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Sen. Sasse on the rise of ‘anti-tribes’ and a growing American tolerance for lies

In his new book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other--and How to Heal,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb, reflects on a growing “rootlessness” in America as local communities erode and our dependence on isolating technology grows. Judy Woodruff sits down with the senator, who also weighs in on the decay of truth in political discourse, his vision for government and how we can repair our fragmented society.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the state of American society and our political divide is the subject of a new book by Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

    It's called "Them – Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal."

    We spoke this evening.

    And I started by asking about what we just have been talking about, the increasing number of false statements being made by the president.

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:

    I think political tribalism is ramping in our time, because there is this collapse of local tribes, good tribes, natural tribes, traditional tribes.

    And so more and more people are processing their politics not primarily as what they're for, but as a form of anti-tribe. What are we against?

    And so I think you do see a willingness among the American public to accept more falsehoods than would have seemed normal at most moments in U.S. history past, because people hear them as a kind of rhetoric that is mostly a framing of the other side and the things that we're against.

    We need a politics that isn't chiefly that, isn't chiefly against. We need a lot more we and a lot less them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you hold the president accountable, though? You're one of, what, 50-some Republican senators. How do you — when there are clearly statements that he's making that can't be borne out by facts, what do you do about it?

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:

    I don't have a great answer for this, because I don't think there is a clear short-term answer.

    But I try to talk with the president. He and I wrestle on a number of issues. For instance, on trade, we see the world very differently. And a number of the things that he says sort of implies we're going to bring back manufacturing jobs at a scale that was common in the 1950s.

    That's not going to happen. And the decline of industrial jobs isn't chiefly because of trade. I think I'm the most pro-free-trade senator in the United States Senate.

    But most of the disruption of the work force, for instance, is because of automation. And a lot of times, the president frames it as if there is somebody in another country that is taking your job. So he and I wrestle about those issues in private, and I talk about a good bit of it in public as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do want to talk more broadly about the book. Again, the title is "Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal."

    Your theme is about how isolated Americans are, how lonely Americans are, how divided we are. And it's a theme that we have been hearing about for a couple decades, the sociologist Robert Putnam.

    But has it gotten worse? And, if so, why?

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:

    I think it has gotten worse.

    So, you're great to flag Robert Putnam. He had this thesis in the late 1990s called Bowling Alone, which was the decline of associational, neighborly America, where he found that more Americans were bowling than ever before, and yet bowling league membership was at an all-time low.

    It's not a phenomenon unique to bowling. It's the case across sector after sector and community after community in the country. And since Putnam wrote that in the late 1990s or the year 2000, it's a digital revolution that's undermining place and the kinds of tribe of thick nuclear family, deep friendships, shared vocation and meaningful work together with our neighbors, local worshipping communities.

    And as all of those tribes, the sort of we activities that people did together, as they decline, as place becomes less significant, as we become more and more rootless, politics rushes in to fill that vacuum. But politics is regularly anti-tribe, not pro-tribe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In connection with that you write about how loyal people are to — politically to their tribe, to their political party, to the point of being basically unwilling to listen to any other points of view.

    Do you see a way out of this?

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:

    Well, I think there are a bunch of constructive things we have to do to rebuild habits of rootedness and place and thick community, despite the fact that our technology whispers to us, you can be rootless. It's not true.

    The happiness literature tells us what makes us happy. And it is family, it is friendships, it is shared vocation, it is local worshiping communities. And so we're going to have to figure out how to build those habits of rootedness for a rootless age.

    We're going to have to figure out when you unplug from your technology. How do you host your neighbors?

    But, to your point, we have had a tripling in the last 25 years of the share of Americans that regard the other political party than the one they're in as not just naive or confused, but evil, from 14 percent to 41 percent of the electorate in the last 25 years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So how — to come back to President Trump, because some of his rhetoric, some of his language is — I think everybody agrees is contributing to the division. I know a lot of people think there are other, many other contributor as well.

    How do you — how do you, as a sitting Republican senator, push back? I know you vote with the president — we looked it up — I think something like 87 percent of the time.

    What responsibility do you have, do you think?

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:

    So, one of the responsibilities of all elected officials and of the president — in the Congress, but and the president of the United States as well, is not just to have policy priorities, but to have a set of issues that are overarching those.

    What does the First Amendment mean? Why do we have a constitutional system of limited government? And so one of my concerns about the president is that he doesn't tend to any of that next-generation civics instruction.

    What is America going to have to wrestle with 10 and 25 years from now, where we're going to need a shared sense of we for the cyber-doctrine that we need to build, for instance?

    On legislation, I'm happy that the president — I have been a conservative since long before Donald Trump and I will still be a conservative after the president is out of office. So I'm glad that he's come to adopt my policy positions on a number of legislative matters.

    But the more fundamental point is the overarching shift — civics of what we, the American people, believe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You also like about the lack of respect for government, for the role of — the important role that government can play, that there is just so much name-calling and mean-spiritedness about our political system, that government has become basically a whipping boy to the American people.

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does it matter that that's — that it's turned out that way?

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:

    Oh, it does.

    I think the decline of trust that we see in all of our public institutions is a self-reinforcing and a vicious cycle. But, even more, it becomes a national security crisis, when you have Russia today and China tomorrow planning cyber-attacks against the U.S. to exploit our own internal divisions.

    I spend a lot of time on intelligence issues. And when you're with the leadership of the U.S. intelligence community, they talk about a perfect storm for future deep-fakes attacks against the U.S., fake audio and fake video that will be used to reinforce the biases that we Americans have against each other.

    And one of the core reasons they think we have so much current exposure is because Russia and China know the scabs they need to pick at. There are many Americans who would rather be divided from other Americans than be united with those other Americans against future Chinese and current Russian cyber-attacks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bottom line, should Americans come away from this depressed, discouraged about the future?

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:

    I want us to become…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Or — or hopeful?

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:


    But I want us to be sober and realistic about what we need to rebuild. We're going through a revolution. It's the digital revolution, which is akin to urbanization and industrialization.

    There was also a crisis of loneliness in that time, which created prohibition as a response. Right now, we're going to have the third year of declining life expectancy in a row in the U.S. because of deaths of despair.

    That stuff didn't come from government, and it primarily — mostly can't be fixed by government. But we, the people, still have to do that. And there's a lot we can rebuild in our neighborhoods and in our new, healthier tech habits for this new digital age.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One blueprint is here.

    The book is "Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal."

    Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, thank you very much.

  • Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:

    Thank you, Judy.

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