Book review of Senator Ben Sasse’s Them: Why we hate each other and how to heal

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska is considered a moderate Republican. He opposed Trump’s nomination and has continued to criticize the President, calling him “a megalomaniac strongman.”    Sasse’s opposition to Trump has led to harsh criticism of Sasse from conservative media personalities, politicians and grassroots citizens.

Likewise, Sasse took heat from Republicans for opposing the candidacy of Roy Moore in Alabama.

But despite Sasse’s criticisms of Trump, Sasse has mostly voted in favor of Trump’s positions. (ibid). Sasse supports Trump’s recent aggression towards Iran.

Sasse has a PhD from Yale in U.S. history. His book Them: Why we hate each other and how to heal is well-written — I believe it was not ghost-written — and Sasse comes across as earnest and self-deprecating, a regular fellow.

Ben Sasses's Them: Why we hate each other and how to heal

Sasse accuses the mainstream media of having a liberal bias. One example he gives concerns the origins of hyper-partisanship in U.S. politics. In the section titled “A brief history of ‘Who Started It?’,” Sasse accuses journalist Jim VandeHei (founder of Politico and Axios) of misstating the facts about which party started extreme polarization in U.S. politics. VandeHei blamed New Gingrich for ushering in an era of “good-versus-evil style” politics. But Sasse says that the Dems’ opposition to the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court was when it really started. “But left-of-center Justice John-Paul Stevens not only defended Bork against [Ted] Kennedy’s accusations but recommended his confirmation.” (p 90)

Sasse fails to mention that Bork was involved in Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, as retold by James Risen:

On the night of October 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon wanted Cox out because Cox had just subpoenaed the president and demanded that he turn over his Oval Office tape recordings. Nixon feared that Cox was getting too close to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

Richardson refused to fire Cox, instead resigning as attorney general that night. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus also refused to do Nixon’s dirty work and also resigned. But by the end of that Saturday night, Nixon had found his hatchet man: Solicitor General Robert Bork agreed to fire Cox.

Sasse says the Dems’ unfair treatment of Bork and, later, of Clarence Thomas were the start off extreme partisanship, and Newt Gingrich’s extremism was a reaction to the Dems’ extremism.

Sasse also accuses then Senator Joe Biden of intentionally politicizing Bork’s nomination as a way to increase his publicity in anticipation of his running for president. He says Biden’s former chief-of-staffed confessed to this scheme.

His next example of liberal bias is “Renaming Religious Liberty ‘Bias’.” In 2016 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights opposed religious exemptions to civil rights laws. Commission Chairman Martin Castro wrote:

The phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.

He says that liberals ignore the First Amendment, which mentions religious liberty in the first clause, in favor of the Fourteenth and other amendments that justify non-discrimination. The “Obama administration dragged the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns dedicated to serving the homeless and elderly poor, to the Supreme Court for refusing to comply with a Health and Human Services Department mandate requiring employers to adopt insurance plans covering contraceptives and abortifacent drugs — both of which are prohibited by Catholic doctrine.” He accuses liberals of wanting to “squeeze religious believers, and religious expression, out of the public sector.” Another example Sasses gave concerns universities that banned Christian groups which prohibited group leaders from engaging in same-sex relations.

Sasse devoted a couple of pages to the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, an abortion doctor who collected body parts from fetuses, who tortured patients, and who was eventually convicted of murder.  The mainstream media suppressed Gosnell’s story, says Sasse, because it was inconsistent with the pro-choice bent of the news outlets.  Sasse presents convincing evidence that the story was unfairly suppressed (including quotations by journalists who regretted their decisions in the matter).

Sasse describes some other instances of national liberals news hosts (Candy Crowley, Brian Williams, and Dan Rather) getting facts wrong.

Sasse says that because of liberal media bias such as the incidents above, tens of millions chose to “divorce from” mainstream media outlets. “I’ve heard from women in churches who never considered themselves enthusiastic Republicans — and who vigorously object to Donald Trump’s personal behavior — but now describe themselves as ‘reluctant Trump zealots’.”

