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Friends And Ex-Friends

I just saw this on Twitter:

He’s right about that. I found out today from an old friend that on the Facebook group of my high school graduating class, someone who had been one of my best friends there was denouncing me as a “fascist” and “contemptible” because of that NYT story quoting me about Hungary, and criticizing wokeness. This was surprising. I knew this old friend was a man of the Left, but I never thought he was the kind of person who would place politics above friendship. But I was wrong.

This is a guy who has suffered in his life. His academic career suffered a major setback, from which it has not recovered, and never will. His marriage ended. Horrible stuff. Though he lives far away, I tried to support him through this, as friends do. I don’t care what your politics are — I will never abandon a friend. But many people don’t live by that standard.

A few months ago, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper in support of US Sen. Bill Cassidy’s vote to impeach Trump after the January 6 event. I know Cassidy somewhat, and believe him to be a man of principle. I hoped that as a nationally known conservative writer who lives here in Louisiana, I should stand up for him publicly while he is being dogpiled by other conservatives. The morning the letter appeared, I received a text from a friend of over 40 years, ending our friendship. She is on the far left politically, but again, so what? She’s been a good friend. Now, though, she was ending the friendship. I asked her if she was aware that I was writing in support of Trump’s second impeachment. Yes, she said, but I said in the letter that Trump had done some good things in his term — and that was unforgivable.

Forty years of friendship gone, because I do not hate Trump with perfect purity. I don’t even hate Trump, or any politician. What a loser I must be.

“It’s everywhere,” a conservative academic friend of mine told me today, as we were talking about people ending friendships over politics. He told me some stories. It’s not just left-wing people doing it to right-wing people. Purity policing is happening all the time in certain right-wing circles. Aside from the moral scumminess off people writing off their friends over politics, I have to wonder why, on the Right at least, intelligent conservatives think that we can afford to do that as a tactical matter. We control no institutions, and among us Christian conservatives, at least, we are shrinking in numbers and influence. This is not going to get better anytime soon, barring conversion. But please, let’s go ahead and patrol our own to wipe out any dissent.

Back in 2002, when I was working at National Review, one of my colleagues petitioned Rich Lowry not to publish as a cover story my essay about crunchy cons. Why did this man not want that piece to run? According to an NR friend who was party to these discussions, because it would give liberals the idea that conservatives were not united. To his great credit, Rich published the piece, but that taught me something about some people in political journalism and academia. They are not in it to explore ideas, to discuss them, to compare them and work through them. For them, it’s all about power.

Nevertheless, I have observed that of late people on the Left are far more willing to end friendships over politics than people on the Right. To be clear, I would end a friendship over politics only if the political friend was obnoxious and wouldn’t shut up about politics — but then, that wouldn’t be ending a friendship over politics per se, but over someone becoming a fanatic, and disrespecting me. I would end a friendship with someone who behaved the same way over religion. A friend of mine told me in a phone conversation this week, “We used to go over to visit [a married couple] all the time, but we got sick of it because all they could do was complain about the people they hated. Every conversation always came back to whoever they were made at.”

One of the loveliest men I know is a friend who is very liberal, but who understands that politics are only part of life. I no longer live in his town, but when I did, we loved getting together to talk about our kids, travel, books, music, whatever. We never discussed politics, because why do that? We didn’t see eye to eye on either politics or religion, but we shared so much in common, and that’s what we leaned in to. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Weren’t most people like this, until social media came into existence, and wokeness showed up?

Today the liberal NYT columnist Tom Edsall writes about academic studies showing that conservatives are happier than liberals. Here is a long excerpt; I apologize for the length, but it’s hard to quote it in shorter bits:

Two similarly titled papers with markedly disparate conclusions illustrate the range of disagreement on this subject. “Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?” by Jaime Napier of N.Y.U. in Abu Dhabi and John Jost of N.YU., and “Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals, but Why?” by Barry R. Schlenker and John Chambers, both of the University of Florida, and Bonnie Le of the University of Rochester.

Using nationally representative samples from the United States and nine other countries, Napier and Jost note that they consistently found conservatives (or right-wingers) are happier than liberals (or left-wingers).

