© 2024 KGOU
Photo of Lake Murray State Park showing Tucker Tower and the marina in the background
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In 'Them,' Sen. Ben Sasse Says Politics Are Not What's Dividing Americans


Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse says, lately, it seems like not a week has gone by without one of his colleagues - sometimes a Republican, sometimes a Democrat - confessing to him that they wonder if, quote, "they're wasting their lives." Sasse says his constituents are frustrated, too, lamenting about why things don't get done in Washington.

But more distressingly to the Nebraska Republican is that these voters seem to be more intent on assigning blame. It's a trend he worries about in his new book, "Them: Why We Hate Each Other - And How To Heal."

Earlier, we heard from him about the divisive confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh. Now I wanted to ask him a little more about why he thinks things have gotten to this point.

BEN SASSE: You know, things are bad, right? I mean, there's data that shows 20, 25 years ago, about 14 percent of Americans thought the other political party was evil. Today, it's about 40 percent. So a tripling over a couple of decades think the other party is not just wrong or confused or there would be unintended consequences to their policy but actually evil. And that's not a recipe for going forward.

And the American system assumes that politics do a limited number of things. But the really interesting things happen in your family, in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your local worshipping community. And right now, so many of those local tribes of textured meaning are in collapse, and people are looking for substitute tribes in politics. And I don't think that's going to work out very well.

CORNISH: You talk about the idea of red and blue jerseys. You also talk about cable news being a problem, social media being a problem. Why is cable news something to pick out in particular?

SASSE: Well, we don't have enough shared facts, right? And so the business model of a lot of different media consumption right now is about trying to deepen and intensify the anger against that you can find in your 1 percent news tribe. Maybe it's worth backing up and just looking about what the disintermediation of media has done. In the 1950s, when there were only three channels, 70 percent of American households every week tuned in to "I Love Lucy." That wasn't important content, but it was shared content.

So when you think about the MSNBC and the Fox News sort of tribes in the world, they're each getting about 1 percent of the American public, but it's a deep and intense 1 percent that doesn't think there's really any need to reach across the divide and have any sense of we. That's a really unhelpful set of economic incentives that cause us to silo ourselves off from our neighbors.

CORNISH: And you go on those shows. You don't have to.

SASSE: Fair point. You got to talk to Nebraskans however you can get to them. I live in Nebraska, but that's on weekends. And so in D.C., Monday to Friday, I fly off to my day job. And Nebraska's a small place, but it's still 1.9 million people across 93 counties and a couple of time zones, 450 miles east to west.

So you want to talk to your people and listen to your people however you can get to them. But right now, it would be a lot more useful if we had a sense of we which bridged across some of those 1 percent divides.

CORNISH: So I'm not picking on you for going on cable. I think you got to do what you got to do. But it seems like lawmakers have a hand in this, right? If there are red and blue jerseys, you guys are handing them out.

SASSE: Absolutely.

CORNISH: And the elephant in the room, so to speak, would be, maybe, the president, Donald Trump, right? People talk a lot about his language and his rhetoric. How is that not divisive or contributing to the problem?

SASSE: Sure. So I've been critical of the president on a number of these points. But I think it's also important for us to recognize that what we're struggling with right now didn't start two years ago. This isn't about Donald Trump. Donald Trump - and no other politician can fix it either. This is not a 2-year-old problem. This is a 2-plus-decades problem in the making.

CORNISH: But can I come back to this point?

SASSE: Please.

CORNISH: Because I think, you know, lawmakers contribute to divisiveness. The way you talk to each other, the way you talk about each other, the way you talk about us as voters, the way you talk about activists - we hear people being described as evil, as mobs, right?

SASSE: Yeah, I think - I mean, you're surely right. There's a lot of blame to go around. And the kind of people we have serving in politics right now have become a tribe of people who think politics are the center of life. And I think, you know, if I could give a message to American voters, don't elect people who think politics are the most important venue in American life.

Politics, again, are really important, but it's a place to do specific things to maintain a framework for ordered liberty so that communities of love and persuasion and volunteerism can actually thrive and flower.

The things that make Americans happy are - do you have a nuclear family? Do you have a few deep friendships? Do you have meaningful callings? Do you have shared work? Do you have shared vocations? Do you have local worshipping communities? All of those things are connected to place, and place is being undermined by the digital revolution right now.

Again, there's great stuff in the digital revolution, but it is undermining our habits of being anchored in a place. And we've got more and more politicians who go off to Washington, D.C., and they never really plan to leave Washington, D.C., or the cable news stratosphere. They never really plan to go back home. Those kind of people aren't rooted and grounded, and they're not going to make very good leaders for a republic.

CORNISH: So you don't sound all that excited to be a politician. And yet, people talk about you in terms of maybe running for president one day. (Laughter) So let's talk about that because you don't sound that excited to be up there.

SASSE: I think politics has a very useful role to play, but it's about a framework for ordered liberty. It's about the frame - right? - the picture frame. But the middle of the frame is American families thriving and working with their neighbor and disagreeing over the dinner table.

CORNISH: But the reason why I ask is because, you know, you were - you tweeted someone who was saying, oh, I regularly consider leaving the Democratic Party. You basically said, oh, yeah, I feel the same, only about being a Republican.

SASSE: Yeah, I don't think either of these parties has a long-term view right now. I think both of these parties are mostly trying to do anti-tribe, not what are you for. What are the Democrats' big and healthy long-term visions? And what are the Republicans' big and healthy, 10- and 20-year-long visions? But both parties spend most of their time trying to explain why the other party is even worse than they are.

And I think the two-party system was not what the founders intended, and I don't think it's what we're going to have forever. But right now, we're locked into a two-party world where both of these - sort of duopolous - are pretty content to just run against each other and try to hold down any discussion about new and constructive policy ideas going forward. But I think voters want better than that.

CORNISH: Do you want to be one of the choices? Are we going to see you on the ballot?

SASSE: I'm a first-time politician. I think I'm 1 of 8 people in the U.S. Senate who's never been a politician before. And we have three little kids. And the deal we had at our household was if the voters in Nebraska gave us a six-year calling, for the first 4 1/2 of those 6 years, we'd act like we were never going to do it again - was a short-term calling. And next summer - July, August of 2019 - my wife and I are due to go and sit down and figure out what we think we might be called to in the future.

But when you've got little kids and you lived on a campaign bus for 16 months, I think we did - 93 Nebraska counties, and I think my baby, at that point, vomited in almost all 93 of them - the idea of multiplying that times 50 sounds like a really, really terrible proposition. So I think I'm not the right guy.

CORNISH: Ben Sasse, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SASSE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Nebraska Republican, Senator Ben Sasse. His new book is called "Them: Why We Hate Each Other - And How To Heal."


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.