Friendship and Politics

As my Facebook newsfeed fills with snarky barbs, I sigh and fantasize that the 2012 Presidential Election on the sixth of November has already passed.  I could write about the decline of manners; after all, it’s a time-honored pastime to lament how nasty elections have become.  The problem with this focus on the decline of manners is that it ignores just how rude, if not downright defamatory our American forebears were when engaged in political debate.

Take the Presidential Election of 1800, which was one of the most insult-filled in American history.  In John Adams, historian David McCullough painted the following picture of the opposing campaigns:

If Jefferson was a Jacobin, a shameless southern libertine, and a ‘howling’ atheist, Adams was a Tory, a vain Yankee scold, and, if truth be known, ‘quite mad.’ See John Adams at 544.

 Civility did not improve in later 19th Century elections.  In the 1884 election between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine, Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock.  Blaine supporters chanted what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?”  The response to this, after Cleveland won the election, was: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”).

If public political civility has not declined, it has not improved a great deal either.  Perhaps it is impossible for us to maintain polite discourse when the issues seem so important.  Utter the word “abortion,” for example, and a wide swath of society loses the ability to hear what individuals with opposing viewpoints think.  So many of us are ruled by our passions, and so terms like “baby killers” and “women haters” get bandied around, and all the noise and vituperation drowns out calmer considerations.

Don’t get me wrong: philosophy matters.  It governs how we behave.  And it often dictates our political opinions.  Sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s possible to really love someone whose philosophy and governing principles differ a great deal from my own.  In fact, a friend of a friend posited as much last night, and it made me sad, because many of my closest friends hold dear beliefs different from my own.  Are these friendships real and enduring?  Will they last until November 7th?

As I’ve advanced in age, I’ve forged enduring friendships with people of diverse beliefs.  I think friendship can and should transcend political and philosophical differences.  For that to happen, a few things must occur.

First, each person must really listen to what the other has to say.  That’s not always easily done, but so often, I’ve learned something from my friends.  For example, I am a staunch opponent of health care socialization, because I oppose governmental interference with the economy.  Setting aside the fact that the health care system has been partially socialized for decades, I’ve learned from my friends who support the President’s health care plan that the current system often fails the indigent in a heartbreaking way.  Indeed, I’m no longer 100% certain that socializing health care would hurt both individuals and the economy.

Second, we must assume that our friends are benevolent and mean well when they formulate their respective political philosophies.  Take my views on health care, for example.  I want the best for everyone, and I truly think a system based on the free market would lead to lower rates and better care for everyone.  One of the big assumptions I’ve made is that in a free market, charity will cover the indigent.  I wish for no one to fall through the cracks.  In other words, my intentions are good, and I both expect and hope that my friends who support Obama’s plan see that.

Third, we must admit there is a possibility we’re wrong, and that means being confident enough in our own beliefs that we can set aside our egos and consider all viewpoints.  Continuing with the health care example, I realize I might be wrong about private charity covering the indigent.  People may well fall through the cracks in a private system, and this troubles me.  What if I’m wrong?  People could be hurt—they even could die if they cannot afford health care, and this seems unacceptable, does it not?

Fourth, we must seek commonalities rather than emphasize our differences.  As a Libertarian-Republican, I believe in economic and social liberty, which means I agree with the Democratic Party almost as often as I agree with the Republican Party.  While I’m not dishonest about my views, I tend to discuss social liberty more with Democrats, and economic liberty more with Republicans.  Maybe I should argue more with my friends, but my friendships surely would deteriorate if I turned every chat into a debate.

That gets me to my final point: friendship is important.  My friends make me feel loved, valued and connected.  They make me a better woman.  And I’m in these friendships, I hope, for the long haul.  Political differences seem to fade over time.  After all, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams rekindled their friendship in their final years, I suspect because of their shared experiences and love of country.  They were both great men and patriots.

Next time you’re tempted to say or write something about politics, think about how it will impact the people you love.  Let that love guide you to focus on commonalities rather than differences.  And as you choose what words you use, remember: words matter.  And all of this will be over on November 7th.

35 Comments on “Friendship and Politics

  1. Well-said. I too believe that philosophical view-points shouldn’t be the basis for our friend choice. I am unequivocally pro-choice while I have friends who think abortion is murder. But, that doesn’t change a thing. It leads to heated debates once in a while, but then again where’s the fun in having friends who agree with you all the time!
    Having said that, I am sure it must be no easy job to keep the constant philosophical friction at bay, if you have a lot of differences. I’ve often wondered how James Carville and Mary Matalin make it work.

