Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: Tribalism, fear and frustration are killing the country. Our communities are crumbling, the fabric of society is being ripped to shreds, and our hyper-connected, technological world has actually disconnected people from the places and spaces that create culture and a sense of belonging. Has rugged individualism gone rogue? Has politics permanently splintered and isolated the American people? Sen. Ben Sasse from Nebraska joins us to discuss his new book, "Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal" on this week's edition of Therefore, What?
Therefore, What? is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles, and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, and this is Therefore, What?
I am very excited to have Sen. Ben Sasse from Nebraska joining us in our Deseret News studio this morning. Sen. Sasse started his career as a corporate turnaround specialist for McKinsey (and Company), worked under then-Sec. Mike Leavitt at Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration, led organizational and educational transformation as the president of Midland University. He was elected to the United States Senate in 2014, is a best-selling author, and I should also add he is a killer sandwich seller at University of Nebraska football games, an Uber driver, tormentor of his three children, and husband to the brilliant and ever patient Melissa. Senator Sasse, thanks for joining us today.
Ben Sasse: Boyd, that was generous, thank you. I gotta say, Uber driver and sandwich salesman that's at the top of the résumé. And most people forget that. So thank you for getting it in.
BM: Always have to get the important things in. And I will add, you know, working in D.C. is a grind, is isolating and challenging for sure. But every once in a while you come across someone who truly makes a difference in your world. And I know from my time in the Senate, the chance to connect with you and develop important conversations was really one of the blessings of my time in Washington, D.C.
BS: Well, thanks, Boyd, right back at you. I'm grateful for your friendship and glad to talk to your folks today.
BM: Well, great. We're very excited to hear about your new book. And so let's just jump right into it. Give us the basis. What is the underlying driving force for "Them"?
BS: I think there's a big disconnect between rootlessness and rootedness. And I think we live in a crazy fascinating moment. Historically, we live in truly one of the most disrupted points in human history. And as a historian I'm usually skeptical to talk like that. But I think the technological and digital revolution we're living through is going to create more total economic output than the world has ever known. The benefits economically are going to be gigantic. But what it really does is digitization frees you from place. It allows you to be rootless, and that's why so much of the productivity — higher quality, lower cost stuff is coming at us so fast. But at the same time that that's happening, we know that rootedness is a core element of the factors that drive human happiness. Human happiness is actually not as complicated as we often think. People tend to be happy if they have a nuclear family. If they have a couple of deep friendships. If they have meaningful work. If they have an important vocation, not necessarily important in a worldly sense, but important in the sense that their actual human neighbors that benefit from what they do, they have a sense of calling. And if they have a local worshipping community, those big things, those big four — family, friends work and theology or philosophical framework to make sense of death and suffering, those four things are all based, or deeply tied to rootedness. And so we have this misfit between rootlessness potential, that flows from our technology, and the rootedness need deep in our soul and we're not very good at talking about why this moment feels so uncomfortable. And that's what "Them" is really about.
BM: It's so fascinating that you see — we often use this term "the lonely crowd," and we see that all over in society. I love that even before you get to the table of contents in your book, you have an Alexis de Tocqueville quote, which is always a good place to start, but I love that you end it with his quote, "If men are to remain civilized, or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve." How are you seeing that play out in America today?
BS: Yeah. Amen. So Alexis de Tocqueville, I think, is the most important political philosopher, maybe cultural analyst and historian in all of U.S. history, the Frenchman who came here in the 1830s and 40s trying to make sense of why these, in their view, Europe's view at that time, these religious zealots went to the edge of the earth and then somehow simultaneously became economically prosperous. Why would that happen? And he sort of diagnosed a lot of what works in America, and it is that we are relational beings, we are social animals, we are meant to do joint projects and group work, we want to do verbs, not just be nouns, we want to do stuff together. And so we're relational. But that doesn't mean we're chiefly people who need to be coerced. In the Obama administration there was that terrible phrase that was used a number of times, "government is just another word for the things we choose to do together." No it's not. Community is another word for the things we choose to do together. Government is a coersive institution. It has important responsibilities, to be sure. But taxation and potential imprisonment because you don't follow a mandate or because you've transgressed some law. That's not what defines community. What defines community is souls that choose to do stuff together. So it's not isolated individualism, it is togetherness, but it's togetherness that's by choice as we work together. And, you know, two are better than one because if one falls down, the other can help them up.
