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Nebraska’s thoughtful and well-spoken U.S. Senator Ben Sasse has released a new book with an important theme and an alarming title: "Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How To Heal."

I’ve not read the book yet, so this isn’t a book review. From what I’ve heard, this is a book that explores the lonely isolation of the growing tribalism and alienation that separates us as individuals and neighbors and denies us a shared sense of truth. That sounds like the us versus them mentality with which we have become all too familiar.

Sasse told a Lincoln Journal Star reporter that both of the dominant political parties "feed and profit" off those divisions, "and it's being swallowed whole by cable news." He said 20 years ago that 14 percent of Americans believed the other political party was evil. Today it’s 41 percent.

He advocates for neighborhood and community, emphasizing that getting to know your neighbor two doors down is more satisfying than getting 200 more likes on social media. These are not unusual concepts for most Nebraskans who likely tend to be more neighborly than social media dependent.

I’m not saying that Facebook isn’t a strong influence in the Cornhusker State. Count me among an increasing number of people who have removed the social media app from my smart phone because it’s a big time -- suck. But just look around the next time you’re in a restaurant and see how many people are looking at each other and having conversations as opposed to how many people are staring at their phones.

Speaking of those phones, here’s a good way to understand tribalism, which is described as a strong loyalty and a heavy sense of identity. Android versus iPhone. Members of each of those tribes may share common politics, values, and beliefs, but their tribal origins trump all of that agreement. They are linked by social, religious, or kinship affiliations, and have traditional enemies about whom they tend to be highly impassioned.

Blogger Alan Weiss says tribes are homogenous, communities are heterogeneous.

Tribes are exclusionary. They recognize their own members’ similarities and common background, and tend to take captives or slaves, generally seeing others as enemies at worst and inferiors at best.

Weiss notes that a famous experiment with devoted Starbucks users and Dunkin’ Donuts users found that no one in either group would agree to switch brands or environment—they were true tribes, derogatory and condescending about the other. (“I felt I was intruding in someone’s fancy living room in Starbucks.” “Do you realize that in Dunkin’ Donuts you can’t get soy milk in your latté?”)

He says communities are inclusionary, characterized by common attitudes, interests, and goals. Religion, beliefs, kinship, and opinions can differ starkly in communities and, in fact, give them vibrancy and dynamism, allowing for continued experimentation and growth.

They do not hold long-term animosities against other communities, and those within them shift in opinion and allegiance as time goes by and learning occurs. This doesn’t mean the rivalry of athletic competition isn’t still strong between communities, but it is rarely disruptively tribal in the long term.

Critics are already lining up to debunk Sasse’s work. Some of that is likely backlash from his recent vote to confirm a controversial Supreme Court nominee.

I’m willing to read the book and consider his thoughts.

There is increasing evidence of hatred every day and Lord knows we need healing. Perhaps there is something in getting to know “them” better that could provide a solution. I’m willing to give it a try. How about you?

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J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 19 years.


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