    • Yes, I have many friends on diametrically opposed sides of the abortion spectrum. I’m pro-choice, with some very narrow limitations on that (now that I’ve had preemies of my own, I get squeamish about third term abortions, unless of course the health of the mother is at stake). I think for me, as long as my friends are respectful and not hateful, their beliefs don’t matter too much–it’s when they get strident and start yelling or saying absolutely nutty stuff that I grow uncomfortable.

      Gah! I’ve wondered the same thing about Carville and Matalin!!

  2. El, I love this so much! Believe it or not, I actually enjoy political discourse – even when speaking with someone from the other side (ESPECIALLY with someone on the other side!) I sincerely want to know why others vote the way they do, or what makes them tick because I think it helps me understand them on a more human level instead of just as a representative of a particular party or candidate. Also, it always makes me think about my own position. And sometimes I change my mind, sometimes I don’t. Always, though, such conversations cause my personal viewpoints to evolve, helping me become, I hope, a better person all around. What I don’t like, though, are name-calling and nasty remarks that are made solely for the purpose of attempting to either bully or intimidate others. When we feel that it is unsafe to ask questions or, conversely, become defensive when someone asks us about our personal philosophies, I think we have crossed a line with our zealousness for said political philosophies and ideologies. We can be passionate – and knowledgable- about our beliefs, we just need to remember that we are all human beings and should treat each other with the dignity we all deserve. We must also remember that we really are trying to do what’s best for everyone – and be willing to admit when we are wrong. Also, times change: what worked in 1964 or 1988 or even 2000 may not necessarily work for 2012 and beyond. We have to be willing to be flexible enough to impart change when it is necessary. And we must remember that no one person – or political party – has all the right answers. When our leaders refuse to work together, we ALL lose. Thanks for writing this (and providing a moment of clarity during what is almost always a very chaotic time!) oh, and thanks for letting me post this very lengthy comment that allowed me the opportunity for a little personal political discourse of my own! 🙂

    • Dawn: thank you so much, my friend! I also like, even love, political discourse. So often, I’m kind of bummed that so many people don’t enjoy it, and I often wonder why we’re not able to set aside our stronger emotions (nay-passions) without losing our security in our own beliefs. Sometimes I think it’s because we’re not secure in those beliefs; sometimes, the other side is just plain rude. Yes–exactly. We’re all human beings and should be treated with dignity.

      Yes–for sure our leaders need to work together. While debate benefits us, so does compromise. Thanks my friend, as always, for your thoughtful response!!

  3. As a liberal tree hugging vegan hippie I salute you. Respect and listening is important. When that happens deferring views don’t have much impact on a relationship. Without that we have nothing. Love the Adams Jefferson comparison. Love you El.

  4. Dear El,

    Your central theme of civility in political discourse and discussion is one we should all strive for. Just last night i had to say, “Let’s not talk politics, okay?” I fear I was born without a good filter and have a hard time politely listening to people who would have me support thieves wrapped in the flag (please note my polite neutrality here) without speaking out about the elephant in the room. (If we are to retain any sort of civility we, as a people, had better address what ‘our’ government has done to devalue and debase the dollar by printing endless quantities out of thin air in an attempt to prop up policies of the moment. The government (us) cannot be the world’s policeman and take care of our every need when it is insolvent. It is a mathematical certainty.)

    I think also that the civility you desire in discourse should be extended to the citizenry by the government re the same subject. New laws have made dissent illegal by creating ever shifting zones where gathering anywhere some government officials are slated to appear is prohibited. This is supposedly for their protection but I think it is we who need protection from them. Just voicing thoughts such as these has gone from legal and encouraged by our founding fathers to illegal if so deemed by the President and backed by provisions of the NDAA. (When they come for me I will try to be polite, but I somehow doubt the courtesy will be returned.)

    I am heartened by the rekindled friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and cannot thank you enough for reminding me of it. Their vision created this country and their example shows that after the tree of liberty is once again watered we will be able to heal.



    • Good morning, Doug!

      Oh, for sure, the healing of wounds can and does happen, both from a meta and an individual standpoint. Of course, it’s better if we don’t inflict these wounds to start with, but that need for conflict does seem to be in our nature. Perhaps we, as humans, thrive on conflict even more than we enjoy peace (stopping to think for a moment).

