Can Conservatives and Liberals Be Friends?

Yes. But it takes work. And you'll sometimes still wonder if it's worth it.


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For nearly seven years now, Ben Boychuk and I have jousted weekly on the pages of many newspapers across the country. We co-write a syndicated political column — I’m the liberal, he’s the conservative, and every week we debate the issue du jour. Ben hates Obamacare, isn’t a fan of gay marriage, has very little nice to say about teachers’ unions, thinks rich people spending money like crazy to influence elections is a great expression of First Amendment values. I think he’s wrong about nearly everything, he thinks the same thing about me, and sometimes the never-ending disagreement can be pretty damned irritating.

Ben is also one of my best friends in the world. I think he’d say the same about me.

It’s not supposed to work that way. We live in terribly polarized times. Liberals and conservatives watch different TV, live in different places, and mostly think the worst of each other.

And if social media is any indication, we do a lousy job of trying to be friends with each other, assuming we’re even trying.  A new Pew study says that conservatives on Facebook are more likely than liberals to associate only with people who share their ideology. That would give liberals the edge in open-mindedness, maybe, except that liberals are decidedly more likely to dump an online friend over differences of political opinion.

All this might lead you to ask a most excellent question: Why even try? After all, politics is just a way of expressing our values, and how can you possibly be friends with somebody whose values are so different from yours?

I’m not actually sure I have a good answer. For me, it boils down to this: I grew up among conservatives, went to a conservative college, and became a liberal blowhard only relatively late in the scheme of things. If I shed my conservative friends, I get rid of the people who’ve known me longest, who’ve cared for me in vulnerable times. We share a country — and neighborhoods, and even families — with our rivals. I’m not quite willing to turn my back on all that — but your own mileage may vary.

Sometimes, I guess, maintaining friendships and relationships across the political divide is valuable simply because you decide to value it. Nothing trickier than that.

That’s not to say it’s easy. My conservative friends and I get on each other’s nerves all the time. Sometimes it would really be more enjoyable to just give up on each other, more comforting to retreat to endless viewings of Rachel Maddow, more affirming to read the blogs at Mother Jones.

How I keep myself from doing that:

• I remember that life is bigger than politics. That’s not to say there aren’t life-and-death situations touched on in our politics, but they’re more rare than you think. In the meantime, there’s also this to take our attention and share with friends: Parenting, family, reading, watching TV, good food, good alcohol, sports, and so much more. Most of my conversations with Ben don’t linger all that long on politics, but on whole swaths of the rest of our lives. It’s why the friendship is still doable, most likely.

• I remember that truth is elusive. In other words, I’m not right about everything — and neither are you. It doesn’t hurt to have a system in place (or  a friend nearby) to challenge your lazy thinking and bad assumptions. Just knowing you’re probably wrong about something means it’s likely that someone else is right about it. If you’re smart, you’ll keep listening.

• I realize there’s maybe a thing or two to learn from the other side. I’ve already written about conservative insights I think might benefit liberals. It’s mostly because I’ve had Ben in my ear for the better part of a decade that such thoughts ever occurred to me.

You shouldn’t maintain a friendship in the hope or expectation you’ll change your friend’s mind, though. That’ll just end in tears.

Understand: This is not a plea for some bland, middle-of-the-road mushy meaningless bipartisanship. I still believe that liberals are more right than conservatives about a lot of things: About gay rights, about acknowledging the role race has played in American history and present, about our general dovishness in the face of a Republican Party that still seems hell-bent on solving every problem it can with the force of arms.

But there’s more to life than politics. The world is bigger and better than that. So I’ll keep persisting with my conservative friends,  and hope they do the same with me — no matter how wrong they are about everything else.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.