Most of us have experienced the death, or serious wounding, of a close friendship. In recent years, however, the mortality rate of good friendships has risen dramatically, and the cause, to nobody’s surprise, has been political differences.
My 2017 article “It’s Still All in the Family” explored the strain of deep political divisions sown in families during the Vietnam War that began to resurface in the Trump era. Arguing about whether our president was saving or killing our democracy, or if he was a racist or misogynist, family members and friends began getting into heated arguments and/or walking on eggshells with each other, fearful of stirring the pot.
Much as it was in the late 1960s, millions of Americans feel like they’re living in a contentious war zone where the mere mention of one’s political leanings is likely to draw fervent disagreement . . . or violent opposition. Shocked, outraged, and heartsick by the blind ignorance of a friend, family member or co-worker they thought they knew, people have wound down or pulled back from some of their closest relationships. Verbally attacks, snatching “Black Lives Matter” and “Trump 2020” signs from a neighbor’s front yard, going conspicuously radio silent or unfriending a bridesmaid on Facebook, once cherished friends have allowed their affections to wither and die.
Looking back across the landscape of my own life the past several years, I’ve worked hard to understand and bridge my differences with people in general. With some friends, I’ve decided it’s best not to discuss politics until we have shown we can talk in civil, respectful tones. Deepening my understanding of their point of view and discovering righteous flaws in my own lines of reasoning has been a source of personal growth. Our ability to discover the common ground on which to build a better, safer and more just future for our kids, grandkids and communities has given me faith that partisan relationships don’t always have to end up in the Friendship Cemetery.
Don’t get me wrong—I’ve also discovered how to let go of “the unreachable deniers.” There are times I’ve had to draw the line in the sand and say “Enough,” with friends and family members who have, in my opinion, lost their sense of reason and gone off the deep end. Witnessing the venomous hatred, a long-time colleague had shown his gay brother firsthand was shockingly painful. And when speaking to him about it in a direct but caring way made things even worse, I decided it was time to say “Good-bye.”
Another thing I’ve discovered is how to limit the scope of friendships. Telling an old buddy, Dave, that I’ve enjoyed going to Padres games with for 25 years to “stop sending me political emails” was my way of limiting the things I’m willing to discuss with him. When he asked me “Why?” I told him that I valued his friendship but “with all due respect, we were just going to have to agree to disagree when it comes to politics.” After a pause, I went on to explain, “The Tucker Carlson’s of the world are, in my view, morons who enable Donald Trump and diminish America! Going to a Padres game when this pandemic is over, and talking baseball, will be fine. Discussing politics will not.”
As we begin the final 99 days before our presidential election, political differences and tensions are likely to heighten. Things are probably going to get worse before they get better—not only between Democrats and Republicans, but between the “Far Left” and “Left” and “Far Right” and “Right.” Family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers and baseball buddies may end up in the ICU or relationship cemetery. The radical polarization in our country may result in the death of friendships and tethering of families. Since our democracy depends on trust and collaborative spirit of family, friend, neighbor, community and civic ties, this may also diminish the faith we have in our republic to evolve into the better rather than lesser version of itself.
Differences in opinion about sensitive matters like politics and race may make us feel that we never want to speak to, or have anything to do with, someone. And in some cases, divorce is probably the best thing. Much like couples who find their way back from the brink, this need not always be the case. We can salvage and revive the relationships we value with people who have different perspectives than us by understanding what causes our relationships to wither and die.
Autopsies on fallen friendships reveal some of the following:
- The adoption of a radical form of rhetoric on the part of at least one of the friends
- Beliefs so deeply embedded that differences are interpreted as threats
- Not being willing to listen to one another long enough to understand the other person’s perspective
- An inability to explore/discover common ground
- A lack of compassion and empathy—an inability to understand people who think differently
- A pattern of objectifying rather than humanizing one another
- A failure to know others beyond their identification by race, religion, ethnicity, nation of origin, language, and so on.
- Friendships that were based on superficial commonalities and failed to deepen
- Self-righteousness, rigidity, and deep-seated bias on the part of one or both friends
- The decision to put one’s party over one’s country, and political affiliations over personal ones
Most of us have a friend or family member who has positioned themself as “Trumper” or “Never Trumper.” Proud citizens with American flags hanging off our porches live next door to neighbors with “Black Lives Matter” signs in their yards. Both consider themselves to be loyal citizens–and both believe they’re right about what’s best for our country. Sadly, and tragically, neighborly friendships like this—once a source of love, trust, and fun-filled holiday barbecues—will fail to find the common ground on which we stand as parents, neighbors, citizen’s and human beings. Although they may be salvageable, they will end up in the neighborhood cemetery and when they do, we will all suffer the loss.
As we enter the fourth quarter of this election year, there will be fierce competition to win the presidency. Some of us will wake up on November 4th (if the election has been decided) in jubilation. Others will be in a state of utter despair. However, there will be an opportunity for all of us—both losers and winners—to realize how dangerously polarized we’ve become as a nation, how it has diminished us, and how important it will be to work together to meet these challenges. Hopefully, we will summon the strength, courage, humility, and patriotism to join the ranks of our countrymen and women who are putting country above party. Putting peace, and justice, as well as the health and security of all Americans above politics is clearly the best path forward for our nation and the world.
Walking through the cemetery of lost friendships and surveying the wounds that have torn and tethered the fabric of our friendships, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and nation, will hopefully inspire us to become the better, more compassionate, collaborative versions of ourselves. Let us discover new frontiers of common ground on which we can all thrive so that when we look back and wonder whether we could have been better friends and citizens—and made better choices—we will smile proudly at ourselves, and one another.
In this moment of truth for the United States of America, let us do our best to rise above party politics and do what is in the best interests of our nation. Adding to the instability in our polarized nation by joining the ranks of fallen friends and contributing to the ideological civil war brewing in our nation is not a righteous form of patriotism. Nor is distancing ourselves and becoming arrogant and indifferent. We can become part of the solution, realizing what’s at stake and taking steps to manage our differences as respectfully and humbly as possible. Finding the common ground on which we can build a better America, person to person, taking the high road, giving it our best shot as we strive to bridge our differences, will bring out the best in us.
The future of our relationships, communities, legacies, and democracy now rests in our hands.