Magazine | December 3, 2018, Issue

Tribes of the Lonely

A man sits on a bench near John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., November 5, 2015 (Carlos Barria/Reuters )
Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal, by Ben Sasse (St. Martin’s Press, 288 pp., $28.99)

After being elected to the United States Senate in 2014, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse chose to revive a long-dormant tradition: He waited a full year before delivering his maiden speech. Then, in what cynics might view as commentary on his colleagues, he produced two books in 18 months, one suggesting that adulthood was in short supply in America, and now an examination of our ugly divisions.

Sasse is highly attuned to the cultural sources of our current discontents and dysfunctions. The decline of family life, the loss of job security, the erosion of local communities that give life texture and provide the best social safety net. Sasse laments the “waning influence of the Rotary Club and the Scouts, the VFW and the local bowling league,” the fact that “shut-ins are getting fewer casseroles with instructions written on a notecard: Bake at 325 until brown on top!Them is not so much a lament for a bygone era as an attempt to diagnose and repair what has led us to this moment of spittle-flecked rage.

An anecdote sets the stage. In 2017, Sasse and his family set up a water station at mile four of the Lincoln, Neb., marathon. His children filled cups of water and Gatorade to offer runners. But that year, a group of protesters set up across the street. When the first runners extended grateful hands, the protesters began shouting: “It’s poison! It’s poison! Don’t drink it! He wants you to die!”

Imagine being so enraged at policy differences that you would stage such a stunt.

In searching for the source of this hysteria, Sasse argues that the basics of American citizenship are ailing — rootedness in families and communities, attachment to work, and connec­tions to living and breathing others rather than to glowing screens.

Sasse argues that we have inverted the pyramid of attachments in our lives. Ideally, political loyalties should rank pretty low on the scale. Identity politics thrives when other sources of identity dry up. The modern world has stripped away the most elemental ties, those of family, faith, and community. Politics has metastasized to fill the empty spaces and satisfy the need for belonging. But it has delivered that solidarity in the worst way — through noxious tribalism thriving on contempt. Sasse speaks of “anti-tribes.”

The collapse of marriage has had radiating effects, from income inequality to drug abuse to suicide to poor school performance to gender gaps in voting patterns. Unwed motherhood is a very discriminating scourge. Among the college-educated upper third, about 90 percent of births are to married mothers. Among the other two-thirds, most first births are now to unwed mothers. It would be hard to overstate the importance of family structure in life outcomes, and Sasse hits the theme hard, quoting Ian Rowe, a charter-school executive: “This ‘new normal’ of permanent, staggeringly high nonmarital birth rates is a catastrophe for our country.” Rowe and Sasse acknowledge that there are extraordinary single parents who defy the odds. Nevertheless, in 2018, the clearest demarcation between haves and have-nots is whether one was born to married parents.

These fractured relationships have led to an epidemic of loneliness. About 33 percent of those over age 45 describe “chronic loneliness” as a fundamental challenge, and the same percentage say they have no one with whom to talk about important matters — triple the number from the 1980s.

Other indices of unhappiness abound — the opioid epidemic, antidepressant use, and rising middle-class death rates from “diseases of despair” are flashing signals of distress. We are not just bowling alone, to borrow Robert Putnam’s phrase, but eating, sleeping, and entertaining ourselves alone. Lonely people find connections online, but those ties can be further alienating and even dangerous. Crazy ideas get ratified in the cyber world. It’s the place, Sasse writes, “where chemtrails are real but the Moon landing is a hoax.”

Sasse’s chapter on the changing nature of work is a précis of discussions you’re likely to encounter at think tanks or Silicon Valley firms. Work is not disappearing, but it’s becoming less stable. “The average breadwinner in the 1970s stayed at a single company for two and a half decades, whereas the average employee today will stay at one job for little more than four years.” And the coming explosion of robots and AI will unsettle us in ways we can’t foresee. Sasse also ruminates on how his own highly mobile career kept him estranged from his neighbors and delayed his putting down roots for too long. He eventually chose to move back to his hometown.

The chapters on “polititainment” are the book’s bull’s-eye — a surgical evisceration of the “polarization business model” that permits cable networks, certain websites, and talk-radio arsonists to wax rich by stoking paranoia and rage. Sasse gets the resentment and offers an anecdote about meeting CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who didn’t even recall Candy Crowley’s misleading intervention in the 2012 presidential debates (something that conservatives can never forget). But that understandable bitterness has now become fodder for unscrupulous businessmen who turn it into cold cash. In the process they have elevated conspiracies, degraded our discourse, and sown hatred. Surveys suggest that polarization is growing fastest among the elderly — the heaviest consumers of cable news.

Sasse lays bare the method that Sean Hannity and his many compatriots on both sides have perfected. Sasse calls it “nutpicking.” He writes, “In a country of 320 million people, someone, somewhere, is doing or saying something asinine right this minute.” The trick is to package it for maximum loathing of the other side.

In one case that Sasse cites, Hannity went further than the typical model of “Propaganda U: Loony Liberal Professor Attacks Christian Students in Class.” After the Las Vegas mass shooting, Hannity pulled together three items: The first was a comment from CNN correspondent Jeff Zeleny noting that “a lot of these country music supporters were likely Trump supporters.” The second was an offensive Facebook comment by an attorney who worked for CBS (she said the concert-goers were “not even sympathetic” because “country-music fans often are Republican gun toters”). And the third was a Twitter comment by a schoolteacher styling herself @TheResistANNce, sneering that she was “praying only trumptards die.”

What Hannity concealed from his viewers is that Zeleny’s comment was intended to explain why the massacre would hit the White House particularly hard, that CBS had already fired the lawyer by the time the segment aired, and that the Twitter account @TheResistANNce didn’t exist.

The playbook is much the same for MSNBC and others. Picture millions of lonely or disconnected Americans finding connection in the hatred of other Americans every night. Anger translates into higher ratings. “In our digital age, . . . the incentive structure in the media complex rewards pushing the gas, not tapping the brakes — or qualifying a point.” Because the rage is righteous, it’s intoxicating. Nuance introduces doubt, and that’s much less satisfying — and remunerative.

The senator’s path out of this vortex of mutual revulsion includes reviving the teaching of civics — with its deep wisdom about the limits of politics — and a renewal of emphasis on what unites us. He favors restoring an understanding of the dangers of self-certainty and quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote of his youthful Communist self: “In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good.” He urges that we recognize and then tame our screen addictions and turn toward flesh-and-blood relatives, friends, and neighbors. And finally, in a way that may sound crunchy-progressive but isn’t, that we focus on living locally. “Imagine if just 10 percent of the time we spend angrily tracking national political news were redirected to volunteering at our kids’ or grandkids’ school, serving at the soup kitchen, visiting the nursing home. We’d be community-rich.” Another recommendation can be culled from his discussion of cable news: Some Nebraskans agreed to watch nothing but the competing party’s TV for a week. Fox viewers watched MSNBC and vice versa. At the end of the experiment, they understood each other much better and vowed to watch much less. That would be worth scaling up!

A couple of statistics in the book are incorrect. The percentage of out-of-wedlock births to women with a high-school diploma or less is 83 percent, not “just shy of 70 percent.” And the share of adults who have never married is not “three-fifths” but one in five.

Sasse has a talent for seeing things whole. Some of his constituents have upbraided him for not being more “angry.” They are right that he is not angry. He focuses on gratitude, which is the enemy of anger, and on searching out what is most important for human flourishing. Them is a step toward healing a hurting nation — for which we can be grateful.          

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