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In 'Them,' Sen. Sasse Aims To Find Ways To Move America Beyond Divisive Politics

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has good timing.

That's not because his new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal, comes at a time when prospective presidential candidates are starting to publish arguments for their potential 2020 bids (the Nebraska Republican hasn't ruled out a run, but he's said it's unlikely.)

Rather, his new book about why liberals and conservatives hate one another comes out right on the heels of a debate that tore an already divided nation apart: the fight over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The battle brought a sad truth into sharp relief: As Sasse puts it, "We really don't like each other, do we?"

Even with the italicized "really," it feels like an understatement. American political discourse has become poisonous to a truly frightening degree — and it shows no signs of getting more civil anytime soon.

Sasse's book aims to figure out what it is that's made American politics so tribalistic and vicious, and to offer suggestions for reconciliation. It's an interesting book — and parts of it are convincing — but it doesn't go quite deep enough into exploring what we've become as a country.

Sasse theorizes that modern technology, especially smart phones and the Internet, have led to a society that's lonely and devoid of real connection. "Our communities are collapsing, and people are feeling more isolated, adrift, and purposeless than ever before," he writes. And it's hard to disagree.

In Sasse's view, loneliness is a major public health crisis that's leading thousands of Americans to early graves "not just from suicide ... but from any of an array of health problems." He cites, approvingly, political scientist Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, the 2000 book that argued that American participation in public and social life has declined since the 1960s. Technology, Sasse argues, has exacerbated, not solved, this problem: "We're hyperconnected, and we're disconnected."

The nation, Sasse writes, has descended into a set of "'anti-tribes,' defined by what we're against rather than what we're for." He blames confirmation bias and the rise of inflammatory political rhetoric for this, writing that "liberals and conservatives no longer believe the same things, we don't understand how our opponents believe what they believe, and we soothe our lonely souls with the balm of contempt." Wrapped up in this, he rails against the media for many pages, suggesting that there are no unbiased reporters, distinguishing little among organizations.

The solutions to the "hate" that Sasse offers are sound, if not revolutionary. He urges readers to "start from the assumption that our opponents are like us — decent folks who want what's best but who start from a different place."

He blames both the left and right for what he sees as a decline in civility, and suggests that Americans would be better served not demonizing their political opponents (unfortunately, a rather tall order these days) but recognizing that "America is the idea of freedom and justice that we all embrace and pursue in common."

Additionally, he suggests we tear ourselves away from our screens and invest more in our local communities, asking Americans "to figure out a way to realize a sense of home in a world that looks very different than anything we've seen before."

Sasse admits that there's "no formula" for building "new institutions of community," but says that we have to try: "You'll never start building community until you start building community. It's a bit of a frustrating tautology, but it is refreshing to hear a politician say that he doesn't know the answer to something.

The most striking thing about Them is that it doesn't read at all like a campaign book, and that's a good thing. There's no soft-focus autobiography, no humble-bragging about his accomplishments in the Senate. Sasse is an excellent writer, unpretentious, thoughtful, and at times, quite funny — reflecting on alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, he notes that "sometimes the enemy of your enemy is just a jackass."

It's not a perfect book, and the reader might wish that Sasse had expanded a little more on some of his central ideas and proposed solutions.

Sasse's solutions, including spending less time on screens, putting down roots and building community — investing in "social capital" — all focus on taking personal actions rather than on policy initiatives. He's aiming to change a shifting way of life — what he says is the heart of the problem. Through these moves, he suggests, we as individuals work back to an America that used to be — one where families were at the core, and relationships with friends and neighbors took priority over political leanings.

Though he briefly mentions the Success Sequence, he leaves the reader wanting more of his thoughts on how poor Americans, immigrants and a mixing of cultures fit into this picture. (He notes more than once that people reading the book are of a higher economic class.)

And given how divided America has become, the book is unlikely to impress liberals who resent Sasse for his "yes" vote on Kavanaugh, or conservatives who for some reason have decided that Sasse is a "RINO" ("Republican in name only").

That's a shame, though — even if you disagree with some or all of what Sasse writes, it's an interesting book and his arguments are worth reading — as are his warnings about what our country might become.

"America is an idea — until it ceases to be," Sasse writes. "That is, America is an idea until we let it devolve into something else."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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