Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal is the book we need right now. It is not a political book, although it is written by a senator and touches on the troubles of our politically partisan times. It is not a parenting book, although much like his last book, The Vanishing American Adult, it has important information about preparing our children for a future that is in flux. It is not a book about theology, although the concept of loving your neighbor is a theme that runs throughout.
Them is a book about us—Americans—and how we can work together to find a way to overcome the displacement and despair inherent in our rapidly changing world.
According to Sen. Sasse, the root of our cultural malaise is loneliness. Job security eludes us, our technology distracts us, and our sense of community is fragmented and strained. Life expectancy is falling as many of our citizens are dying of diseases of despair. Desperate to fill the void, we have turned to politics and political tribes to give us a sense of belonging. We long for the connectedness our culture once had even as we fill our heads with doses of Two Minute Hate from the talking heads on cable news.
Change is coming, Sasse warns. We are already in the midst of a technology-driven job upheaval not seen since the economic shift from farming to industrialization a century and a half ago. As technology continues to push us toward more disruption, we need to be prepared to roll with the changes. Unfortunately, our current fractured, polarized culture is not in a position to help the most vulnerable Americans absorb the changes that are coming. To buffer ourselves and our neighbors against the disruptions to come, we must be intentional about forming strong community bonds.
Sasse’s solution is to live local. “The District of Columbia is not the center of American life,” he explains, “it exists to maintain a framework for ordered liberty—so that your city or town [emphasis his], the place where you live, can be the center of the world.” We must turn our attention away from the national circus of political parties and cable television rage and toward the communities in which we live so we can form healthy tribes made up of family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors.
In this moment, we are a country driven by nostalgia longing for a time when we felt part of something familiar and larger than ourselves. Both the rhetoric and result of the 2016 presidential election bear this out. In his 2016 book, The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin warns that “we must let [nostalgia] guide us not merely toward ‘the way we were’ but toward just what was good about what we miss and why.” However, the technology genie is out of the bottle, and there is no going back to the way we were. This was Sasse’s most profound warning. As we long for a feeling of connectedness, we will need to reconstruct what was good about the past in the new normal of our communities.
Them is a darkly optimistic book. Sasse’s easy, conversational writing style feels more like a chat over beers than a lecture on the coming apocalypse. He may be putting on the mantle of a prophet, but he’s not the wild-eyed, locust eating kind. Parts of the book found me nodding along in agreement, and others challenged me to be better. Reading the chapter on “Setting Tech Limits” was a bit like sitting in the pews at church while the preacher brings the message about a moral failing that could have been written especially for me. It’s a squirmy, uncomfortable feeling. Parts of it also filled me with gratitude for my community and its “hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling.”
For all the disunity in our culture right now, there is hope in community. When we let go of our political tribes and embrace the dignity of our fellow Americans, we can learn to live in community again. It sounds simple, but it requires us to change our thinking, get out of our technology, and take a chance on our neighbor. “At the end of the day, it’s love,” Sasse concludes. “And when a bunch of ‘them’ are joined by love, and by purpose, ‘they’ can become ‘we.’”