This ideological gap in happiness is not accounted for by demographic differences or by differences in cognitive style. We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality — a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals.

Napier and Jost contend that their determinations are “consistent with system justification theory, which posits that viewing the status quo (with its attendant degree of inequality) as fair and legitimate serves a palliative function.”

One of Napier and Jost’s studies “suggests that conservatism provides an emotional buffer against the negative hedonic impact of inequality in society.”

In addition, they argue that rising levels of inequality have “exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer.”

A very different view of conservatives and the political right emerges in Schlenker, Chambers and Le’s paper:

Conservatives score higher than liberals on personality and attitude measures that are traditionally associated with positive adjustment and mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs, and generalized belief in fairness. These constructs, in turn, can account for why conservatives are happier than liberals and have declined less in happiness in recent decades.

In contrast to Napier and Jost’s “view that conservatives are generally fearful, low in self-esteem, and rationalize away social inequality,” Schlenker, Chambers and Le argue:

Conservatives are more satisfied with their lives, in general and in specific domains (e.g., marriage, job, residence), report better mental health and fewer mental and emotional problems, and view social justice in ways that are consistent with binding moral foundations, such as by emphasizing personal agency and equity.

Liberals, Schlenker and his co-authors agree,

have become less happy over the last several decades, but this decline is associated with increasingly secular attitudes and actions (e.g., less religiosity, less likelihood of being married, and perhaps lessened belief in personal agency).

They go on:

Conservatives generally score higher on internal control as well as the Protestant Work Ethic, which emphasizes the inherent meaningfulness and value of work and the strong linkage between one’s efforts and outcomes, and is positively associated with achievement. Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to see outcomes as due to factors beyond one’s personal control, including luck and properties of the social system.

These differences have consequences:

Perceptions of internal control, self-efficacy, and the engagement in meaningful work are strongly related to life satisfaction. These differences in personal agency could, in and of themselves, explain much of the happiness gap.

So too, in their view, does the liberal inclination to view morality in relative, as opposed to absolutist, terms, have consequences:

A relativist moral code more readily permits people to excuse or justify failures to do the ‘‘right’’ thing. When moral codes lack clarity and promote flexibility, people may come to feel a sense of normlessness — a lack of purpose in life — and alienation. Further, if people believe there are acceptable excuses and justifications for morally questionable acts, they are more likely to engage in those acts, which in turn can create problems and unhappiness.

Perhaps most significant, Schlenker, Chambers and Le found that while both liberals and conservatives place a high value on fairness, they have diverging definitions of the concept:

Liberals define fairness more in terms of equality (equal outcomes regardless of contributions) and turn to government as the vehicle for enforcing social justice and helping those in need. Conservatives define fairness more in terms of equity (outcomes should be proportional to contributions), rely on free markets to distribute outcomes, and prefer individuals and private organizations, not government, to contribute to the care and protection of those in need.


Perhaps the most thought-provoking statement on these issues comes from Viktor Frankl in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” published in 1946, a year after Frankl’s liberation from a concentration camp.

Frankl contended that meaning in life comes through work, love and suffering, and that all these involve the subordination of self:

Man is originally characterized by his “search for meaning” rather than his “search for himself.” The more he forgets himself — giving himself to a cause or another person — the more human he is. And the more he is immersed and absorbed in something or someone other than himself the more he really becomes himself.

The implication favors liberals.

Wait … what?! The implication does not favor liberals. The implication favors people who are not egotistical, who find their meaning in dedicating themselves to something greater than themselves. You can find them on both sides.

I admit to being skeptical of any attempt to quantify happiness, which is a subjective judgment. Nevertheless, if it is true that conservatives are happier on balance than liberals, I think it has to do with two basic things.

First, conservatives tend to accept that the world will never be perfect, and find it easier to live with imperfections. Napier and Jost say that “the rationalization of inequality” is why conservatives are happier than liberals. They make it sound like conservatives don’t care about inequality, and that’s why they are happier. Could it be, though, that conservatives understand that it is impossible to create a world of total equality, and that it is folly even to try? Improve things where you can, but don’t ever think that perfection is achievable, because it’s simply not. That’s not how the world works. We have ample evidence from the socialist and communist experiments of the 20th century what happens when you try to create a world of total economic equality. It makes everybody poor, and even then hierarchies and classes emerge, because that is human nature.

