Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse joined me this morning to talk about his new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How To Heal, and the rise of “confrontation tactics” directed at both Republican and Democrats elected officials:
HH: That was the recording of the sound of Mitch McConnell and Secretary Chao being assaulted by a moron in a Louisville restaurant. He threw his food on the ground. He pounded their table. And then there was an intervention. I’m joined now by one of his colleagues, United States Senator Ben Sasse. Senator Sasse, I sound terrible [laryngitis]. I assure you, though, I feel better than any Nebraska football fan.
BS: Wow. Well, I mean, we’re actually on a winning streak. And I think the Buckeyes might be on a losing streak. But go with what you want.
HH: Oh, a little bump, a little bump in the road on the way to the Final Four. But I’m glad you beat Minnesota. I am. Senator, what did you make of that audio? I’m sure you’ve seen the tape. Nancy Pelosi was also assaulted this weekend. What do you make of this?
BS: Yeah, to what end? What do these people think their goal is, because right now, there are so many people who are allowing their political passions to swallow up everything else in their lives, that they’re thinking it’s normal to just scream at people in a restaurant and throw their food on the table. This is not a question about whether or not your 1st Amendment rights allow you to protest. They certainly do. But America starts with the fundamental assumption about what the good life is. And we don’t think that power is the end. Power is a means to maintain order so that people can have dinnertime discussion and debate with family and friends, and even people they don’t agree with on everything. But shutting people down in a restaurant and throwing their food on the floor, or doing what folks did to Pelosi, I think we’re headed to a dark place. And I think there are a lot of political addicts out there that are not really thinking through chess moves 3, 4 and 5, yet.
HH: Senator Sasse, you have written a brand new book, Them, which I want to talk about. My copy is Virginia, but I’ll still talk to you about it. But I do believe in that tape you heard part of the problem. “I’m going to sell it to TMZ.”
HH: We have monetized confrontation. We have actually made it profitable and a path to “celebrity” to be a jerk and to yell and scream at people. I don’t know that the people, as you say, have thought three and four and five moves ahead, because that’s a path that goes towards ever-increasing confrontation.
BS: Yeah, well said. I really do think we, we haven’t, we don’t have a shared understanding across 320 million of us of the moment in which we’re living, both in media consumption and media maybe as a subset of technology more broadly. I think the big tension in our moment that would be useful for us to reflect on, and a lot of why I wrote the book, Them, is the tension between ruthlessness and rootedness. The happiness literature is showing us something that, you know, sort of thoughtful people, and give people who had grandparents and older wisdom in their life, have probably known for millennia. But there are about four things that drive happiness. Do you have a nuclear family? Do you have a couple of deep friendships? Do you have meaningful work and shared vocation and co-workers? And do you have a local worshipping community? Those four ingredients are basically what drive whether or not humans are happy. That’s, all that stuff is about rootedness. And our technology is allowing us to start to think of ourselves as completely rootless. And the way we’re consuming media, and the way we’re thinking about political tribalism is a function of that sort of TMZ mindset you’re flagging right there.
HH: I’m sure you read @NYTDavidBrooks column, “The Rich White Civil War” last week based on the “Hidden Tribe” study. And it is in fact not a problem of the center. It is a problem of the extremes on left and right that they constantly want to catapult abuse at each other. But it is also one that is powered by anonymity. And I’m wondering, Senator Sasse, what do you think of anonymous comments and the tenor they bring to our politics?
BS: Yeah, great flags on both points. So first of all, I think that the study you’re referring to, “Hidden Tribes,” is great. Every, your listeners should go read it. David Brooks’ piece in the New York Times early last week was one of the best summaries of it. And one of the things that he says that’s so brilliant is when you take it, parts of these demographers and social scientists, tried to look at America and figure out where are we on politics, and so often we just think of it as right versus left. But there is another dimension which is intensity of thinking that politics should crowd out the rest of life.
I’m the second or third-most conservative voter in the U.S. Senate. But I’m a huge skeptic of the idea that you can put politics at the center of your life and actually live well and love your neighbor well. And what Brooks flagged was two of the seven tribes that are identified in that study, “Hidden Tribes,” two of the seven that are most politically addicted are the 8% on the far left that pay constant attention to politics. They’re rich and white, and the 6% on the far right that pay constant attention to politics. They’re rich and white. And 86% of America is saying: “Go away. You people are weird.”
Politics is a means to an end, so that I can coach Little League and live in my local community. And this idea that politics should crowd everything else out, it’s wrong. It’s never been an American idea. And right now, a huge part of what we’re going through is that 14% telling the 86% you’re weird that you want live in community. The 86% are right.
HH: One of the things I greatly admired about President George W. Bush was his graciousness and the fact that he was so obviously and earnestly a Christian. Earlier today, I quoted C.S. Lewis. I’m sure you’re familiar with this, Senator: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, art, civilizations, these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat, that it is in mortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. And mortal horrors are everlasting splendors. This does mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play, but our merriment must be of that kind. And it is, in fact, the merriest kind which exist between people who have from the outset taken each other seriously. No flippancy, so superiority, no presumption. When the United States,” end of quote, Senator Sasse. When the United States was a churchgoing place, with, if not denominational agreement, at least a general agreement on the dignity of the individual, I think it was safer place.
