Bible” compared with only 45% of Democrats. Only 32% of White Democrats share this belief. Another Pew study shows that only 39% of Americans are “highly religious”, and Republicans are easily a majority among this group; 29% are “non-religious”, and Democrats are a super-majority of this group. A further 15% are “Spiritually Awake”, which Pew describes as people who do not practice “their religion in traditional ways, but most believe in heaven and hell, and subscribe to New Age beliefs”. Democrats are a solid majority among this group.

These data are supported by other survey evidence. The 2016 exit polls show that over 35% of Clinton voters were non-Christians or non-religious, and over 57% did not attend any religious service or attended only a few times a year. In contrast, over 45% of Trump voters were White evangelical Christians and over 39% attended services weekly or more. In 2018, nearly two-thirds of Democratic voters never attended services or attended less than monthly. Forty-three percent of Republican voters were evangelical Christians and 41% attended services at least once a week.

These differences mirror a crucial difference in how supporters of the two parties view American identity itself. According to data from the Voter Study Group, 77% of Clinton voters believe that “America has many different cultures with different traditions and values that people believe in”. Trump voters, like Sasse, had a contrary view: 54% of them say America “has one primary culture with traditions and values that most everyone believes in”. The very question that Sasse views as essential – the loss of America’s unity – is the very source of its primary political disagreement.

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Another vast divide separates America’s political coalitions, that of economics. John Judis wrote a poignant article recently that details how the economies of the nation’s metropolitan areas and its hinterlands differ. The former’s tend to be knowledge-based and are growing, while the latter, which tend to be based in the production of things, are in decline.

Not surprisingly, Trump’s arrival on the scene promising to restore the latter groups to their former glory has further polarised America. Trump won, in 2016, with support from millions of former Democrats in the small towns and rural areas of America, while the Democrats retook the House this year with support from millions of former Republicans in America’s major metropolitan suburbs.

Sasse overlooks the role of these two trends completely. Perhaps this is understandable: he acknowledges that he has been a stereotypical, rootless knowledge worker in his adulthood. But nor is there anything about his hometown that would counteract his personal experience and introduce him to another world view. We can see that by comparing the voting histories of his home, Fremont, Nebraska, with those of the other writers whose work on community breakdown he commends, Robert Putnam and Charles Murray.

Each person’s town – Port Clinton, Ohio, for Putnam; Newton, Iowa, for Murray; and Fremont, Nebraska, for Sasse – is the largest city in its county and contains roughly half of the county’s population. Putnam’s and Murray’s hometowns have suffered much more from the declining manufacturing economy than Sasse’s, and this shows in their voting histories.

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Sasse’s home, Dodge County, Nebraska, is a solidly Republican place that saw only a mild shift to Trump in 2016, giving him roughly 64% of the vote. George W. Bush received a greater share, 66.3% in his 2004 re-election effort. It has not voted for a Democrat for President since the depths of the Great Depression in 1936.

Ottawa County, Ohio, however, gave Trump 56.5% in 2016, more than 10% more than it had given any Republican in the past decade and more than it had given any Republican since Ronald Reagan in his landslide re-election in 1984.

Jasper County, Iowa, on the other hand suffered dramatically from the decline and finally the loss of the Maytag plant that it relied on in 2007. While it is now recovering, jobs pay much less than they did when Maytag ruled the roost. Trump received 55.5% here, more than any Republican had received since 1960, the year before Murray graduated from the local high school.

Sasse’s experiences, which he treats as those of the “normal” America, are in fact highly atypical. He grew up in a small town as America became a nation of cities and suburbs. His town never suffered economically. And his religious and ethnic background is now that of a minority of Americans. It’s not surprising that he is befuddled about the state of his country; what’s surprising is that he remains befuddled even as he studies it.

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In spite of this befuddlement, he still manages to put his finger on what can reunite his fractured country. He argues that America’s basic ideal is “our basic commitment to the inexhaustible, inviolable dignity of every person”. “As Americans, we need to agree first,” he writes, “on the universal dignity of all people, before we descend to the more divisive but less important debates about the prudential use of the levers of government power.” That is, indeed, the nub of the controversy, as increasingly each side in our political civil war believes that the other seeks a set of policies that would inherently deny them that dignity.

Sasse could use this knowledge to lead us towards a national healing. This would require us to seeing human dignity in both the person who believes an abortion is “an essential part of a woman’s right to control her body” and the person who, like Sasse, “believes that abortion involves nothing less than the taking of a life.” It would require us to see the dignity of those who yearn for the communities of Sasse’s longing and those who fled them to build their own communities elsewhere.

It would require us to see the dignity of those who have lost their jobs and communities through no fault of their own, and of those whose engagement in the modern information economy has gained them and their neighborhoods so much. It would require, in short, a view of human flourishing and happiness in which all sides of our debates can see themselves, and not a view in which one side irretrievably loses and the other undeniably triumphs.

Sasse says that he argued in his stump speech in his first campaign in 2014 that he “didn’t hear either party articulating a long-term vision for tackling the generational challenges that we face”.  Five years and two books later, Sasse still says that “most Americans know that neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party really has a long-term vision for the challenges we face”.

That’s true, but Sasse is now a national leader, someone whom many hope will provide that vision. To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, Senator. Don’t hold back; show us what you’ve got.