Second, conservatives tend to care less about political crusading. I’m not talking about your Uncle Kenny who watches Fox all the time and won’t shut up about the libs. I don’t know any ordinary conservatives who would cut off a friend over their liberal politics. Yet in my own life, I’ve just told you about two of my oldest friends who have done that to me just this year. I hear anecdotally from conservatives all the time who report the same thing. I’m sure that it happens sometimes the other way — in Nashville three years ago, a campus pastor told me a student in his congregation had been cut off by her parents because she opposed Trump — but I far, far more often hear about it happening from left to right.

My mom and dad did not share my politics. We were all conservatives, but they thought of me as some kind of liberal, even before Trump came around. This was because their idea of “conservative” was set by whatever Fox News was saying. I remember once criticizing then-President George W. Bush in their presence, and my mother called me a liberal — and meant it.

That’s beside the point. The point was that we realized that our relationship was more important than politics, so we decided at some point just not to talk about politics. This was easy to do. It’s very easy to do, in fact! But I have found over the years that some of my lefty friends cannot help themselves. They have to get on their political high horses, and find ways to bring every conversation around to politics, if only to let me know that they know I’m a right-wing louse, and that I shouldn’t think I was fooling anybody. I have eased myself away from those people — not because of their politics, but because they couldn’t allow our friendship to exist outside of politics.

Here’s a counter example. In my hometown, when I moved back in 2011, I met the man who had served as Episcopal priest for years there. He is a Latino immigrant. At some point I learned that he had been in a poker group with one particular man  in town — a man who had since passed away. This old man was known for his far-right views, especially on race. I asked the Latino priest how on earth he managed that relationship. He said that the old man was all right once you got to know him. And I thought: Wisdom, let us attend! These two men — the Latino immigrant pastor and the white far-right retiree — were very far from sharing the same views on politics or anything else. But they shared the same town, and found a way to get along, somehow. I gained a lot of respect for that priest that day. I never knew the old white man, but I would not be surprised if the mercy of friendship that the Latino priest extended to him in their poker games changed his heart before he died. We can only hope.

“The personal is political” — now there’s a totalitarian statement! — was a leftist rallying cry in the 1960s and 1970s. These days, it seems that many leftists really do believe it, even still. Maybe it’s just my circles, but I don’t know any conservatives who believe that. They tend to regard politics as only part of life. For some (many?) liberals, politics are at the center of life. Back when I lived in NYC, there was a conservative Baptist reader of National Review who wanted to convert me out of my Catholicism. It didn’t work (it took the Catholic bishops to do that), but I agreed once to meet him for coffee. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t for our entire meeting to be about converting me to his point of view. I mean, I figured it would come up, but I quickly realized that the only reason he wanted to meet me at all was to tell me how wrong I was, and to convince me to agree with him. I cut him off after that, because I realized that he didn’t actually care about me as a person; he only cared about me as a potential convert.

Similarly with these leftist ex-friends, it is a hidden blessing that they are throwing me aside. I had been under the impression that we were friends for the reasons most people are friends. I did not know that their friendship was conditional on me not being conservative, or at least not being a self-hating conservative. My life is better with those sad, miserable people out of it, but still, what a shame.

My conservative academic friend told me today that a while back, he and his wife had been invited to dinner with a friend they hadn’t seen in a while. The friend told them that he didn’t want to see them if they had voted for Donald Trump. In fact they had not voted for Trump, but the very fact that this impurity would have made their company unbearable for their friend, even though there was no reason for politics to come up at the dinner, struck my pal as incredible — and insane.

If you would not be friends with me because of how I voted, then I don’t want to be friends with you in the first place. To me, one of the least interesting things about you are your political ideas. I want to know: Are you kind? Are you funny? Are you interested in the world outside your head? Do you respect others?Are you loyal? Everything else follows from that.