And right now, what's happening in America is a collapse of local institutions. The nuclear family structure is in statistical collapse and friendship is strangely in collapse. And we don't really have a good sense of this, but the average American has gone from 3.2 friends 27 years ago to 1.8 friends today. We have about half as many friends as we did 2 1/2 decades ago. That ache spills out lots of different places. And one of the places that spills out is into our politics, because political tribalism is ramping right now. But it isn't the core problem. It's a symptom of some deeper problems.
BM: I think that's such an interesting statistic in terms of how many friends, because so many today are obsessed with how many friends and how many likes they have on Facebook or Twitter or other social media platforms. And yet in that pursuit of the number, we're actually reducing the meaningful relationships, and I'm glad that you raised it in terms of the political standpoint. We've often referred to this president as someone who is not relational but who is transactional, who can be with you in the morning on a deal you agree with and blow you up on Twitter in the afternoon if he disagrees. Is that starting to fray the fabric of society, that tone and that transactional nature?
BS: Yeah, obviously I'm in agreement with you that's really an unhelpful way to approach the world. Humans are not tools, humans are not instruments. Humans are people created in the image of God with dignity. And we need to approach each other that way. But I do want to underscore the point that, though there's a lot that we can and in some certain contexts have wrestled with together about the president, Donald Trump didn't cause this problem. Donald Trump can't fix this problem. Politics didn't cause this problem. Politics can't fix this problem. Politics is downstream from a much bigger crisis in this moment. And I think political tribalism is ramping. Political tribalism is bad. It's ramping precisely because the good tribalisms are in collapse. Good tribes are your nuclear family. The way you stick up for your brother and your sister, that sort of bond you feel parent to child and child to parent and grandparent and cousin. A good tribe is deep friendship — you're so right, Boyd, to sort of play this off against Facebook or a social media sense of friends. There's data which shows if you go from 200 to 500 social media friends, you don't get any happier. You go from 500 to 1,000 social media friends, you don't get any happier. If you go from 1,000 to many thousands of social media friends, you actually get less happy, because you have to spend more time tending to the grooming of this online persona.
And conversely, if you go from three to four real human friends, these are people who, when you're happy, they're happy — not because it's transactional, not because they choose to be happy, just because they love you. And if you're happy, they soar. That is how it is with our kids, right? When my 7-year-old boy is flying down the street on his bike, and the sun is shining on his face, and there's nothing in the world except that moment of goodness that he's feeling, my chest expands like, I'm just delighted. Or when my teenage daughters are hurt by something I hurt, not because I choose to, but just because they're part of me, I love them. And that friendship, that sort of potential rootedness of embodied neighbors. If you know the person two doors down from you, you're statistically much likelier to be happy than if you don't know the person. two doors down from you. Those rooted aspects of family and friendship and neighborhood, that's who we are as beings that have been created with bodies, and the social media world has potential for good, but a lot of the time what it really does is displace the local, which is really what people find happiness at meeting.
BM: Right. As we look at that whole idea of civil society, of families, of neighborhoods, communities, I love the fact that you dedicated this book to the to the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs and those local organizations that just do good, not because the government tells them to, but because there's good to be done. And so they engage in that. Tell me just a little bit more in terms of what you're seeing and how you see that civil society as the real key and not only to prosperity and upward mobility, but really to that happiness and satisfaction that you're talking about.
BS: Yes, but here I'm channeling a lot of Robert Putnam and we have different politics so I want to be clear, he doesn't agree with everything that I'm saying. But I'm using the baseline of a lot of his academic work. So he's a sociologist or political scientist at Harvard, who many Americans know of because of this best-selling book, he wrote in about 1999, 2000 called "Bowling Alone." He's done a bunch more work in the last two decades. So I want to get to that as well. But the simple thesis of "Bowling Alone," two decades ago when people learn the name Putnam, was that in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, Putnam found that there were more and more Americans bowling than at any point in U.S. history and yet bowling leagues had the lowest membership rates. That's sort of weird because bowling is something you don't really do alone, you go and you join a league. People weren't entirely bowling alone, but they weren't having any sustained relationships around their bowling, they were just sort of doing one-off, random bowling. He found this data and then he found it replicated in institution after institution, civil society sector after civil society sector, and he found that all across America, that sort of Toquevillian sense, that Alexis de Tocqueville summary of America in the 1830s and 40s, were that we were joiners, we were people who came alongside other people, we rode on oars together in the same direction on group projects. And you get lots of psychic fulfillment out of doing something bigger than yourself and doing it with somebody else.
