Make Friends, Not Caricatures

Friends help cool a flaming political climate

Being alone can kill you. Loneliness is associated with premature death from all causes; increased risk of dementia, heart disease, and stroke; and a higher prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Which makes it all the more worrisome that friendships have been on the decline in America for decades. The percentage of people with “no close friends” has spiked 500% over the past 30 years.

Decades of research have confirmed that friendship is essential to happiness, fulfillment, and virtue. No great leap of logic is required to see that a lack of friends can also have political implications, especially if you don’t have friends with differing political views. As AEI scholar Daniel A. Cox has found, “People who are strong partisans tend to be more segregated socially.” Indeed, a majority of Democrats and Republicans say their core social network is composed exclusively of people with the same political opinions as them. 

While this might not seem like a problem to you (“why would I want to associate with people who want to destroy America?”), that’s the point. When you don’t have friends on the other side, your perception of the other side is likely a caricature. One poll found that 80% of Republicans think Socialists control the Democratic Party, while 80% of Democrats think racists control the Republican Party.

Republicans are better about ideological diversity among their friends than Democrats. But we’re not immune from caricature either. Absent firsthand experience with friends of the liberal persuasion, our primary source of knowledge about what they’re like and what they believe is likely from right-wing news outlets. 

Do you trust Rachel Maddow to accurately portray you or your conservative viewpoint to her audience? Me neither. I’m sure liberals feel the same about Tucker Carlson. Partisan news sources have an incentive to elevate the worst voices and highlight the most egregious qualities of the other side. Drag queen story hour is mortifying, but it’s not emblematic of the entire Left. Not all Democrats think like AOC. 

The point here is not to “both-sides” America’s hyperpartisanship problem. Stipulate if you like that the Left is as bad as you think it is, that they are the ones driving us apart. The fact remains: we won’t solve that problem by further self-segregating. The antidote to the divisive tactics of our ruling classes is a dedication, not to enmity, but to friendship.

Friendships can soften or eliminate political caricatures. They can also reveal surprising areas of common ground that the ruling classes don’t want you to see. At least, it did for me. I’m proof. I was an ideologue when I first got into politics: I knew everything. I was a disciple of Ben Shapiro, and if I talked to you—it probably meant you were too.

My political world changed when I transferred to USC. The very first friend I made was a Bernie Sanders supporter. We ate lunch together, studied together, and hung out together. Later, we even became roommates. Of course we talked politics, and of course we pushed each other’s buttons more than a few times.

But something happened that I had not expected. Because we were friends first and ideologues second, we respected each other. Because we respected each other, we listened to each other. And because we listened to each other, we moderated each other. I’m not sure either of us ever changed the other’s mind, but we did discover that we weren’t enemies. Those on the other side can be decent and intelligent people who care about the country just as much as I do.

I didn’t intend it, but most of my friends at USC were liberals. Those friendships made me humbler about what I thought I knew and undermined the stereotypes I had of my political opponents. This phenomenon isn’t unique to me. Cox confirms that not only are people with politically diverse friends more likely to question their assumptions and rethink their positions, they’re also “less likely to have extreme attitudes and develop stereotypes of the other side.”

Sure, some people are beyond the pale. But the Overton window of friendship should be a lot wider than people who share your political beliefs. If you’re tired of the Twitter spats and crave a healthier national dialogue, you can change that.

It’s easy to tweet an insult. It’s hard to say it to someone’s face. The physical places where relationships formed in the past are dwindling. Thanks to draconian lockdowns, for example, it’s that much harder to see a friend for lunch or dinner. 

But the good news is that there’s no need to wait for policymakers to give you permission to make friends. Just go out and do it. In this political climate, it’s a revolutionary act—and it’s good for your health.