      What is the NDAA? I don’t understand that argument (yes I will Google it). I do NOT like big, intrusive, liberty-robbing government, so I am thinking I will agree with you, but need to check that out.

      You know, as to your anecdote about last night, generally when we have to say that to someone, it indicates that the relationship is not a very durable one. Not always, but in so many cases, once I get to that point of asking for a ceasefire, I’ve developed a pretty bad case of annoyance. Then again, that may just be me: although I am fierce and passionate, I am often (too often) the consummate diplomat. Ah, I digress.

      As far as the money supply, I am an adherent of the old-fashioned gold standard. So I agree with you, just as I agree that we cannot be the world’s cop, enforcer and chief petty officer. Like you said, we can only afford to do so much . . .



  5. Here, here, El! Civility in the public arena should be our goal, even if it’s a target we haven’t been able to hit throughout our history.

  6. I will be voting Democrat for the first time in my life in November—I think 😉 No, I am certain. I came to my change in persuasions after my prison stay, and through a lot of study of Christian masters. I may even blog about it. I was raised to believe that how a person voted was their personal business, and that politics, religion, finances, or race, ect..were not relevant in determining who to be kind and respectful to, or who to befriend. Be kind to everyone. Befriend people who mesh with you well, no matter the other things. I hate seeing my friends tear each other apart because of this upcoming election. I am seeing sides of people I do not care for, and hurtfulness that just isn’t necessary. All the while, our children soak it up like sponges—what we “hate” about this person, or that person. I think it is possible to talk about politics, and most other subjects, speaking from a position of what we like and admire, rather than what, or who, we hate. Will you still be my friend if I vote Democrat? 😉

    • Yes of course I’ll still be your friend no matter who you vote for, dear friend!!

      Oh do blog about it–I’d love to hear what you have to say on the issue! You know, I heard the same thing from many people growing up. Often, it was suggested that I was rude when I brought up politics, but I’ve always done it anyway. I have one of those tenaciously curious minds (perhaps outspoken, at least when I was younger) and indeed fierce. As I’ve grown, I’ve turned very diplomatic: I seek consensus in political conversations. Anyway . . .

      I choose friends based on how they make me feel. It’s simple but pretty damn effective!! xoxo

  7. This was so beautifully written and wonderfully said. Coming from a family that includes members from raging Liberals to raging Tea Party Conservatives, all of whom I regularly debate, sometimes with great glee and sometimes with acrimony I will say we can have civil discourse without ruining either love or friendship. I am somewhere in-between, probably somewhere between an Eisenhower Republican and Clinton Democrat (without the morality problems) with a bit of LBJ thrown in for good measure.

    I said this on your FB page but will say it here, for some people it isn’t just the silly season that gets some of us going. I am a political activist and wonk. I follow politics all the time. I am active at a local and national level all the time, with or without an election season. I have been this way since I was a child marching to end Vietnam and bring my family members home from war. My social consciousness was framed by the 60’s and 70’s, by Civil Rights and by the Women’s Movement, by watching flag draped caskets coming off planes on the nightly news, by being a candy stripper in the filthy Veterans hospital where there wasn’t enough medicine or enough bandages and sometimes our soldiers laid in their own waste for hours. The things I care about were part of my personal experience, public hospitals that didn’t provide care but instead left you bleeding in a hallway or performed surgery without proper anesthesia, just two examples.

    Each of us come to our conclusions and perspective differently. Our generation, personal history and experiences set our feet on paths that it is hard to lift them from. When someone says to me “I am X or I believe Y” politically, I always ask why, unless I already know the answer. If we understand where someone comes from, what their motivations or even their history is it is far easier to listen with an open heart and an open mind. Politics doesn’t have to be acrimonious, it doesn’t have to ruin friendships, it can in fact be a wonderful broadening of a relationship. We don’t have to be exactly like those we love, we simply have to respect their opinions enough to listen to them and talk about them without being ugly.

    By the way…..I hope you know I adore and love you.