That kind of service and associational America has been in statistical collapse for decades, it's why we have declining trust in most of our public institutions as well. But in the last two decades since Putnam wrote that, the smartphone has, again, which has lots of wonderful economic utility, but socially, one of the things our smartphone does is it enables us to flee the place where we actually are to try to go somewhere else in our mind, in psychology. Sometimes it feels great. If my mother-in-law is annoying me about something and I can sort of hide under the dinner table and peek at the score from Wrigley, it feels great to escape. But what actually happens in the world is I don't build the textured relationship with someone who I'm committed to. My mother-in-law loves me. I love her. My kids need her, right? And we need to be invested in that place. And some of what technology is allowing us to do, in fleeing space, is go far, far away to expand the denominator of our potential discontent. There's lots of things far away that actually won't make me happy. But there are many things far away that can make me sad. And a lot of our social media consumption drives us to less and less satisfaction and fulfillment.
Again, we're the richest people in all of human history. I don't mean Boyd and ... I mean median Americans. Middle class Americans are the richest people in all of human history. And yet, we're much less happy than we were as a nation 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago. The average size square footage of a new house in America is 3 1/2 times what it was 65 years ago. We've gone from 700 square foot to about 2,400 square foot as a median size of new home construction. Yet, there's data that shows when your house gets bigger, and the spread of your neighborhoods moves you farther from your neighbor, you actually get less happy. Again, it reduces the probability that you're going to know the person two doors down. And so Putnam's data and his most recent book, and I'll stop here, but his most recent book is called "Our Kids." And he's got this series of data sets and graphs, which show that particularly for the 70 percent of Americans that have some educational attainment challenges, and therefore are sort of in that middle class America that used to be upwardly mobile, and for the last three decades or so hasn't really been, there is a statistical collapse in the nuclear family, and that's causing massive downstream consequences. And I think political tribalism is one of those downstream consequences.
BM: So I want to drill down just a little bit on this concept of trust. Pew Research has done some fascinating things around trust. And obviously, Americans have always had a little bit of distrust for large institutions, governments and so on. But it used to be that if you asked someone, do you trust your neighbor, is your neighbor trustworthy? That was always a you know, a 68-, 70-percent issue, of course I trust my neighbors. But now that number is down to 22 percent. And actually, for millennials, it's even lower. I think it's like 18 percent. Talk to me about the this idea of shared trust and that connection. How do we overcome that?
BS: Yeah, so you're right. The data is trending in the wrong direction everywhere in the trust literature. The only kind of good piece is that local institutions are still more trusted than distant institutions. But the problem is, we have a fraying of our connection to those local institutions. My wife and I have a joke that Americans are always desperate to move and parts of that on the frontier historically has been great. But Americans right now want to move for economic opportunity, weather, and relationships, and once you move, you end up getting economic opportunity and weather. The actual act of moving, you tend to leave behind a bunch of relationships and you tend to not build as many when you get to the new place. Putnam, again, has this idea of the repotting effect, which is when you take, I'm not a gardener, but if you take a plant and you repot it and you repot it and you repot it, what actually ends up happening is that the plant, who knows how this happens, that the sort of microevolutionary effect of this is the plant actually sends out less roots each time you repot it on some sort of quasi-assumption, I don't mean it's a rational act, but on a quasi-assumption that the rootedness that it's trying to drive deep and far might be sacrificed in a future repotting so it doesn't try. And they become weaker over time. That's true of lots of people that we see who move a lot. Now it's not true of everybody, in military families, especially if they have a few kids, if it's a single child military family there's some data that's unhelpful here too. But if you have a bunch of kids and you move as a military family, it tends to help bond the family together because they're moving for a cause. It's a calling that's driving it as opposed to just randomly always feeling that the grass is greener and right now some of the distrust of local institutions we have and, again, it's less bad for local than for distant, but is that people move so often you don't have that sort of scar tissue of having gone through bumps in the place you're in and had people come alongside you in the past.
