Can Liberals And Conservatives Ever Be Friends?

For the sake of the republic, we have to be.

CHARLOTTE, NC - AUGUST 24: Republican National Convention protesters and counter protesters clash at the Resist RNC 2020 protest rally at Marshall Park on August 24, 2020 in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina. The Republican Party holds their national convention during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
Octavio Jones/Getty Images

When’s the last time you saw your liberal friends? Do you have any left? More and more people are telling me that the answers to these questions are “over a year ago” and “no.” This is not for lack of trying. But the politicization of COVID-19 means that even if you invite a 50-50 crowd to your next party, you’re likely to end up with a bunch of “yes” RSVPs from the Republicans, and a chorus of “are you out of your mind?” from the Democrats. There are of course exceptions to this general trend. But I’m not the only one who’s accidentally found himself at all-red parties recently.

We were already, even before the lockdowns, feeling pretty alienated from one another in this country. When I log onto Daily Wire discussions these days, I frequently get asked how to deal with longtime friends or even family members who won’t speak to conservatives anymore because they find their views too abhorrent. It’s not just coronavirus: cancel culture, too, is tearing us apart.

This painful personal experience is also a dire threat to our country. We’re not used to thinking in America about the political character of our friendships, because the going assumption for most of our lives has been that friendship goes deeper than who you vote for. In a strict sense this ought to be true: I remember the wonderful camaraderie I observed growing up between my father (famous to readers of this website as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative) and our next-door neighbor, a stone-cold lib. They’d play tennis together, argue vociferously, and smack each other heartily on the back when all was said and done. 

That’s friendship. Seeing it shaped me, and helped determine the friends I chose in high school and college: I have always taken for granted that men, especially, not only endure but positively enjoy relationships in which they can get into screaming matches with each other and nobody’s feelings are hurt. You need something to wrestle over, to fight about. It’s part of the fun.

But the premise of all such friendly disagreement is a deeper harmony: we can pal around with our political opponents only if there are assumptions taken for granted between us, so basic they go unspoken and even unnoticed. No friend, however strenuously he argues, will abandon the other. Each will be at hand in times of fear and anguish, as my father was at hand when his friend next-door suffered terribly from cancer. Neither of them had to ask this of the other: it was a given. 

Friends wish one another well, and mean it; they agree in essence on what is good, even if they disagree about how to achieve it. When this kind of foundation-level union exists among not just two or three individuals but whole communities of people, it is called consensus. At a national level, consensus is what makes all free government possible. People can debate each other, at home and on the public stage, when they agree basically about what the country should achieve. When they agree about what is good.

That is why Aristotle wrote that “to foster friendship is considered the distinctive function of politics.” If this sounds odd to us, it’s because we think of “politics” merely as a set of arguments about this or that issue. We consider it a secondary occupation, one of the things in life about which we can safely disagree. For many of us, it’s something we compartmentalize — it shocks us to find it getting in the way of friendship, which is much deeper and about much more than ballots. But real politics, in the deeper sense, goes right down to the basic structure of our lives together—that is the meaning of the Greek word politikē. So Aristotle viewed the building block of the state as the family — from this smallest unit of community, we build outward to make rules about how we deal justly with extended relations, neighbors, and rulers. 

At this deeper level of politics, we cannot disagree and remain friends. On the basic questions — how much freedom should we have, and what kind? How should criminals be treated? How should death be handled? — we must either agree, or cease to be a country. Thus, fostering the basic premises of friendship — the shared goals and values which make all other disagreement possible — is the first and most important task of politics.

Our political leaders, aided and abetted by our press, are in the business of doing almost exactly the opposite of this. In 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama said these famous words:

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We all longed to believe him. But by 2013, Obama was musing that “When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son.” Why Martin specifically, and not any other American teenager? Because Martin was black: “there are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they go shopping. That includes me.

Fair enough — but why should Obama’s racial experience keep him from identifying also with cops of all colors, like David Dorn and Claudia Apolinar, who have been targeted for ferocious violence and unfounded accusations? Obama — and after him ideologues like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X. Kendi, and Robin DiAngelo — gradually became more and more confident about displaying more fealty to racial categories than to American unity. 

So here we are in 2021, when Joe Biden’s invitations to “unity” now ring laughably hollow in light of his own racial pandering and his party’s aspirations to criminalize conservatism. The fissure that our ruling classes have hacked away at from the top for years now goes all the way down to the ground: we are screaming at one another in grocery stores over masks and restrictions because we do not see eye-to-eye on the most basic questions: who are we? What is the good life? How free should we be? 

Our founders understood how essential civic friendship was to keeping republican government alive. James Madison wrote in 1792 about “banishing every other distinction than that between enemies and friends to republican government.” The result of this one basic unity would be “a general harmony” among all believers in liberty “wherever residing, or however employed.” If we have lost that unity, it is because we have lost that friendship.

We cannot peaceably disagree anymore because the things about which we are fighting are not things about which disagreement can be peaceable. Arguments about God, freedom, and personhood are not mere “political” arguments in the modern sense of disagreements about how to put shared values into practice. They are political in the Aristotelian sense, touching on what we’re even about and why we consider ourselves one people and one country.

Those who read my work or listen to my podcast know that I abhor all thought of civil war. I will not even begin to discuss it except as a desperate measure, because a desperate and bloody measure is what it is. It ought to be our very last resort. But the principles I have outlined here go some way to explaining why civil war is something more and more people now fear and contemplate. If our friendship fails, what other option do we have?

I think the clue to an answer is in Madison’s key distinction, “between enemies and friends to republican government.” It is easy, and our press makes it easier, to imagine that all libs are blue-haired monsters and committed enemies to republican government. But the sorrow I hear expressed among conservatives over losing liberal friends suggests to me something different: we wouldn’t mourn the loss of those friendships unless the people in question seemed to us within reach of a better way. 

We are terribly divided, yes. And yes, we are pitted against one another by cynical autocrats. But how many Americans, of either political party, are really ready to commit to unmaking our entire regime? A growing number, perhaps, but in my experience still a minority. For every liberal friend I have lost, I still have five who will talk to me and have the tough conversations that need having. They are ready, as I am, to ask seriously what we are about and why we share this country. Switch off Twitter for a moment, silence the yammering of the pundits and the hacks, and the people around you may yet be more amenable to reason than you have been given to believe.

This, at the very least, is something we have to try. It is a rare thing: an essential area of our politics over which we ourselves have control. It is in our power—not Joe Biden’s, not the New York Times’s, but ours — to build meaningful friendships that can endure the assaults of our contemptible ruling class.

Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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