Thursday, February 18, 2010

Friendship and Politics

Appearing today in a week-long symposium on Friendship at the Front Porch Republic:

What’s the Constitution between friends?”

--George Washington Plunkitt

We tend to think of friendship above all as a private set of relationships, distant and distinct from those shifting public interactions where interest, intrigue and even deception often reign. For Americans in particular, the idea that friendship should have relevance to public life seems a strange and even absurd idea. The American system, to a large extent, was officially designed to institutionalize mistrust. As James Madison argued in the most famous of the Federalist Papers – Number 10 – an “enlarged orbit” of the Federal system would have the salutary effect of increasing the number of interests in the political arena, as well as expanding the geographic area of the country, leading to great and even insurmountable difficulties for people seeking to form firm and ongoing political relationships. “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked, that were there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust, in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.” The size, scope, and sheer variety of interests will have the salutary effect (in Madison’s view) of generating mistrust, and we will view public life as an arena for the sheer combat of interests shorn of the dignity of trust, friendship, or love.

Yet, written only some seven years before the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation – which the Constitution ultimately replaced – began by asserting that the “states severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other” and that the origin of the Confederation was “better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different states of this union.” If Madison was to argue that the working basis of the Constitution would be its effective inculcation of mistrust among the citizenry, the original grounds for union lie in an aspiration to “Friendship.”

An older tradition – pre-dating the American Constitutional order, and persisting for a long time even within the context of that order – argued that public life was a sphere of dignity and even majesty precisely because it was the realm in which one of the highest human goods – friendship – could flourish. Moreover, at base it held that politics was based upon an aspiration to community and commonweal – involving the chastening of the demands of self and its interests – for the sake of others with whom one was bound in bonds of friendship and self-sacrifice. The measure of political life was not – as Harold Lasswell was to argue – “who gets what, when, and how” – but rather, as my teacher Wilson Carey McWilliams argued, above all “with whom.” 1 Citizenship was understood to be a discipline of friendship, the learned capacity to care for others outside oneself. Politics was the highest form of friendship, not its opposite.

Of course, this older tradition derives from an even older source, the ancient Greeks and above all Aristotle. Aristotle acknowledged that friendship was a fundamental human good, but further recognized that friendship was deepest sources of the bond that united citizens in their highest devotion to the common good. Thus, Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics that “if men are friends, there is no need of justice between them; whereas merely to be just is not enough - a feeling of friendship is also necessary.” (1155a). By this he meant that claims to justice between individuals are finally inferior to the relationships between friends. Justice demands only what is fair for me and you, and has deep in its origins the mistrust that you might be getting something more in the bargain than I am likely to be getting. Justice, then, is a standard of potential enemies, an even division of booty in which both sides are apt to view each other dimly and even with underlying hostility. Friendship, on the other hand, includes the willingness to get less than one deserves for the sake of another for whom one cares. The ultimate friendship –fittingly worth noting at the beginning of Lent – is that friendship of God to Man, and of Jesus to his fellow humans, who surely got less than he deserved and gave more than any godhead has ever been expected to offer to an inferior creature. As we pray every Sunday before receiving the body of Christ, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” We pray not for justice from God – for surely we would all burn eternally in Hell if justice was the measure – but for mercy, for love.

In turn, we are asked to emulate such generosity and charity to our fellow humans. This was the overarching message of what may have been the first political speech in (or at least near, or approaching) the new America – John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” a sermon he gave aboard the ship Arabella in 1630. Called upon to be “stewards” of God’s grace working in the world, as a company he calls upon his fellow Puritans to be “knit together by this bond of love." As they establish “a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical,” he insists to his fellow citizens-to-be that “care of the public must oversway all private respects by which not only conscience but mere civil policy doth bind us; for it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” If Locke and liberalism insists that our fundamental reason for agreeing to the creation of the political realm is to secure the rights of “life, liberty and estate,” Winthrop by contrast argued that “particular estates” are ultimately subordinate to “the public.” Thus we are called to see our selves as ultimately bound up in the shared fates with our fellow citizens (here echoing Aristotle that “a friend is another self”):

For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection; we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities; we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together: always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body….. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of the world upon us.

(That famous concluding line – drawn itself from the Gospel of Matthew – was used to good effect by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, but to completely opposite purposes to those of Winthrop. By that point, the language of Winthrop had been co-opted to defend the politics of Lockean liberalism. It was the second greatest political swindle in American political history, just after the assignment of the label “Anti-federalists” to the party of true federalism.)

