True friendship can withstand, heal political divide

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.

By Marty Rochester

As we begin a new year, I wish to reflect on an important but often overlooked word: friendship. In particular, what is the measure of true friendship?

There are several standard answers to the question, such as a willingness to go the extra mile to help someone close to you who is in need, or someone always being there for you in times of happiness or unhappiness.  

As Dionne Warwick sang, “For good times and bad times, I’ll be on your side forever more. That’s what friends are for.” Warren Buffett went even further, defining a true friend as someone who would risk life and limb by a willingness to hide you from the Nazis during the Holocaust. 

I would suggest a somewhat different metric: the willingness not to allow political differences to destroy the bonds one has built among one’s circle of chums.

You might think that this is not a very demanding test of friendship. However, in recent years, given the high degree of polarization in our political system, many friendships have become frayed and even terminated over political differences. 

I have tried never to let political views color my friendships. I lean conservative but am open to amiable relationships with a wide variety of folks who may have admirable qualities aside from their political ideology. Indeed, as a Jew and an academic, I have found myself interacting mostly with liberals, many of whom I like to think have been my friends. Sadly, though, some on the left have felt alienated from me and have distanced themselves from me. That is, they were not the true friends I thought they were. 

It hit home to me recently, when I celebrated my 75th birthday, what the definition of friendship is all about. I email regularly with Baltimore friends with whom I went to college and have remained in constant touch over a half century. Five of the six are liberal Democrats, and the sixth is a conservative who is an equally strong “never Trumper.” I have been on record as arguing that, although President Donald Trump was odious, so too were the Democrats, given their demonization of the police, playing of identity politics and other party positions. Suffice it to say, we have exchanged extremely intense, at times angry emails over the past four years. 

However, on the day of my birthday, every one of them sent me a greeting wishing me well as “a dear friend.” I appreciated tremendously their willingness to overlook our political disagreements. I did not take it for granted. I was reminded what true friendship looks like.

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In the post-Trump era, one might hope that polarization would be reduced and that friendships therefore might not be subjected to the strains experienced of late. After all, with Trump having exited the White House, one might expect “Trump Derangement Syndrome” on the part of liberals to dissipate. And as President Joe Biden seems to have nominated relatively moderate, centrist individuals to staff most Cabinet positions in his administration, one might expect conservative concerns over a radical left turn in government to also become somewhat muted. 

I fear that may be wishful thinking. Trump is likely to remain a continued, loud presence in the political system, even after his removal from Twitter.

And Biden’s administration is likely to feel ongoing pressure from the left wing of the Democratic Party, including extremists such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, to adopt a Green New Deal plan to reduce carbon emissions, an open borders immigration policy, and other such policies. Some of Biden’s recent executive orders already reflect this.  

It is nice that Biden has called for restoring unity. That would be more credible if he were willing to admit that the Democrats were as responsible for divisiveness as Republicans over the past four years, including questioning the legitimacy of a president-elect. 

Trump faces an interesting dilemma. As many commentators have correctly said, his success in attracting over 70 million votes in the November election owed not to what he said but what he did. That is, even many of his most fervent supporters often cringed at his tweets and other crude public statements but were willing to forgive him precisely because he made good on many policies they liked, including a reduction in taxes and regulations that contributed to a very strong economy pre-COVID, building a border wall that helped to limit the influx of illegal aliens, and other such actions. 

But now that he is out of office, he will be limited to his weak suit – words moreso than deeds – which will test how much popularity he can sustain. 

Biden will face his own dilemma. Although he may try to pursue a moderate, centrist path, the more he seeks compromise across the aisle, the more he risks antagonizing his leftist base and undermining his re-election chances. Yet, the more he moves left, he may undermine the Democratic Party’s electoral chances even more, given the huge number of voters in the middle who will be disenchanted.

No matter what happens over the next four years, one hopes that it will not put too much of a burden on friendships, which, if they are real and not superficial, should be able to withstand whatever political winds may be blowing.  

It is not just friendships but the political system itself that can benefit from a willingness to keep the conversation going no matter how heated the arguments. As the philosopher David Hume said, “Truth emerges from debate among friends.” 

We could all stand to be more civil – more friendly – today.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.