So another scholar that it's useful for folks to read is Charles Murray at the American Enterprise Institute. And he has a book called "Coming Apart" on the white working class and what's happening in places like Appalachia and Rust Belt territory that is de-industrializing. And Murray has this very insightful phrase that what government is really for is to take the difficulty out of stuff that you want to have the difficulty taken out of. What does that mean? It means that not everything in the world that feels bad when we first approach it is on net bad, because the process of going through difficulties actually binds us together. And this is true in a family and this is true in the neighborhood. So I want the government to take the difficulty in terms of the physical violence or fear that I might have walking home from a restaurant at night. I don't want there to be muggers on the street. I want the police work to be good enough that we don't fear when you're walking in your neighborhood after dark. I want that difficulty taken out. But I don't want the government to take the difficulty out of cleaning up the vomit of my 2-year-old or my 7-year-old in the middle of the night. Because that, though it's terrible when it comes, it ends up being a blessing over time that my wife and I have to suffer through that together. I fall more in love with my wife by having to work with her at 3 a.m., even when I don't want to do it. It's not the same kind of love as romantic love when you're courting, but there's a kind of love that is deep friendship and shared co-working that comes from having to go through a hardship and we would never choose to do hard, painful, unplanned work together at 3 a.m. But if our now 7-year- old, he was 2 when we lived on a campaign bus five years ago, and you know it seemed like he vomited in all 93 of Nebraska's counties in the middle of the night on the bus. We would never choose that problem, but because we love him when it comes we got to give him a bath and we got to clean that up and we got to change the sheets. And there's good stuff that comes from the building of scar tissue like that, and that happens in neighborhoods too.
And so we need more rootedness over time. This is not to deny the benefits of pursuing economic mobility and job change when it comes. But right now we have mobile, rooted, and stuck people in America and we're having more and more people who could be rooted become just permanently mobile and never really put down roots, and then a lot of people who live where they live are just stuck and they don't really have opportunities that they're choosing instead to be rooted. We have a declining class of rooted people and we need more good neighbors to become rooted by choice and to love other people and to bring them along in that community building.
BM: So let's hit a couple of the solution points. I think you have to be the first senator in history to have your first two books not about politics. "The Vanishing of American Adults" and now in "Them" you're really addressing some things that are critical to the core of the country. So let's talk about some of the solutions and where we go from here. How do we get to that rootedness that you're talking about. One of the things you mentioned in the book, is this becoming American again, tell us about that.
BS: Yeah. So we need our kids to believe in principled pluralism. They need to understand what it means. Civics is bigger than policy or political fighting. Political fighting matters. I'm the second or third most conservative person in the U.S. Senate by voting record, but the right versus left debates on something we may or may not actually succeed at legislating on over the next three months or the next three years is less important than our kids understanding why we have limited government. And right now they don't understand. And so why we have limited government. And again, as a conservative, I'm for small government as well. Let's define the Republican versus Democrat continuum as kind of traditionally small-versus medium-sized government intervention in the economy. But limited government is a different thing than small government. And it doesn't belong to conservatives and Republicans alone, we should want it for all of our neighbors. Limited government is anti-statism. Limited government is an understanding that human souls matter. Limited government is an understanding that God gives us rights by nature, and government is just our shared project to secure those rights. Government is not the author or the source of our rights. And so what principle pluralism is saying hey, a lot of my neighbors might not agree with me on stuff that I regard as really important, theological disagreements really do matter. But I want to defend somebody else's religious liberty even when I differ with them, because I know that the soul can't be coerced.
I know that it isn't the government's right to net out fights about heaven and hell. Those fights are important, but they are arguments of people who are ensouled, people who have the ability to argue and persuade and pray and love and join in communities and sit under preaching and start new congregations. All that stuff is so much beyond government's pay grade, that I want to be sure that people who I differ with on theology want to join hands with me to defend each others' rights against the statists. And that means free speech, press, religion, assembly, protest or the redress of grievances as the First Amendment talks about it. Those five core principles of the First Amendment are the beating heart of the U.S. Constitution. And principled pluralism means I want to understand my neighbor's view, and I want to have dinner with him or her, and I want to argue and persuade and maybe listen enough to learn or be persuaded. But what I want to be sure is we agree that the public square isn't going to try to solve those problems by violence or coercion. And that's what principled pluralism really is. Government is not going to solve all those problems, government's supposed to, its best form in the American system, just maintain a framework for ordered liberty, so the really important communities can flower. And those around your dining room table.
BM: Fantastic. All right, as we come down the homestretch here just two final thoughts. First, as you know, I have a wall of fame at my house. It's the wall that's actually worth building. I've got autographed baseballs from a lot of great baseball players over the years but more important to me and my family we have autographs on baseballs from the people who've made a difference in our lives: teachers, bosses, coaches, good friends neighbors, and so the question for you today, your baseball question, is if you were starting your personal wall of fame, people who have influenced and impacted you, give us one or two people you would want to have sign that baseball and become part of your wall of fame.