For a long time in American political history, the reality of political friendship – otherwise excluded in the official founding of America – was most visibly alive in that unofficial institution that sprung up to correct one of the glaring weaknesses of the new Constitution, namely, political parties. Parties arose as the glue for political groupings in a landscape otherwise hostile to political friendship, and were above all in the first century of American politics the main institution that linked local to national issues, while at the same time preventing the national tendency toward homogenization from running roughshod over local concerns. For this very reason, it was the Progressives in the early 20th-century who devoted ferocious energy to eviscerating the power of the Parties, and, in particular, the emotional bonds that motivated political commitments and the local attachments that forestalled complete identification between the individual and the nation. Thinkers and politicians like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt saw themselves perfecting the ambitions of Hamilton in the creation of “a national system” (Federalist 23). The main obstacles to the prevention of that national system – particularly one that would increase economic and military power – were local allegiances. Particularly as manifested in political parties, these needed to be eliminated through “reform.”

The Progressive reform movement gave rise to some of the great political essays in modern times - that is, by opponents to the Progressives who saw (in ways that are not longer evident to us) the main impetus for these “reforms” and who rightly discerned that the object was not the elimination of corruption, but rather a broadside against a conception and practice of politics based in local forms of loyalty, commitment, and commonweal (I would place in their number such relatively well-known authors as Randoph Bourne, Jane Addams, and Josiah Royce, and lesser lights such as George Washington Plunkitt, H. C. Merwin, and Henry Jones Ford). Perhaps among the greatest and most remarkable political science articles written at this time – if not exactly “forgotten,” since it’s doubtful that it was ever well-known – was an essay published in 1902 by the NYC settlement house reformer Mary Kingsbury Simkohvitch entitled “Friendship and Politics.” 2 In that remarkable article - unpublishable in the same journal today, which is now dominated by "empirical" political science - Simkohvitch diagnosed the motivations and ignorance of the “reformers” who sought to “solve” the problems of tenement poverty from the top-down, “working on the people, not with them” (199).

Above all, she discerned that the “reformer” – outside the actual interactions between local people – comes from a position of assumed superiority. In sentiment, if not language, that might have come from a Tea Party critic of government-from-a-distance, she wrote,
[The reformer] is distrusted, like every foreigner. He comes from a different environment. His English is a different tongue from the people he desires to reform. His experience is, for the most part, extremely limited. He is absolutely uncolloquial. He is unfamiliar with all those elements that make up the great traditions of party loyalty. He does not sympathize with those traditions, even if he knows them. He is an outsider. He is working on the people, not with them. He wants them to be different from themselves and more like him. In all this the position of unconscious superiority is alienating in its effect…. Added to the doubt of the reformer’s substantial merits there is often as well the dark suspicion that he is a decoy, a sort of forerunner of the rule of the capitalist, a man clever with words but leading one on to ruin. [198-9]

The real relationships of people in their localities is to be replaced by rationalized and approved “programs” – “justice” is to replace “friendship. Much of the domestic politics of the 20th-century has been precisely motivated by this ambition, to displace local loyalties, and with them, attendant limitations upon those loyaties, with an abstract loyalty to nation (and, now, to the “international community”) in which concrete relations are replaced by government programs. Justice – the inferior standard of mistrustful individuals – liberates us to pursue our interests without concern for the loyalties to places and communities. Fellow citizens become more often viewed as competitors and even enemies than friends: as Aristotle predicted, where civic friendship wanes, lawsuits fill the emptied public space. Accordingly, our general mistrust for the public grows, and our relationship to law becomes one in which we see it as an imposition from outside – by “foreign” elites – rather than as emanating from the interaction of fellow citizens with a shared and discernible concern for commonweal. Our “liberation” from the bonds and limitations imposed by friendship in politics leads to the rise of the felt sense of political tyranny. This analysis, of course, echoed Tocqueville's understanding that the rise of "soft tyranny" came not from "Statism" as such, but the isolation and weakness experienced by modern democratic "individuals."

Above all, what has been displaced is a different set of ends or purposes for human life. A politics based in more local and ongoing relationships among people who see their fate as shared and bound together makes substantive space for goods that go beyond utility, wealth and power.

Thus expendable are the goods of family, community, culture and tradition, the attendant practices of leisure, learning, art (especially shared story and song), and worship. Indeed, it is the shared bonds formed and deepened in these contexts and practices that chasten the more sinful, utilitarian, and self-interested motivations that have today come to dominate our understanding of politics and life itself. Politics today is about securing one's interests and the attendant need for growth in all of its forms, above all, the growth of power. However, to achieve this most unnatural form of political life, a concerted effort was needed to eliminate the reality, and even possibility, of friendship in politics. For those who would seek the restoration of republican liberty, at the forefront of their concerns should be to restore friendship to its rightful place – in the public square 3


1. Harold Laswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When and How? (1935); John Schaar and Wilson Carey McWilliams, "Uncle Sam Vanishes," New University Thought 1 (1961): 61-68.

2. Mary Kingsbury Simkohvitch, “Friendship and Politics,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 17, no. 2 (July 1902): 189-205.

3. For a lengthier treatment of these themes, see Patrick J. Deneen, “Friendship and Politics, Ancient and American” in Friends and Citizens: Essays in Honor of Wilson Carey McWilliams (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 47-66. Much of the essay is available online here.

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