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Sen. Ben Sasse: Building better communities

Illustration by Pierce Thiot

Editor’s note: This essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s cover story “How to heal America’s partisan divide.”

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

What works in America is that we are relational beings and 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 the word for that is community.

That’s something Alexis de Tocqueville noticed when he visited America in the 1830s to understand what makes us distinct as a nation. What he found is that it’s not isolated individualism that makes us great; it is togetherness. And it’s not coerced. It’s togetherness that’s by choice as we work together. Two are better than one because if one falls down, the other can help them up.

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. That ache spills out lots of different places. And one of the places where it spills out is into our politics, because political tribalism is ramping up right right now, and that’s happening because the good kind of tribalism is 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 rather than the social media sense of friends. There’s data that 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, just because they love you. 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. I’m just delighted. Or when one of my daughters is hurt by something, I hurt, because they are a part of me and I love them. 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. 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 where people find happiness and meaning.

We’ve got to think about how to love our neighbor. Part of that is I need 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. That’s what principled pluralism really is. Government is not going to solve all our problems, government’s not supposed to, and maybe we’ve gotten to this point by thinking the government, and our politics, whether we’re on the left or the right, is going to solve these problems that divide us. The government in its best form in the American system is designed to maintain a framework for ordered liberty, so the really important communities can flower. And those around your dining room table.

To move past what divides us, we have a pretty well thought out understanding of what will make our neighbors happy. And that is family, that is friendship, that is deep work. 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.

Sen. Ben Sasse has served as the junior U.S. Senator for Nebraska since 2015. He is the author of “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal.”

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.