Bipartisan Friendships in Politics: A Disappearing Phenomenon?

Like many who live in or were raised in West Virginia, I am grieving the sudden death of Larry Border, the Republican Minority Whip in the House of Delegates. He was the gentlest Whip I have met in my life, and was known among his fellow Republicans as the “Den Mother” because of the time he took to mentor new members. I hate to see the state lose such a decent, intelligent and talented leader, and more generally I hate to see anyone who should have had many happy years of grandchildren-hugging in front of him instead struck down without warning at the age of 60. I am grateful I got to work with Larry Border, and for whatever angel made me drop him a note just a few months before he died saying how much I respected him and that I was glad my home state had a leader like him.

Delegate Don Perdue, the Democratic Chairman of one of the committees on which Border served, wrote a sweet tribute to him that closed with these words: “I pray the river was narrow where he crossed, and his welcome worthy of the man”. Don was among a number of Democratic Delegates and Senators who considered Border a friend.

On top of the personal loss, I feel another level of sadness which is political, namely that over my lifetime the number of elected officials whom I could describe as “everybody’s friend” (think Bob Michel) has shrank almost to nothing at the federal level. Consequential friendships across the aisle, such as that of Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy, seem quaint to many modern observers, or even a matter to raise suspicion.

My disappointment about the declining number of cross-party friendships in Washington doesn’t come from sentimental feelings about the loneliness of elected life (officials still have as many friends as ever, just in more narrowly tailored circles) or dewy-eyed faith that there aren’t really any irresolvable ideological differences between the parties that friendship can’t overcome (of course there are). Rather, it’s because I recognize that many significant federal political achievements depended in some way on a friendship between a powerful Republican and a powerful Democrat. Because there was risk in the new policy, there had to be trust, and because the going was difficult, there had to be support and encouragement. These are qualities that evolve out of friendship. As federal elected officials move to socializing and making friends almost entirely “with their own kind”, an essential element for future political accomplishments is lost.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “Bipartisan Friendships in Politics: A Disappearing Phenomenon?”

  1. What’s the name of this blog hmm? Could it be relevant? Why yes it could. Once Republicans began inventing their own set of “facts” and demonizing anyone who disagreed with those “facts”, then friendship, irregardless of philosophical or even banal political differences, became impossible. This had personal impact on my relationships because I have always considered myself an Eisenhower/Rockefeller “Republican”. In my personal experience not one person who supported Bush in the first term has ever admitted that at least mistakes were made. Quite the contrary. The modern Republican is a fully ductile material, suitable for reforming/reanimation into whatever shape the message of the day requires.

    I encourage people to peruse the comments on Econbrowser, doesn’t matter what post. Clearly Republican operatives are being paid to swamp the comments section with children’s quality bullshit lies. Now, if you give a hoot about the truth, how can you respect the people who generate the money that pays for the people who incessantly cut and paste those stupid lies?

    There is a lot of ruin in a nation, a cliche, but thanks to our Republican “friends” it looks like we’re going to have a go at finding out how much ruin the US can withstand. Wheeee!

  2. If you want respectful disagreement and possible reconciliation, it does not help to characterize the opposition as “Teabaggers” or suggest that they want to push granny over a cliff. Individuals may move one way or another on the free market to socialism continuum as they change their views on the effectiveness of market and political feedback mechanisms.

  3. Pushing Granny over the cliff requires a tougher, less friendly sort of Republican, but business is business, eh?

  4. Everybody dies. The government cannot confer immortality. From a consumer’s point of view, socialism and markets differ in the role that organized violence (the State) plays in an industry.

  5. “many significant federal political achievements depended in some way on a friendship between a powerful Republican and a powerful Democrat.”

    Certainly true. Which is why Republicans, who generally didn’t WANT those particular “federal political achievements”, have grown so suspicious of any of their office holders who seem too friendly with Democrats. Might be different if occasionally those “achievements” were something Republicans liked.

    But the Brady bill and ‘assault weapon’ ban, campaign censorship, I’m having trouble thinking of any of these achievements that Republicans would actually approve of. Accordingly, I’m having a hard time seeing the decline in inter-party friendships as a good thing.

  6. Brett: You definitely speak for a number of people in what you say, many in the Gingrich revolution felt the same way when they dethroned Bob Michel. But I don’t think that was good for the country.

    Malcolm: Why are you always so nasty AND wrong? I have never in my life called anyone a “Teabagger” nor ever said that anyone wanted to push granny over a cliff. If you can’t respond to the content of what someone writes, and do so in a civil fashion, please don’t comment.