    • Val!!! I loved reading your thoughtful comments above–it is so very neat to read about your political roots and to know why you are the way you are. I think I’ve always thought for myself, and I have always believed more in liberty and individual rights than equality and social justice, if that makes sense. I developed my beliefs by reading the classic thinkers, often on my own. I can remember scribbling all over Plato’s Republic when I was 18. I really disliked his vision of utopia, whereas I loved Aristotle. I’ve always read and studied and thought for myself. Ayn Rand had a big influence on me in college, but I disagree with a lot of her conclusions too. I had to leave college when I first went because ALL of my professors were diehard left-wingers and I felt miserable, confused and pretty crazy (I was also so messed-up from PTSD). Well, crap, I could go on and on–right now I’m rambling with no particular point to my rambles.

      But I gotta get to my kid’s soccer game. Yes I know–just as I love and adore you too!

      • Like you, I read all the classics mostly on my own. Some of the originals I read still remain in my library with my original notes in the margins, including Ayn Rand. I read City of God and Confessions of St. Augustine along with Thomas Aquinas, then I threw in the Bible, Kabbalah and many Rabbinical writings to help me understand the Talmud and Torah. But what really pulled me were the writings John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine; oh I could just go on and on. Though I periodically would audit university courses when I could and would take classes at the local Community Colleges when I could afford it, piling up credits till they reached the ceiling I scattered them through everything I loved. Mostly Government, Political Science, Comparative Religion, Sociology and Anthropology.

        I couldn’t afford to actually attend college, so everything I read was just what I could get my hands on. Most days they were books I bought at the library for .50 or books someone took pity and gave me to read. Sometimes when I was 15 and living on the streets I would hide out in libraries to get warm and just sit in corners and read all day, books in the Philosophy and Religion sections were my favorites. At the time, the first time I picked up Atlas Shrugged in fact I wasn’t all that impressed though Dagny was one of my favorite characters.

        There was once a librarian in San Antonio who would bring an extra sandwich and apple to work some days and give them to me when she figured out I was a street kid. Our history and experiences define us. I loved learning so much but never thought I would have the opportunity. I didn’t finish my first degree until I was nearly 30, I took on huge debt to do so but not nearly as huge as the kids today. I didn’t finish my Masters until my 40’s and am still paying for it. Now? Now I want one more, I want my Ph.D so I can retire to a different career, one that will pay less but let me give back more, but I will take on more debt to do so. Will it be worth it? Maybe El, just maybe.

  8. I was thinking about this same thing recently. We’ve always had plenty of ugliness during elections. I think where the difference has come into play is that we used to be able to put it behind us after the election. Everybody understood that if the elected president succeeded, it meant America succeeded. Now, it seems the political rankling continues long past the election and the defeated party refuses to work with the one in power, planning ahead for the next election and trying to make sure the term is a failure – while we ALL suffer by their lack of cooperation.

    We need to send you to Washington EL to remind them of the importance of getting over campaign barb slinging and getting down to the business of greatness.

    • Morning! Amen to that: if the President succeeds, we all succeed. If the defeated party spends the entire time all rankled and resentful, yes, nothing gets done! Ha! I live 15 miles outside of DC. It’s nuts here–just nuts! I’d love to help steer our country back to the business of greatness–love that term. Have a Happy Saturday!

  9. Beautifully put, El. I’ve actually thought a few times that I would love to sit down and chat with you one day about your beliefs. You have such a way of articulating them respectfully, and I really do respect others’ opinions. It gets so tough when political discussions become mud slinging fights. The issues get completely lost, which is very sad for those of us who wish to learn. Thanks for this post!

    • Thank you so much August! And yes, I would love to walk and talk (or, sigh, sit, lol) with you. Just from the time I spend interacting with you via social media, I can tell it would be a really swell conversation.

      And man. I surely wish political discussions could be more like having a cuppa Joe and talking, you know? It’s all so unfriendly and tribal feeling to me . . .

  10. El, Every blog I read from you is better than the last. You are an amazing writer! If you run half as good as you write you must be an very elite runner! 🙂 LOL Keep up the wonderful writing.

  11. I think it’s important to remember in politics that everyone has a deal breaker issue that they vote about. Maybe it’s gay marriage, maybe it’s small government. But that’s the individual’s statement of what matters most to them. And each of us has a right to express that. What kills me is when someone represents opinions as fact, that will immediately shut down any sort of conversation with me.

    • I agree that we all tend to have deal-breakers. And I also agree that it is is annoying when people represent opinions as facts. At that point, there really isn’t anything to talk about. You can’t argue with an unfactual fact!