Sasse has spoken out many times against Trump, and has taken heat from constituents and from right wing media hosts including Sean Hannity for his outspokenness.

“In my nearly four years in the Senate, I have three of the twelve conservative hosts in America sidle up to me in some informal setting after they’d shellacked me on the air. The context was the same in each: I had defended some conservative principle against President Trump, so I’d gotten crosswise with part of their audience… The hosts couldn’t afford to lose a quarter or a third of their audience.”

Sasse readily acknowledges that there is “a great deal of nuttiness in this alternative, right wing media” and he devotes considerable ink to criticisms of Sean Hannity.      “His core cause is to rage. … He is careful not to claim that he’s offering viewers accurate news from an unbiased perspective …. This storyline is simple. Liberals are evil, you’re a victim, and you should be furious. Hannity tells a lot of angry, isolated people what they want to hear. And he has the delivery down to an art form.”

Sasse accuses the Left of publishing fake news as well: “In the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections, liberals tried desperately to find an ugly racist in the Tea Party. Nut-seeking camera crews were deployed to Tea Party rallies, but none of them ever secured the sought-after, tight racist soundbite.”

Sasse blames political extremism on news organizations’ desire for devoted audiences, and on Americans’ need for an anti-tribe: an opponent to hate. Up until the advent of cable TV, a majority of Americans got their news from a handful of TV networks, so the the news organizations could afford to be centrist.  Now news orgs struggle for audience — even the highest rating TV new show, Hannity’s, gets about only 1% of the population — and so to earn viewers and clicks they hew to the extremes.

I remember in college, back in the 80s, arguing with a smart conservative guy. We agreed that there are conservative facts (outrages) and liberal facts (outrages), and the question comes down to which side can convince the bigger number of people about their facts. That’s what politics — and science — always comes down to.

Sasse quotes James Madison: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Since men aren’t angels, and since we need government, the solution Madison suggested was a balance of powers, amid a plurality of interests.   What the founding fathers feared was mob rule: too much democracy, what Sasse called, “the capricious will of a populist, self-certain, unreflective majority.  Do you believe the Twitter mob will never come after you?” It sounds like Sasse is talking about Trump and his supports. Indeed, he laments that the GOP has been taken over by Trump.

Sasse recalls that the founding fathers warned against the dangers of factions.

Sasse is critical of extremism on both sides. One example concerns Rick Ungar’s speech at the 2018 CPAC.  When Ungar made some comments pointing out that many immigrants have conservative values and that many of immigrants choose to come here legally and to apply for citizenship, Ungar was loudly booed by the audience. Sasse thought this was hateful and unreasonable.

Sasse’s solution to the problem of tabloid news strikes me as unconvincing. He says we need to build strong local communities: “The only conceivable way we can make sense of all this information would be by knowing who to think with, who to trust.  That’s just another way of saying that we need real, local in-person communities.”  He devotes a long chapter decrying the addictive and isolation-provoking properties of smart phones, computers and social media.  He mentions PEID (Porn-Induced Erectile Dysfunction Disorder).

“Sure the people around you are annoying, but the people in the next, ‘better’ place are annoying, too. People everywhere are annoying. Community is hard. So what?”

He says we need to be more rooted in a real, rooted community, not in a virtual community, and not in an anti-tribe.  We need to be neighborly, to care for one another, and we need to build organizations and clubs to solve problems — not to depend on government to do things for us. (That’s a very conservative viewpoint.) He keeps coming back to stories about sports, about rooting for the home team, and about that Friday-evening-at-the-gym feeling that he misses.

The metaphor about sports is telling, because sports are inherently tribal and competitive. I have never been able to get into it, personally. I hate watching sports and think it’s a stand-in for militarism, competition, oppression, and winner-take-all zero-sum games.

In the last chapter he calls on Americans to rise above narrow anti-tribes, to stop treating the other party as “the enemy” and to realize our common interests. He says politics and government can’t solve our fundamental problems, which are local.  Yet he acknowledges that we can’t paper over the real policy differences that divide us. I don’t think his proposed solution will work.


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