Another classmate — a fellow conservative — texted to say how obnoxious and disgusting she found those comments on Facebook. She told me she wishes now that she had stood up for me, but she normally hates to get involved in drama. I wish too that she had stood up for me, but I understand why she didn’t. People like the sad, failed academic who started the trashfest are toxic. Normal people don’t want to get involved with them. Most people aren’t politicized freaks like that. The problem, though, is that when we don’t stand up to that sort of person, they end up dominating whatever sphere they are in, because nobody wants to confront them. This, I think, is why the woke often end up winning. People find it easier to brush off their pain-in-the-ass hysteria than to confront it.

This makes sense to a point — but then you end up in a situation that a friend of mine is facing in her family. According to her, her grandmother has always been the kind of crybully who makes demands, utters harsh statements, tells white lies, etc., and when anybody in her family would push back, Granny would throw a fit, and accuse them of disrespecting her, and so forth. Over the years, they all got used to giving her her way, because the stakes were usually small. Well, a situation recently came up in the family where Granny’s lies have plunged the whole family into a serious crisis. Hearing all this made me wonder if things might have turned out differently if the family had not tolerated Granny’s meanness and nonsense all along.

The regular commenter on this blog who comments under the name Pete From Baltimore said today on a thread that he didn’t understand what people like me expect people like him to do to resist wokeness. He said that he, like most people, is fully occupied with making a living, and the ordinary things of life. Should he really give himself over to joining a fight against this abstract threat? He’s got a point. I don’t know if he considers himself a conservative politically, but his orientation to the world is … normal.

However, the reason the woke have gone so far is that they are willing to trouble themselves to get active in public life, to push their agenda. I’ve told in this space before the story about how some conservative Christians in California some years back trying to rally support to protect Christian colleges from proposed legislation that could end up forcing those institutions to violate their religious conscience on LGBT matters, or shut down. A friend who was involved in that effort told me that when his group went to visit leaders of big white Evangelical churches in conservative Orange County, nobody would take a stand — even though the leadership agreed with the cause. They were afraid of being called bigots. They just did not want to get involved. They wanted somebody else to do it for them. My friend told me the only reason they were able to turn back this threat was because black Pentecostal pastors in Los Angeles took their side, as did Catholic Archbishop Jose Gomez of L.A.

My point is simply this: ordinary people had better change their minds about getting involved in the fight against wokeness. They might not be interested in wokeness, but wokeness is interested in them. We don’t have to become as obsessed with politics as they are, but if we avoid taking stands because we don’t want to dirty our hands grappling with these dirtbags, they are going to keep winning, and spreading their misery to all our lives.

I’m thinking now of my ex-friend who vomited up such vicious bile about me, and the other ex-friends who cheered him on. What happened to them? Who, or what, poisoned their souls? Can they be saved? Maybe, but it’s going to have to be somebody else who saves them from their contempt and misery. I couldn’t possibly care at this point. The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

UPDATE: Pete From Baltimore comments:

This is anectdotal on mypart.But over the years , ive noticed something. I work as a construction laborer.But my neighborhood has been gentrifed over the past 20 years.And i noticed two things

One is that when i hear politics discussed on construction sites, or among blue collar Am,ericans in social settings, its usually in general terms of how they think particular issues should be solved. Since i live in Baltimore, many of my co-workers[Black,White and Latino] constantly discuss issues like Crime,Drugs and Poverty and abandoned houses [The last being a big issue in Baltimore]

But they almost always discuss these issues in non-partisan terms. I rarely hear terms like “Democrat” ,”liberal”,”conservative”, or “Republican” , used, They simply talk about how they think that the problems should be solved.And many times, their answers dont fit neatly into any ideological box

Whereas when my more upper middle class and college educated neighbors talk about politics, its always in very partisan terms.

The second thing that ive noticed, is that many of these upper middle class neighbors of mine have become very angry and partisan over the past 10 years. And especially since Trump was elected in 2016

I just got back from a 2 week bike trip in rural Central Pennsylvannia [Im tryinng to move there permantly ] And yes, i did see “Dont Blame Me,I Voted For Trump” signs in front of a few houses.But i went two whole weeks without once hearing anyone discusss politics.And sincei was staying in motels, i ate 3 meals a day at local diners and bars. Yet i did not hear one person mention politcs.

