Do you have any friends?
Luke Nathan Phillips is Publius Fellow for Public Discourse at Braver Angels. Thoughts expressed here are entirely his own, and should not be read as a formal statement of Braver Angels.
Do you have friends with whom you disagree on politics? Not just friends from different backgrounds, but friends whose opinions are substantively different from yours?
If yes, excellent. You’re part of the solution to one of our most pervasive problems—political polarization reaching into our personal lives and breaking apart our friendships.
Now among your friends with whom you disagree with on politics—this could include people who are close to you on issues, but separated by the artificial yet socially-real boundary lines of political, cultural, and personal identity—you might both be moderates; you might both despise your respective sides’ harshest voices for similar reasons. Or you might both oppose your respective sides’ out-of-touch elites and establishments. This is friendship across a political line, but it is based on a certain sort of common ground.
Go a little further. Do you have any friends with whom you have less political common ground? Friends whose backgrounds are not just different from, but counterposed against, yours? People who you might have good reason to be resentful or suspicious or contemptuous towards, on political or social grounds? People whose politics, malicious or stupid, are actively harmful? Are you friends with them?
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I would bet you are. If you’re like most people who work in or adjacent to political and policy activism, you probably have some token handful of friends, or maybe family or neighbors or coworkers, who are completely politically “other” from you. You probably also have larger groups of friendly acquaintances like this, too, and for all you despise their politics, you probably basically like and respect them as people.
This, too, is good. It can be harder to maintain these; these are the sorts of friendships where you might find it prudent never to talk about politics, and that can be all for the best. (There’s more interesting things in life, anyhow.) But by staying friends, even just casually, even with no reference to politics, you are maintaining civic friendship in its most basic, common, and fundamentally democratic mode, and the mode which the vast majority of our fellow Americans, when they too choose to hold America together in their personal lives and friendships, practice too.
But go one step further. We all have our “red lines”—personal convictions on moral, ethical, and political issues, which are dear and core to us as standards, which we hold ourselves to as a matter of belief and conviction. We stand by them not because they are universally recognized, but because they are so often contested, so often threatened by our political opponents. Politics is real, and sometimes other people cross our red lines, and if our convictions mean anything to us, we then must make a choice.
And so—among your friends with whom you disagree on politics, are there any who you know hold opinions or convictions which cross your red lines?
These are the hardest friendships to maintain, and the most commonly terminated. Many of us have cut people off over this, myself regrettably included. Discovering that someone you love and admire is, for example, unrepentantly racist, or spits on your faith, can be a shock.
Yet even here, I suspect that many of you are still friends of sorts with people whose opinions and beliefs cross your red lines. You might not have a coherent justification for it; you might merely have various loyalties and affections for them, on whatever basis, and to boot them out of your life would do less good than harm. You might feel weird about it; you might just not talk politics with them; you might just avoid their darker views, while keeping them as friends.
This, too, is good. It is scary and strange, and you might suffer socially and professionally for it. But if you do have friendships with such people, and value them as people, and keep those friendships despite the tension within and the pressure without, you are doing something very good.
You’re committing the radical act of keeping the personal and the political—so intricately intertwined, so fundamentally the same, yet so fundamentally distinct—in their right relations to each other, denying neither. You’re staying true to your politics, and true to your personhood. It doesn’t make straightforward sense, but it’s the right way to live. Friendship, first because of, then alongside, finally in spite of our duties to public life, is the noblest thing to which free people might aspire, the only real foundation of nationhood and of democracy itself.
Now, we’re in the National Week of Conversation. Keep those friendships front and center, don’t shed them; but if you in some way avoid talking about politics, we invite you to consider that productive, good-faith conversation about literally anything is possible, provided everyone comes in the right spirit, and agrees to the right rules. We at Braver Angels spend this week doing what we always do—convening Americans to sit around in circles and talk about their feelings, nothing more and nothing less, in our various formats of workshop and debate. We do this to remind each other, to remind ourselves, that there is another way to live.
For every friendship is an extended conversation, a drawn-out get-to-know-you session that drags on over months and years and lifetimes, which breaks down every barrier and humbles all the mighty, which literally changes lives. Marriages are rooted in it; mentorships grow into it; any human relationship, no matter how fleeting or transactional, is made beautiful when it becomes, as all can be, a friendship. And what is the American experience but the greatest conversation, and when we live up to it, the most beautiful of friendships?
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