s summer fades, Labor Day marks new beginnings: vacationers trade adventures for comfortable routines, school children arrive eager to see their friends after a long absence, and on Capitol Hill, it’s back to politics.
Most congressman probably don’t greet their fellow public servants from across the aisle with the same buzzing excitement as students exchanging tales of packed summers. They often view their political rivals as unwanted colleagues rather than familiar friends. In an atmosphere of entrenched and sometimes bitter partisanship, perhaps we should remind ourselves of a particular form of friendship: civic friendship.
At its core, every friendship is based on some commonality. We are friends with people because they share a similar taste in music, a mutual appreciation of scotch, or our most core values. The highest friendship is based on reverence for what is noble and a mutual respect of sound character. We love our true friends for who they are, rather than the ancillary benefits they provide us. And while certain friendships are naturally fleeting (useful friendships often fade into mutual goodwill) this form of friendship is rare, precious, and enduring.
Civic friendship reflects this ideal and republican government elevates it as the basis for a nation. In most instances, states are founded on something which is more akin to familial ties rather than friendship. One people is distinguished by a shared ethnicity; their bonds are based on loyalty to one’s own without regard for character. If an individual is not born with Roman blood, he can never fully become a Roman.
In contrast, the only connection between citizens of a republic is that which is chosen. As Publius notes, it is the sacrifice of “the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, [that] consecrate[d] their Union.” The surrendering of the “last full measure of devotion” by so many of our forefathers and the common trials of the revolutionary war cemented the bonds first formed by the Declaration of Independence. The continuance of those ties and that commitment is now entrusted to us, their posterity and chosen children.
America was the experiment that dared to assert that one people could be formed by dedicating themselves to an idea. That idea was the maxim that “all men are created equal,” and any who subscribe to such a principle can become an American. This is a profound commonality, not dependent upon gender, race, ethnicity, or talents. It is grounded in our shared humanity and the notion that there is no single human being who is so superior that he can justly govern others without their consent. The Declaration’s self-evident truth was the north star of the founding; it threads its way through the orations of Lincoln, and finds a home in the pocket Constitution of many Americans.
But perhaps we are not dedicated to those principles and each other with the same fervency past generations felt. In today’s partisan and highly-charged atmosphere, people are dismissed simply on the basis of their politics. Colleagues and new acquaintances cannot imagine becoming friends with an individual who holds certain views and even established friendships have been strained or abandoned in this especially tumultuous time.
As citizens, we question if there is anything important on which we agree and if we belong to one another enough to constitute one country. We are grasping at more shallow traits in our search for unity: sexual orientation, gender, or race. But these attributes are more fitting as the foundation for other nations rather than the American republic, because they include certain individuals and exclude others based on an inherent characteristic. They highlight ways we are different rather than our fundamental similarities. It can be divisive to argue for “women’s” rights, particularly when those rights come at that expense of others, rather than rights full stop.
It is the mutual belief in our fundamental human rights, which is the basis for civic friendship in America, that can provide a check against such divisive partisan instincts. There is no demand that our friends be in absolute agreement with us in all matters, and every mistake does not irrevocably ruin our relationship. So as citizens in friendship, we can disagree, acknowledging that, as Jefferson remarked in a climate of similar dissention: “not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle.”