  7. If you read “politics” for “religion” in the following passage, I think it describes where we have arrived in this country politically. I guess once upon a time we were all Americans first, but now that description seems to be defunct, and we are all caught up in, as Delmore Scwhartz put it in his poem The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me, “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere,” all busily boxing our brothers in the hate-ridden cities.

    The greatest of all the mysteries of life, and the most terrible, is the corruption of even the sincerest religion, which is not daily founded on rational, effective, humble, and helpful action. Helpful action, observe! for there is just one law, which, obeyed, keeps all religions pure—forgotten, makes them all false. Whenever in any religious faith, dark or bright, we allow our minds to dwell upon the points in which we differ from other people, we are wrong, and in the devil’s power. That is the essence of the Pharisee’s thanksgiving—“Lord, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are.” At every moment of our lives we should be trying to find out, not in what we differ from other people, but in what we agree with them; and the moment we find we can agree as to anything that should be done, kind or good (and who but fools couldn’t) then do it; push at it together: you can’t quarrel in a side-by-side push; but the moment that even the best men stop pushing, and begin talking, they mistake their pugnacity for piety, and it’s all over.

    John Ruskin

    From The Mystery of Life and Its Arts
    From Sesame and Lilies

  8. Malcolm,

    or suggest that they want to push granny over a cliff.

    Isn’t it the GOP that has accused Democrats of wanting to “push granny off a cliff,” with their hysterical talk of “death panels?”

  9. I think that the movement headlined by the “Moral Majority” has a lot to answer for in this regard. You can argue that people are wrong, that what they’re doing is bad for the country, even that they’re unduly influenced by one interest group or another, and still admit them to your circle of friends. But when you make a career move of calling them out as personally evil, friendships become more difficult to sustain. And existing friendships do indeed become cause for suspicion, because they nurture the belief that all of politics is really just pro wrestling, with scripted outcomes that have nothing to do with the audie — er, constituents’ wishes. (And that alienation, of course, has historically been a good thing for one of the major parties.)

    I’m not sure, though, that the characterization about risk is accurate. Politicians don’t generally risk their jobs with the success of failure of particular programs; at most they risk them on certain headline votes. But what we have seen in recent decades is another kind of risk, namely whether compromises once achieved will be honored. And that’s a place where friendship is important, because repeated promise-breaking will ultimately destroy friendships.

  10. You can argue about his level of success, but Obama clearly wants to return us to the era whose passing Keith laments.

  11. (Malcolm): “If you want respectful disagreement and possible reconciliation, it does not help to characterize the opposition as “Teabaggers” or suggest that they want to push granny over a cliff.
    (Keith): “Malcolm: Why are you always so nasty AND wrong? I have never in my life called anyone a “Teabagger” nor ever said that anyone wanted to push granny over a cliff. If you can’t respond to the content of what someone writes, and do so in a civil fashion, please don’t comment.
    That was a generic “you”. A Democratic ad portrayed Republicans as pushing granny over a cliff. Democratic shills like Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow called Tea Partiers “Teabaggers”. So did President Obama, iirc.

  12. ‘Teabag them before they teabag you’. Sending teabags to Congress. Etc.

    As for dishonest propaganda about Medicare/-aid, please see ‘GOP, 2009’.

  13. In Federalist 10 James Madison made the point that when factions organize closely together, especially when they are along the basic rich/not rich divide, a democracy’s days are likely numbered. The entire logic of federalist 10 is an argument against strongly ideological politics and the advantages of focusing on issues where compromise is possible and in the long run desirable.

    The break down in friendships across lines is indicative of Madison’s worries coming to pass in the US. The US system was designed before political parties existed, and while ours were what we political scientists call “weak” parties, they did more good than harm. But when they move to a European model of high cohesion, party line votes, and such, while government is called upon to do a lot, we are entering dangerous territory. It is ironic that those preening themselves as ‘conservatives’ and ‘strict constructionists’ have moved farthest in this unAmerican direction.

  14. Malcom’s comments are good examples of the incredible intellectual sleaze and dishonesty that has now become a defining characteristic of the American authoritarian right.

    1. Teabagging was actually “your” first description until “you” learned it was done by gays in ways you did not like. http://www.politicususa.com/en/olbermann-teabagger

    2. Since you believe in collective guilt, I suggest you look back at some posts “you” made in the name of Ann Coulter some years back, where “you” advocated reminding liberals that “you” can kill them. http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=389×3696147

  15. This post brings to mind the related subject of cross-party friendships, or even relationships. As far as I know, the public has become not only more partisan, but geographically so. I can’t help but think this is central to larger political debate.

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