Friendship Trumps Tribalism

Even the seating arrangement pointed to tribalism; with Republicans sitting at one end of the dais and Democrats seated at the other end as the U. S. Senate Judiciary Committee debated the results of the preceding day’s interviews of Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

The tribalistic us-versus-them mentality that is the scourge of contemporary politics became painfully obvious as Democrats and Republicans threw verbal grenades at one another.

Finally, Republican Jeff Flake could take it no longer. He walked to the other side of the dais, motioning to Democrat Chris Coons; effectively saying “we need to talk.”

Why did Senator Flake take this initiative with Senator Coons? Because they were friends; having forged a genuine friendship in their travels together round the world.

The immediate result is well known. They reached a compromise where Flake said he would send Kavanaugh’s name out of committee but would be unwilling to vote for it on the full senate floor without a brief FBI investigation. As of this writing, the final result is unknown. Will this defection from tribalism continue?

Two post-hearing comments made by Senators Flake and Coons reveal the important lesson to be learned. Senator Coons reported that Senator Flake said the following to him after they left the hearing room: “We have to do something to show that we can heareach other.” Senator Coons then said the following about Senator Flake: “He really had doubts and was listeningto the argument that I and others had been making [To take a week for further investigation].”

Listening well to the contrary views of another person in an attempt to fully understand his/her position, really “hearing” what he/she is saying, is necessary if there is to be any hope for uncovering some common ground. And genuine friendship prepares the way for such genuine “hearing” and “listening” to take place.

Such reaching across the aisle has some marvelous precedents: Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen on civil rights; Ted Kennedy sand Orrin Hatch on child care; Bob Dole and George McGovern on food stamps; and John McCain and Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform.

But another post-hearing interview casts doubt on whether such reaching across the aisle will be more than a very rare exception in our current political climate. When Senator Flake was asked whether he would have taken this bold initiative if he was running for re-election, he quickly and emphatically answered “no,” explaining that “There is no value, currency or incentive to do so” (a slight paraphrase) if he had to seek re-election.

To fully address the question of how to incentivize such reaching across the aisle would take me too far afield in this brief musing. Suffice it to say here that one of my primary proposals for a “Way Forward” beyond the debacle of current American Politics that emerged from my recent eCircle on “Reforming American Politics” (which will be elaborated on in my forthcoming book Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective) is that politicians and their supporters need to “develop personal relationships of mutual understanding and trust by listening to and talking respectfully with those who disagree with them.” To develop such a personal relationship is to become a friend.

My ray of hope is that politicians on both sides of the aisle will take the time to become friends and that friendship will trump tribalism.