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Us vs. Them

By: Michael M. Rosen
February 4, 2019

iven all the forbidding titles of books brought out in recent years, from Coming Apart to The Suicide of the West to Why Liberalism Failed, one can be forgiven for assuming that a new volume entitled Them: Why We Hate Each Other offers more doom and gloom and yet another indictment of American politics and civil society.

Such an assumption would be correct, but only partially. Them’s author, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, proposes a way forward in his characteristically sunny, common-sense way: forge friendships, build community, and unplug—from devices, from politics, from the toxic side of social media.

In this engaging survey of the contemporary American scene, Sasse principally contends that:

The massive economic disruption that we entered a couple of decades ago and will be navigating for decades to come is depriving us psychologically and spiritually at the same time that it’s enriching us materially. The same technology that has liberated us from so much inconvenience and drudgery has also unmoored us from the things that anchor our identities. The revolution that has given tens of millions of Americans the opportunity to live like historic royalty has also outpaced our ability to figured out what community, friendships, and relationships should look like in the modern world.

In short, we’re online but not aligned, or, as Sasse puts it, “we’re hyperconnected, and we’re disconnected.” Instead, “what we need are new habits of heart and mind. We need new practices of neighborliness. We need to get our hands dirty replenishing the soil that nourishes rooted, purposeful lies. But how?”

The how occupies the bulk of Them, and the short answer is “not easily.”

Sasse identifies four critical components of human happiness that ground human beings like a stable chair’s sturdy legs: family, friends, work, and worldview, meaning a set of principles that “can make sense of suffering and death.”

In terms of family and friends, Sasse documents just how quickly and pervasively loneliness has spread in the United States: the average American now has “fewer than two intimate, flesh-and-blood actual friends,” and one study found lonely, isolated people 25% more likely to die early than those forming part of a community.” In cities, more people than ever are living alone.

And in the workplace, a recent McKinsey study predicted technology would disrupt the jobs of some 800 million workers over the next 12 years. Yet rather than wiping out entire professions, innovation will instead eliminate certain tasks while creating and reconfiguring others—what Sasse labels “unbundling” and “rebundling.” Automation will profoundly alter the workforce, but not necessarily for the worse.

Increased mobility necessitated by the contemporary (and future) economy likewise helps and hurts. Sasse exhorts us to “respond to the demands of a more mobile world without surrendering an anchor, one particular and enduring place [we] can invest in and call home,” as the author himself has done, working all over the country but always returning to his hometown in beloved Cornhusker Country.

Regarding worldview, Sasse laments—as he’s frequently done in TV appearances, podcasts, and Twitter posts—the deteriorating American political culture, stoked by unscrupulous, ratings-hungry media figures, “professional rage-peddlers,” whom Sasse isn’t afraid to call out by name.

But ultimately, he seeks to reorient us to the notion that “America is an idea—it is a creed.” Washington, Madison, and Lincoln, among others, fretted that acidic partisan passions could slowly but steadily dissolve our creedal bonds and sought to channel those passions instead into productive outlets. Yet social media, cable news, and college campuses have re-diverted them into a giant trough slowly drowning us all.

Sasse extols technology’s benefits, which are accelerating at breakneck pace to extend and enhance life, but bemoans its steep costs, noting just how significantly and negatively smartphones in particular have transformed sex, sleep, and social interactions. Intuitively, we appreciate that real friends, lovers, and experiences transcend anything the virtual world offers, but it helps to have the Senate’s tweeter laureate himself reinforce the point, along with his sensible suggestions for reducing our digital dependency.

At times, Them offers less revelation than reformulation, amounting essentially to Sasse’s attempt to synthesize numerous well-known trends into a coherent narrative. It has the feel and texture of the senator’s legendary tweets – entertaining, concise, and often acerbically funny – but not necessarily the heft of a considered study.

In fact, it often reads like a pulpier, less learned version of Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, which Sasse references and recommends. Where Levin is cerebral and analytic, Sasse is casual and anecdotal; in some ways, Them is the airport bookstore equivalent of Levin’s masterwork.

Perhaps most challenging, though, is Sasse’s attempt to have it both ways, to cast himself simultaneously as the sentinel of mainstream conservatism and as the tribune of civility in the age of Trump. There can be no doubting his sincerity, but whether that delicate filigree of quaint virtues can remain intact in these turbulent times remains very much in question.

Still, coming as it does from the pen of one of the Senate’s most eloquent, intellectual, and somehow still down-to-earth avatars, Them provides a detailed description of what ails modern American society and the makings of a thoughtful prescription for curing it. Sasse helps us identify what’s gone wrong and how we can right it, but whether we’ll succeed in doing so won’t be known for quite some time.