The politics of friendship

What friendship can learn from politics

There is no doubt that politics can learn many lessons from friendship. Particularly in such a divisive time, there have been many calls for politics to learn lessons of civility, gratitude, and kindness. Calls for such reform are indeed important, and the need for politics to learn these lessons may be quite dire. There is also value, however, in considering the other side of that coin: what lessons can friendship learn from politics?

The rhetoric surrounding the 2018 midterm elections—particularly the campaigns for increased voter participation—do, in fact, offer lessons for friendship.

The importance of this question is rooted in intentionality. With the push for increased voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, there is not simply a push for people to vote. Rather, there is a massive push for civic participation—to learn the issues, to care about the issues, and ultimately to make an educated vote on these issues. “Get Out the Vote” campaigns focus not just on being a voter, but on being an educated, intentional voter. Can we say the same of our friendships?

Often, friendship seems like something that we don’t have to actively decide to engage in, but rather is something that simply happens to us. This is particularly true in college, and especially at Notre Dame, where our friends for four years are often those who lived down the hall when we were freshman. There is nothing wrong with that—in many ways it is a truly beautiful reflection of the Notre Dame community. But it does raise questions of intentionality, questions that can gain understanding from a look to politics. Specifically, friendship should learn the lesson that while it might start off as something that is spontaneous and unplanned, it should not continue to that way. We should not merely have a multitude of acquaintances of varying depths, but rather should engage in active and meaningful friendships. Like one’s political knowledge, friendship must be maintained through continuous learning and care. It should not simply be the product of convenience or happenstance. There is great importance in discerning friendship and in educating our conceptions of it—of discerning friendship just as we discern political beliefs. Friendship is similar to politics in that it permeates our lives and shapes who we are and what we do.

Intentionality is just as important in friendship as it is in politics. For just as we don’t want uneducated voters, neither do we want uncaring friends. There is meaning in intentionality: a sense of desire, an active choice. A friendship without intentionality is incomplete and superficial.

Apart from providing lessons in the importance of intentionality, politics also can provide insight as to what that looks like. The rhetoric around “Get Out the Vote” campaigns is often focused on countering the conception that your vote does not matter. This election season, there has been attention not just on the importance of your vote, but on the reason it matters. It matters not because it is likely that your vote will be the tie-breaking vote. It matters because of both right and duty.

People do not just vote to see their interests actualized. That is certainly a large part of it—our government is in many ways propelled by individual interest. But the act of voting itself, while heavily rooted in individual interest, can not be explained by just that. For if voting was only done to see one’s interests actualized, why would people vote in elections when there was little chance to see their interests achieved? Why would Republicans vote in California, why would Democrats vote in Utah? Part of it is certainly to incite change. But part of it is almost as certainly tied to a sense of duty. A duty to use one’s voice. Duty to the nation, duty to the freedoms we have. People vote with a sense of duty to exercise our rights—not simply for our own interests but for respect of our community, for respect of those who have come before us and for those that will come after.

This sense of duty and respect as motivating our political participation can provide guidance for how we approach our friendships. Just as voting is bigger than simply serving our individual interest, friendship should also extend beyond individual interest. We shouldn’t view our friendships as lacking value when our friends can no longer do something for us; we shouldn’t cease to be intentional towards our friends when they can no longer do something for us. Rather, those circumstances perhaps make friendship more valuable—friendship as being beyond the self. That is not to say that we do not want reciprocity in friendship. For reciprocity is a fundamental pillar that defines a mutual and true friendship. But politics and in particular the motivation of voting, does shine light on how we might view that reciprocity—reciprocity in terms of intentionality and compassion, rather than reciprocity only in terms of interest.

Politics and friendship are by no means a perfect comparison, nor would we want them to be reflections of the other. Each have different roles in our communities and in our society. Yet, the goods of politics can and should be considered in how we understand the good of friendship. The role that we as individuals play in these communities—both communities of friends and in political spheres—should not be so distinct. At the end of the day, politics and friendships are both communities made up of individuals. Thus, we, as individuals, might learn how to approach one from how we approach the other.

Holly Bahadursingh is a senior studying political science, among many other things. She can be reached at Holly.Bahadursingh.1@nd.edu.

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