“Politics,” the headline on Senator Ben Sasse’s Saturday Wall Street Journal opinion piece, declares, “Can’t Solve Our Political Problems.” In the hands of a more crudely inclined politician, this sort of phrase would be a call for a military coup. But the Republican junior senator from Nebraska is not crude; Sasse has built his name by branding himself as a thoughtful and refined statesman, while he serves in and supports a brutish party led by a brutish president.
So Sasse, with his philosopher-style paradox, is not calling on anyone to fight. He is calling you, the public, to stop fighting, and to surrender. “The problem,” he writes, “is that our ever more ferocious political tribalism and mutual hatred don’t originate in politics, so politics isn’t going to heal them.”
To spoil the magic trick right from the top: Sasse achieves this insight by defining “politics” as “the things Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) is willing to allow to be addressed through legislation, or executive action.” Because he is ideologically committed to preventing people from using the government to make their lives better, it becomes necessary to treat every problem in people’s lives as the result of human nature or a spiritual malaise:
We want and need to be in tribes. In our time, however, all of the traditional tribes that have sustained humans for millennia are simultaneously in collapse. Family, enduring friendship, meaningful shared work, local communities of worship—all have grown ever thinner. We are creating thicker, more vehement tribes around our political differences, I believe, because there is a growing vacuum at the heart of our shared (or increasingly, not so shared) everyday lives.
One useful trick, for readers in these troubled times, is whenever someone says “tribe” or “tribal,” try replacing it with “community.” It is true that human beings usually live in groups, and probably that they naturally think of themselves as living in groups, and that they have done so in different places and throughout different times. When you see the word “tribe,” though, you are seeing someone making a more specific and far less provable claim: that the first purpose of human groups is not mutual support toward one another, but joint hostility against outsiders.
Sasse prefers to talk about tribes because his political commitments are to a society that operates through competitive struggle—with tax and property rules that make the struggle effectively zero-sum, at best. The winners take more and keep more, and the rest of the public sees the losses pushed out onto the conditions of their everyday lives. So Sasse talks instead about that “growing vacuum,” an emptiness that happens to correspond perfectly to his own hollowness, a hollowness the senator and his chosen audience have convinced themselves is resonance.
The result is an op-ed essay, taken from the senator’s latest upcoming book, that is a list of material conditions, passed off as spiritual ones:
Because we change jobs more often, we have fewer lasting work friendships. We delay marriage, have fewer children and live in larger homes, more separate from those of our neighbors. We move from place to place for relationships, economic opportunity and better weather—and we end up with economic opportunity and better weather.
What an unfortunate set of changes we have all decided to make, as individuals! Why did we all choose to constantly change jobs, rather than choosing an employer and sticking with them, steadily collecting annual pay raises and earning a pension that would sustain us in our old age? Why did we wait so many extra years before trying to establish a financially secure household, and why do those households have fewer children? Why don’t we all stay where we were born and work the good, lifelong jobs there?
Following the lead of urban trendologist Richard Florida, Sasse divides the world into
three categories of people: the mobile, the rooted and the stuck. The mobile are those who can afford to move to areas with more opportunity; the rooted are those who have the means to move but choose to stay; and the stuck are those who lack the resources to make any real choice.
Of these three groups, the top and bottom ones are defined—in Sasse’s own words!—by what they can or cannot “afford” to do. The group in between them is “rapidly dwindling,” the senator warns. Why is this group (one might call it a “middle class”) choosing not to exist anymore? Probably because of social media and the “almost permanent state of dissociation” they induce; also because of “the habits and attitudes of elites,” who are withdrawing from their native communities to go live in “silos” away from “people who don’t share our socioeconomic background.”
What was that part after “socio-” again? But Sasse is busy presenting a model for a better way of individual living, a model which is based on the exemplary life of Senator Ben Sasse. Sasse and his wife, he writes, “decided to ‘put down roots’ by reinvesting in my hometown of Fremont, Neb.” Rather than exploiting mobility and going somewhere else, the Sasses are working to “develop an imperfect, provisional strategy for engaging more meaningfully with our own community.”
Here is a good moment to remember that Ben Sasse has a job that pays him $174,000 per year and allows him to play a central role in the affairs of the nation—a highly competitive job, a job available to only two out of the estimated 1,920,076 people who choose to (or fail to choose not to) live in the state of Nebraska.
What are the other 1,920,074 Nebraskans, and millions and millions of other Americans, supposed to do? They (“we,” Sasse writes) “must find creative ways to replenish social capital.” Social capital, mind you; not capital held collectively on society’s behalf. “[N]ew forms of republican virtue—with a lowercase R—must emerge,” he writes.
“If too many Americans feel like we’re not ‘in this together right now, it’s because we’re not…” Sasse concludes. “The only way out is to rebuild our communities and launch new ones—one person-to-person relationship and one local institution at a time.”
If you look at the problems of the nation this way—personally, locally, individually—you just might get close enough to make sure that you can’t see, or talk about, anything the nation could do about them.