BS: Wow that's really good. I thought you're gonna make me net out Red Sox and Astros and Brewers and Dodgers. And I haven't fully settled on rooting interest there yet, so I'm glad to do this one instead. There is a woman in my town. You mentioned that the book, "Them," is dedicated to the Rotary and Kiwanis Club and the Fremont Area Community Foundation in my little 25,000 person ag-town. There's this woman named Petey who looks like she's 70, but she's actually about 90, who has been a camp counselor at the YMCA camp in my town. It's called Camp Christian and at the YMCA camp, she's been a counselor there since before I was a little kid. I had her as a camp counselor. I was a camp counselor when I was in eighth grade, I think, at this camp. My daughter, who's now 17, was a camp counselor at this camp two years ago. This woman is the Energizer bunny. I mean honestly, she looks 65 to 70 years old, but I think she's about 90. She dumps out her life for these kids in this town. Nobody outside our town is ever going to know of Petey. She does some crazy stuff. When I was in eighth grade and I was a counselor there was some kid challenged her to eat poison ivy. And she did it and then got hospitalized, so she's kind of crazy in all sorts of ways that are partly indefensible. But she's crazy in the sense that she really believes she's meant to be a vessel to bless other people and it feels like she has so — she's happy and funny and witty — but she feels like she's so stoicized her life that I've never seen her actually have a need. She always seems to just be tending to other people's needs. Like her great want is to serve.
And there are a bunch of people like that, I can think of some coaches I would name. John McMullen, a wrestling coach I had in high school who's died now, but there are a bunch of people like that who are very local but who are some of the thickest relationships I've ever seen. And I think we need to find ways to have more heroes that flow from those local spaces where people actually just invest in their neighbor, not because they're seeking to have a great name, but because they just have a pretty thought out, sophisticated, habituated world view and I want more of those people in my life.
BM: That's great. Those kind of heroes that their lives are not recorded in the history books, but definitely in the hearts and lives of many people, so we appreciate you sharing that. We'll have to get her into our Hall of Fame as well.
The last thing we do on this program is we talk about Therefore, What? In other words, what is it that we should come away from listening to this podcast? reading your book, "Them"? What do you hope the American people come away with? What's the takeaway? What should they be thinking? More importantly, what should they be doing as a result?
BS: Yeah, I think the way to love your neighbor is to have a pretty well thought out understanding of what will make your neighbor happy. And that is family, that is friendship, that is deep work. And in a world where the digital economy is going to disrupt jobs faster than ever before, again, to great economic benefit and to lots of local, social, relational bumpiness, and to those local worshiping communities. I think if we're going to do those things well, we're going to have to together figure out how to build the new habits of social capital and of neighborliness and of community. Despite the fact that technology is always whispering to you, hey, the place you're at right now isn't that interesting. You should flee to somewhere else. Actually, most of the time, the really interesting place to be in the long run is by loving the people that God has put in front of you, right where you sit right now. And so one piece of that is going to have to become a lot more sophisticated about the way we consume technology. I have some evangelical friends that use the phrase that they're trying to become almost, almost Amish about the way they use technology, and what they mean by that another guy named Andy Crouch who's well worth reading has a book called "The Tech Wise Family," which I'd highly recommend, what they really mean by that is distinguishing between technology and digital tools as useful at work, but potentially more costly than beneficial in the non-work half of your life. And so we want to practice the habits at our house of taking our smartphones and making sure at least one hour a day, at least one day a week, and probably at least one week a year, we just box those things up. And we live a completely rooted, local, embodied life. And so at the dinner table we're not going to have our smartphones, because there's data from Sherry Turkle at MIT and some of her other researchers that even having your iPhone at the dinner table if you never touch it, and if it's face down, it sends a really significant signal that produces insecurity in your kid that they're not the most important thing in your life. They're the most important thing now until somebody more important calls or texts or buzzes, or beeps, or tweets or posts. And so we think that figuring out how to navigate a world with better habits about technological consumption is one of the key things that needs to flow from this book.
If your readers or listeners decide to read "Them," first of all, thank you. But second of all, about 40 percent of the book is constructive. How do you live a better, more rooted life? And a lot of that is about embracing principled pluralism, a lot of it is about trying to constrain technology a little bit, a lot of it is about thinking about where you're eventually going to want to be buried. Because you invest in a different way if you remember that your time here is finite. And so those are the constructive things we're trying to get to in the book.
BM: That's excellent. Sen. Ben Sasse from Nebraska. Thanks for joining us today. Again the book is "Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal." Really appreciate you being on with us today.50 comments on this story
BS: Thanks. Good to be with you.
BM: Remember, after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, What? Subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for The Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on Therefore, What?