My point is that in my opinion, many urban , upper middle class liberals[and probably more than a few conservatives in suburbs] have become very obsessed with Political Tribal Wars.And its unhealthy. in my opinion

One thing that is often ignored about gentrified urban areas like mine, is how almost all of the gentrifiers are between 22-35 years old.and many are single.And very few have children.

When i was eating at the rural diners, i heard waitresses and customers talk about their children and their families a lot.Whereas in bars in SE Baltimore, i hear patrons either complaining about Trump.Or they are talking about some house party or restuarant they were at the other day

I think that is the answer to Mr Dreher’s question as to why “Normies” have not had an “Uprising”. Because they are normal people, thats why.And normal people go to their childrens ball games.They dont get angry enough about a comedian to protest him

In many urban gentrified areas, you have thousands of young peoplle who have lived inthe neighborhoods for less than 2 years.They dont have family ties in the neighborhood.And very few friends.So i think that they often embrace political tribalism as a substitute for not having children or a sense of community in their neighborhood. I could be wrong.But im guessing that liberals who do live in real communities, and who have children, are often less radical than they young gentrifiers of our urban areas

It should be noted that many journalist are young gentrifiers nowdays.Which explains a lot, in my opinion

I dont think the answer to our current problems is for “Normies” to get radical.Quite the opposite. And i think its better for everyone, if “Normies” go to thier childrens ball games, instead of having an “Uprising”. By all means, parents can, and should, attend PTA meetings.And everyone should vote.But an “Uprising”? No thanks.We had one in 1776.And it was a great uprising.So good that we dont need another

UPDATE.2: From Edward Hamilton:

The last few years have featured the growth of a category of bright-line tribal issues that friendships simply can’t survive: police violence, COVID, elections/J6, transgenderism, Kavanaugh/MeToo, and ultimately Trump himself and the discourse that surrounds him. People who have the wrong ideas on these issues get a “much worse than wrong” pejorative applied to them, like “racist” or “conspiracy theorist” or “anti-democratic”.

Most of my acquaintances (minus a few academics at work) are Trump voters. I live in Trumpworld. If you got me alone and asked me honest questions about various Trumpish beliefs, I’d only agree with them provisionally and carefully, and strongly emphasize my doubts and reservations about the kind of solutions they propose to current political challenges. I do see those people being exploited in some obvious ways, including by Trump himself.

But I have a much stronger and more visceral reaction to anyone who wants to apply the super-pejoratives to them. That’s what’s strained my family relationships the most. I’ve had substantial disagreements with my parents and siblings for two decades or more, but the conversations in 2017 suddenly started turning toward requests that I acknowledge that many of the people in “my world” were animated by underlying racism, just as conversations in 2021 have revolved around requests that I distance myself from them as being “paranoid” and indulging in conspiracies and misinformation.

I don’t mind having relationships with family and old friends who believe different things than I do, and have done so my entire life. But I find it very uncomfortable to have to keep denouncing the people at my church (say), in order to prove I’m “one of the good ones” who isn’t like them. My differences with them are real and worthy of discussion, but they are superficial compared to the discomfort I feel with anyone who would ask me to throw them under the bus as a precondition for maintaining my reputation for virtue or intelligence.

UPDATE.3: Jonah R.:

The tragic (and pathetic) thing about situations like this is that politics is ephemeral. Imagine, years later, having destroyed a friendship over Howard Dean, or Sarah Palin? Imagine being angry with someone for not having the same reaction you did to the funeral of Paul Wellstone. (Remember him?) Imagine thinking, “It’s been 30 years, but I’ll never get over the way that person mocked Dick Gephardt.” These ephemeral political nobodies pass along the fringes the world and we wrongly perceive that they’re passing close to us, right through our lives, and then they’re gone, and if you spare them a second thought you’re a damned fool, because they never spared you a single thought in the first place.

I’m roughly the same age as Rod and his scornful ex-friends. If they haven’t figured out by now that politics is ephemeral, and the older you get the more friends you need and the harder they are to find, and the more important it becomes to keep ties with the people who remembered you when, who remember where you all came from, then I don’t even know what to say, except that those ex-friends deserve pity, and need to re-think their lives. And that maybe they’re taking out their anger over their own failings on their successful former friend.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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