Ben Sasse opens Them with a long epigraph from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.” Those associations were voluntary and pursued any number of ends, “religious, moral serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive,” among many others.
This tendency to associate was, according to Tocqueville, the genius of the American nation: “From that moment they [i.e., Americans] are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar.” Over the past few decades, however, this tendency has declined, leaving an epidemic of loneliness in its wake.
Part 1 of Sasse’s book details “the collapse of the local tribes that give us true, meaningful identity—family, workplace, and neighborhood.” Because people are social beings, they seek out connections with others. If no good options are available, they may turn to bad ones.
Part 2 examines the rise of what Sasse calls “anti-tribes,” in which “people are finding a perverse bond in at least sharing a common enemy.” These anti-tribes are characterized more by patterns of “news consumption” than by “political activism.” Expressed as an equation, Sasse’s argument is:
Loneliness + news cycle and social media = the mess we are in.
In Part 3, outlines a proposal for cleaning up our mess. Sasse is a conservative Republican senator from Nebraska, but his book is not about policy. It is, instead, about the habits of the heart needed to restore the healthy communities that give individual lives meaning. “Our world is nudging us toward rootlessness, when only a recovery of rootedness can heal us.”
In a time where politicians thrive on galvanizing the “base” to destroy the “other side,” Sasse’s call for less divisiveness and more unity is a welcome relief. To quote the final sentence of that Tocqueville epigraph: “If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve.” Count Them as a step toward growth and improvement.
Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018).
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