One could say that my life has been a series of debates. This is not to say that I’m argumentative. I’ve just been lucky in my life to have had friends with whom I could talk about issues and debate politics and religion. Although I’m fairly liberal in my politics, I’ve had in my life a fair amount of conservative Republican friends with whom I used to be able to debate on points of disagreement and while still maintaining a sense of respect for each other. Somehow, though, those type of talks have become less frequent in the past couple of years. I’m not sure if people in the past few years have just become more polarized along certain positions and are no longer tolerant of differing opinions. It’s become rare to meet that kind of friend, that friendship of opposites, and I miss those type of conversations.
When I was a kid, I used to always argue with my friends about our favorite basketball players and teams. People looking back to the 1980s always think of the Lakers and the Celtics, but in the playgrounds I played in, most people liked Doctor J and the Philedelphia 76ers. My brothers and I were Celtics fans, so it was natural that we’d wind up getting into arguments with our friends about who was the better player: Bird or the Doc. Bird had a greater outside shot and was a great passer. Doc drove better to the basket and was the greater leaper. Bird was the rebounder, Dr. J was the greater individual defender. We never convinced anyone to change their minds about anything, but it was fun to just argue things out and gab.
This extended to politics. One of my best friends was a guy named Eric. He was a Reagn Republican, but he was not the typical Reaganite. Eric was an agnostic who didn’t like the religious right, but he felt that anything was better than Carter. We talked a lot about politics at that time, especially when Reagan decided to ship nuclear missiles to Europe. Considering the vehemence of some of our debates, it’s ironic that years later, Eric went out of the closet and is now farther politically to the left than I am. Whenever I see him, I always tell him that my arguments finally got through to him. In reality, his experiences coming out as a gay man changed his perspective on politics and the way he saw the world.
Three houses down from my parents house were our friends Rollie and Rick. My brothers and I would hang out with them and play basketball every Friday, Saturday, and sometimes Sunday. When I visited their house, I’d sometimes talk to their father about politics. He knew I was a Democrat, so he’d talk about how we’re always taxing and spending with little regard on how that affects the working guy. During the 1984 elections we’d talk about the merits of Mondale and Reagan, and it was nice that he talked to me even though I was not old enough at that time to vote. When Reagan won in a landslide, I congratulated Rollie’s father and he was fairly gracious.
I was lucky in my young life to be around people who respected differences of opinions and didn’t try to coerce me to agree with them. During my college years, I didn’t really talk much politics as my college girlfriend and our circle of friends were relatively apolitical. My classmates in the art building were more focused on improving their art than in talking much politics, although a few fine arts students that I knew were fairly radical, more so than I was at the time. It was odd, but the best political conversations I had at the time were in the basketball courts. I’d just drop by a court for a pickup game, and after the game, we’d sometimes talk politics. Most of those people were not that ideological, but they had definite opinions about government doing too much to help the poor or government bureacracies running amok.
Things began to change in the mid 1990s. I had started attending an Asian American evangelical church and the first few friends that I made, I was able to be free in my opinions and engage in some fun conversations. As I became more of a regular member and I started making emotional attachments to the community, things began to change. The views of the people at that church are fairly diverse, but the vast majority of the evangelicals that I met tend to be conservatives, basing their politics on a literal interpretation of the Bible. They were a different brand of conservatives than the ones I knew outside of the church: while the nonchurchgoing conservative friends tended to be a bit more tolerant of differences of opinion and were able to enjoy the give and take of a fun debate, a lot of the conservative churchgoers were a lot more dogmatic and you could tell they didn’t approve of liberal positions like the right to choose an abortion and homosexuality. The people in that church who were moderate or liberal tended to be quiet about their views, and I learned to be quiet in my opinions too. They were nice people and I made many a lot of friends with them, and I just didn’t want to rock the boat. I saw how they would often use peer pressure to get individuals to conform, or else ostracize those who didn’t conform, and I just slowly learned to keep any differences of opinion to myself.
This was during the Clinton years, and a lot of the conservatives hated Bill and Hillary with the same vehemence that progressive nowadays hate our current President. I learned at that time to be free with my political opinions only with other like-minded liberals or moderates. I’d meet young conservatives straight out of colleges and universities during the late 1990s and early 200s who were very dogmatic about the free markets being the cure to all our ills, and disdainful of any government aid to the poor. I’d always be annoyed at them, until I reflected that I might have been that way coming out of college as well, only from the liberal view of things. Eventually I was enmeshed in a few conflicts in the evangelical church that got me to start thinking for myself again, and I left the church in 2002.
I don’t know if the Clinton and Bush years just polarized the left and the right wings more, leaving less room for friendly debates. I sometimes even got in trouble with liberal friends, as when I supported Joe Lieberman in his run for the presidency in 2004. I don’t agree with Lieberman’s position in Iraq, but I do agree with his positions on the environment, on most social issues, and I admire his strong advocacy of labor rights. On these issues he’s actually more progressive than Howard Dean and especially John Murtha. And I thought his plan for a progressive tax structure was better for redistributing wealth than any candidate except Dennis Kucinich’s. No one really listened to me though.
A few years ago, I decided to research friendships between people with opposite political opinions. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were best friends, even though Adams was a strong Federalist and Jefferson was a passionate Republican. Their friendship was rocky at times, and they had a falling out in the 1790s, but their friendship was recovered in the 1800s with the assistance of their mutual friend Benjamin Rush, and they had a wonderful correspondence that lasted till the end of their lives. Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart were best friends, even though Fonda was a New Deal liberal and Stewart was a conservative Republican. They stayed friends all their lives, agreeing that their friendship was more important than their differences in political views. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were friends, and O’Neil was at Reagan’s bedside offering support to Ronald and Nancy after the assasination attempt in 1981. One of Ted Kennedy’s closest friends in the Senate is Orrin Hatch, and it was Hatch’s urgings in the 1990s that helped lead Kennedy to finally deal with his alcohol problem.
I don’t have as many conservative friends anymore as I once did. One conservative friend that I do have though, is my brother-in-law, Erik. Erik is a fiscal conservative, thought his views on social issues are rather liberal. I enjoy visits with him, because he’s one of the few people nowadays that I can talk politics freely with. Though he’s a social liberal, he feels it’s a mistake for the courts to rule for issues like homosexual and abortion rights to be imposed on the land, feeling instead that activists should do the hard work of changing the electorates’ opinions on these issues so that these issues are resolved the legislature. We clash mostly on the free market and the role of government. From Erik’s point of view, the government does more harm than good when it tries to put its reach on the economy and alleviating poverty, and that the unfettered free market would better alleviate many of society’s problems. I, on the other hand, believe the free market has basic flaws that only the government can resolve.
I enjoy these conversations, and I think it’s good for me that my progressive viewpoints get challenged. It forces me to articulate why I believe the things that I believe, and it makes me see the strengths and weaknesses of my political beliefs. In my many years of arguing with conservative friends, I’ve never been convinced of the rightness of their ideas. But it’s helped me to see that they have a valid point of view, and hopefully it helps them see that my own left wing beliefs have some validity as well. Instead of two monologues going passed each other, which has been my experience with a lot of more adverserial conversations have gone with more hostile conservatives, my talks with conservative friends have been actual dialogues. And in this polarized political atmosphere, more dialogue is needed.