Our red state–blue state narrative and Trump-dominated news cycles fuel an impression that Americans’ lives are defined by one of two partisan loyalties. Conventional wisdom holds that our identities have become so wrapped up in our politics that compromise is nearly impossible. But this view of the nation as composed of two warring camps is simplistic. A recent large-scale national survey by the More in Common initiative, for example, found seven different categories of Americans along the left-right ideological spectrum, with only 8 percent of adults identifying with beliefs associated with “progressive activists” and 6 percent with beliefs associated with “devoted conservatives.” The overwhelming majority of Americans fall between these extremes and affirm the importance of compromise. This doesn’t mean that the fraying of our social fabric isn’t a danger, but rather that political disagreements are not the primary cause of this fraying.
Because of our fixation with national politics, a U.S. senator is well positioned to deliver a more nuanced message about our widely lamented national divide. Sen. Ben Sasse has already established himself as one of the more intriguing politicians in America today. He openly criticizes President Trump while serving as a Republican from a deep-red state, Nebraska. He brings academic expertise to policy issues—he has a PhD from Yale and is a former college president—at a time when a majority of his party believes that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. He specializes in self-deprecating humor on Twitter while party stalwarts on both sides of the aisle use the platform to fire up the base. In his academic background and output, along with his willingness to offend members of his own party by attending to social ills that do not have obviously liberal sources, he serves a function similar to what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan did for Democrats forty years ago. (Sasse himself seems to aspire to that role: he requested Moynihan’s desk in the Senate.)
That Sasse’s new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal, is as refreshing as it is shows how rare it has become to find intellectual leadership among our elected leaders. Sasse diagnoses our nation’s polarization as being about a loneliness whose various sources have little to do with the results of any particular election. While readers may quibble with Sasse’s ultimate prescriptions, he should be commended for leading with ideas, rather than tribal signaling, and for doing the work required to situate his own ideas in a coherent worldview that transcends current hot-button political debates.
He begins by observing that, for the first time in decades and despite significant medical advances, the average lifespan of an American has declined for three years in a row due to “three culprits: Alzheimer’s, suicides, and unintentional injuries—a category that includes drug and alcohol-related deaths.” While technology “has liberated us from so much inconvenience and drudgery,” it “has also unmoored us from the things that anchor our identities.” He explores the “collapse of the local tribes that give us true, meaningful identity—family, workplace, and neighborhood...the reservoir of relationships that help us navigate the world.”