Short Relief: You've got to have friends

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The acrimonious 2014 campaigns and a 2012 opinion poll that found partisans don’t associate with their opposition has fueled debate about whether Republicans and Democrats can get along, much less be friends.

The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that only about 10 percent of partisans reported most of their family and friends belonged to the opposite party. That seems consistent with other observations, such as that members of Congress don’t socialize with members of the other party.

Writer Jonathan Chait and author Hugo Schwyzer argue that members of opposing political parties can’t be friends. That some things are more important than friendship; that a person’s politics are a valid basis for judgment; that their positions on issues like abortion rights, gay marriage, taxes, spending and government benefits are rational reasons for liking and disliking them; that friendship with a political opponent is a luxury that only the wealthy can afford because, for the wealthy, issues are abstractions, and the wealthy are insulated from the real-life consequences of their positions.

Columnist David Brooks laments such thinking. He sees friendship as one of the basic building blocks of society. He romanticizes that it may even have a basis in quantum entanglement theory.

Brooks argues that friends make friends better people by exposing them to different ideas and helping them make better decisions. People behave better, lest they disappoint their friends. Refusing to be friends because of political differences denies a person’s basic humanity, is irrational and prejudicial. Party affiliation is a sad reason to reject your child’s choice of mate.

Some ancient Greeks thought that friendship was one of several types of love. That friends were an expansion of ourselves. That we choose our friends the way that we choose how we want to be ourselves. We have different thoughts and desires and possibilities. We can’t pursue all of them. We choose some. They define us. The same goes for our friends.

President Abraham Lincoln said that even though passion may strain their bonds, northerners and southerners should not be enemies. They should follow the better angels of their nature and be friends.

Woody Allen joked that we have friends, even though they’re crazy, because we need the eggs (or something like that).

I grew up in a family full of Democrats. With a father who was a Republican, but who enjoyed nothing more than a vigorous debate. Extended-family holiday gatherings often ended with a crowd around the table arguing some matter or another of current events – usually, but not always, without engendering hard feelings.

Some of my friends are quite prominent liberal Democrats. We met in school and at work. Played sports together. Drove long distances and stayed up late arguing obscure points of philosophy. Lived together. Traveled together. I enjoy their company because they are smart, interesting and good-natured. By which I mean that they have a sense of humor and do not take themselves too seriously.

I have also encountered people who dismissed me as soon as they learned I was a Republican, without knowing anything else about me. From that fact alone, they pre-judged that nothing else about me was worth getting to know. But there is more to me than my politics, as there is to most people.

The key to friendship is awareness of our own imperfection and need for others. The enemy of friendship is arrogance, the belief you don’t need anyone else.

Friends make us better, happier, more complete. Because they are different from us. They have qualities we don’t. And, hopefully, we have some virtues to offer them in return. Every friendship requires that we overcome differences, some more than others.

Ultimately, we have limited capacity for friendship both in terms of number and nature. Some people may be too different to befriend. And political extremism may be one of those differences. But in most instances, ruling out a potential friend on the basis of their politics seems unnecessarily limiting.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.

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