BS: Yeah, I agree. And what a hearty Amen to that Lewis quote, first of all. So much of what we’re doing in life is consuming in shorter and shorter hot takes right now. And that means we have less and less wisdom. I mean, there is, actually, lots of data showing Americans are reading significantly less than 30 years ago. If everybody were reading Lewis like that, or even The Lion, The Witch And the Wardrobe, or “The Weight of Glory” and other essays, there is so much weight there that starts from that assumption of ”Imago Dei,”sort of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the assumption that people are created in the image of God. And they have dignity. Human souls are immortal. And so if you treat people like that, it means that even if I differ with somebody on policy, there’s lots of legislative priorities and policies that you’re going to differ with your neighbors about. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re a human worthy of dignity, created in God’s image, and descendant of a line before them, and maybe the parent of a line that’s coming after them. And if my neighbor four doors down and I differ completely on this, in my view, the stupidity of a $15 dollar minimum wage and all the economic destruction that will cause, that doesn’t change the fact that we’re going to root for the Huskers together, and I’m going to sweep their kid up in my driveway if she skins her knee falling off the bike. Like it is just not that…go ahead.
HH: That…That is the rediscovery of community. But now apply it for me, Senator Sasse, to a problem which I’ve been talking about all morning. There are 7,000 human beings marching toward our border. They are human beings. They are “Imago Dei.” They deserve dignity. But at the same time, our laws cannot be captive to the mob. You can’t march into America. And if 7.000 people can, next time, it’ll be 14,000, and then it’ll be 50,000. How do you want to frame what we ought to do about this for the public?
BS: Yeah, so let’s go back. And this is not, you know, just trying to blame the prior administration, because I want to be clear. Our immigration problems are decades in the coming.
BS: A huge part of this problem is in 2013-2014 when we didn’t send the clear signal in Central America that the assumptions that people, and especially bad people, I mean, they don’t have the image of God, but we can distinguish if we had more time between theological righteousness and civil righteousness. But human traffickers in Central America told people, they told moms and dads when they were trying to take big payments out of them to say we can get your kids into the U.S. They told them that the U.S.’ catch and release policy in 2013-14 meant that if you got to the border, you were basically guaranteed admission and passage into the U.S. The U.S. has to have borders, and every nation has to have borders. And if you’re going to secure your border, that means you want to stop the upstreamer, and in this case, downstream signals that are telling people our policies are so dumb, that if you can get to the border and turn yourself into a Border Patrol agent, we can’t process the backlog, and so we’ll immediately just release these migrants straight into the U.S., and they’ll have a six month pass until their trial date. And some supermajority of them, I don’t know the current statistic, but a hefty percentage of them don’t ever show up for their trial then, for their deportation trial. That was stupid. And now, we have a big problem, because these assumptions have been set for so long. We need to send signals that the U.S.’ border is hard and getting harder, and needs to be hardened more, and that you won’t get in under a dumb catch and release policy. And at the same time, we need to make sure that the ways that we communicate that continue to articulate the U.S.’ grand vision of seven and a half billion people being created with dignity. It doesn’t mean you get free passage into the United States of America.
HH: Yeah, the fence must be the outward expression of an invisible resolve to both control your border but we a welcoming country. Let me play for you, Ben Sasse, we talked a lot, Senator, during the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh. Chuck Todd on Meet the Press on Friday has been all over the country doing what I’m doing, doing meet and greets with voters. His conclusion, cut number 4:
CT: In my travels this week, no Democrat would say it on the record. It was amazing how consistent. Some of them were people running. Some of them were people advising. Some of them were people voting. All of them were going boy, the Democrats really messed up this Kavanaugh thing. Those Washington Democrats messed up this Kavanaugh…and some of them went by name and name-checked some of these Democrats. But these were Democrats out on the campaign trail frustrated that Kavanaugh stopped the momentum.
HH: So Ben Sasse, why the recoil? I think Chuck is right. I’ve heard the same thing. It’s in the polling. There’s a wind at the Republicans’ back. What is it about those proceedings that caused America to shudder?
BS: Well, I’m going to be delicate about this, because I think the backdrop is the gender gap in America at now 35, I’m no, you know, I’m trying to think who my favorite pollster of the moment is. I’m no polling expert. But when you have a gender gap of +35, historically Republicans usually trail 4-10 points with women. When you have +25 with women and now, for Democrats, and now +14ish for Republicans with men, something’s just fundamentally broken in the country. So there’s a lot to be said that isn’t just about the Kavanaugh hearings. But I think in the Kavanaugh hearings, you saw an attempt to politicize and hijack the #MeToo movement and make it something that is owned by partisans in Washington, D.C. I think the #MeToo movement is incredibly important, because I do think we have a culture of a lot of sexual violence in this country, and I think the #MeToo movement is on net a very good thing. But I think you saw in the Kavanaugh hearing an assumption that politicians can just grab any cultural movement and do what they want with it. And the reality is we have a long tradition in the British and American legal tradition of rights not just of the accuser, but of the accused. And there were people talking rhetorically around the Kavanaugh hearings like there’s no such thing as a right of the accused. And I think, you know, moms and dads don’t want that for their sons. They don’t want sexual violence for their daughters, but they want a world where there’s a lot more cautious deliberate than what was happening in that media circus.
HH: A very quick exit, Senator. In Micah, it says do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. That’s kind of internalized into every Christian in America and Jews as well. I don’t think kindness was on board, and justice was certainly not present in that Senate proceeding.
BS: No, you’re right. I mean, the gap there where politics and politics for instant TV happens like that for so many people who are the politically addicted class of Washington. That is because, I think, and again why I wrote the book, Them, of upstream things that are happening where a digital revolution is undermining community. The nuclear family is in statistical collapse in America. Deep friendship has been cut in half in the last 27 years in America. Job duration is getting shorter. Local worshipping communities are declining or becoming so large that they’re suburban commuter campuses. All of that undermining of place and of stick relationship inevitably undermines our ability to think about our neighbor as whole people, not just partisans on the other side of a political aisle. Politics are important. But if it’s the center of your life, something’s fundamentally broken.
HH: We will come back and talk more about Them next week, the new book by Senator Ben Sasse, when I’m back and my back is whole. Senator Sasse, thank you.
End of interview.