The role of friendship in democratic politics

Political friendship reminds us that civility in politics, as a cure for hyper-partisanship, begins with ourselves


 friendship politics

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LETHBRIDGE, Alta. Jan 17, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Last autumn Canadians suffered through a bruising election campaign that seemed to reach new highs of partisan bitterness among not only politicians but also among friends and families across the country. Gone were the images of federal party leaders hugging one another a year earlier after the shootings on Parliament Hill.

More recently and more ominously, individuals made online death threats at Alberta Premier Rachel Notley over Bill 6, a bill on farm safety.

Partisanship seems especially heated these days, and civility seems on the wane.

With such noise going on, Canadians can be forgiven if they overlooked one of the miracles of liberal democratic politics that occurred back in November, when the federal Conservatives peacefully handed over power to the incoming Liberals. Throughout history, power has typically transferred by means of violence in the form of conspiracy, assassination, coup d’état, or revolution.

Since the Act of Settlement of 1688, political parties, in what thereafter became the Anglo-American sphere of liberal democracies, have peacefully traded political offices. They are able to do this peacefully because by assuming office, parties and their leaders know they cannot speak for their entire nation and they also know that one day it will be the other’s turn. The hope that losers of elections have for future success, and the moderation that winners have on account of their knowing one day they will have to live under laws made by the other side, are key ingredients for our peaceable kingdom. It enables what Winston Churchill, at a dangerous moment in the history of Western civilization, called the “friendliness of British politics” when he took over the office of Prime Minister from Neville Chamberlain.

Not only did the Conservatives peacefully surrender power after losing the October federal election, but incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper use of the prime ministerial jet to fly home to Calgary, where he would assume his job as a regular Opposition Minister of Parliament. Our laws do not oblige this kind of gesture. It was done as a courtesy, borne of the political friendship Canadians enjoy with one another.

Canadians have good reason to be proud of their constitution that enables peaceful transition of power. But small courtesies like lending the prime ministerial jet remind us that laws and procedures alone do not sustain our society. Indeed, every practicing politician understands the importance of courtesies and gestures of kindness in obtaining support for themselves. By acknowledging them, politicians are no different than the rest of us who recognize their importance in not only obtaining our own objectives, but for making our lives, the lives of others, and our communities more liveable and flourishing.

Our constitution and our laws secure these blessings, but they originate in something more fundamental, and more visceral. Our constitution and laws are sustained by a kind of political friendship, a friendly agreement upon the basic ends of human life that citizens and their leaders live out. Aristotle called it “koinoia” or like-mindedness. I analyze this idea in my forthcoming book, [popup url=”″ height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship[/popup].

But politicians and engaged citizens also acknowledge the primacy of friendship for politics. One might say it is the lingua franca of politics. Aristotle states that legislators must regard friendship as more important than justice and law, which depend upon friendship. Indeed, former Canadian Senator Norman Atkins is known to have stated: “Politics is about friendship, loyalty and principles. In that order.” Atkins said that not because he was a partisan hack, but because principles are meaningless unless shared and embodied in a common life with friends and fellow citizens.

Our hyper-partisan season suggests that many have forgotten how friendship is the lingua franca of politics. This claim may sound startling. Isn’t hyper-partisanship the result of preferring friends to the common good? There is an element of that, but the truth is more complex.

We have become accustomed to distrust the language of friendship when it comes to politics. It smacks of favoritism or elitism. Our rightful pride in our constitution leads us to believe equality before the law, which rightfully rejects favoritism and privilege, is more important than friendship. But this belief can also lead us to forget about individual persons, and that laws and constitutions are but configurations of relations among persons. We can forget about persons and come to believe society runs like a machine, with persons as mere cogs whom we feel we can abuse because we trust the constitutional and legal machine will always be functional. Leviathan won’t let us down, will he/she?

When we forget about persons we end up treating fellow citizens not as unique, precious, and irreplaceable persons sharing in political friendship, but as mere placeholders for ideology or party. Danielle Smith had Senator Atkins’ ordering all wrong when she betrayed her Wildrose friends in the name of ideological principle. As a result she was left with neither friend nor principle.

Similarly, the Alberta NDP could have saved themselves a lot of trouble over Bill 6 had they engaged, in the spirit of political friendship with Albertans, the broad range of stakeholders in Alberta’s agriculture community. Instead they acted with a bizarre mixture of Machiavellian impetuosity (by acting suddenly before opposition forces could respond effectively), and a progressivist’s self-righteous belief whereby they thought they knew better than the agriculture community itself what is good for them. Treating others as objects, as placeholders for ideological viewpoints or as grateful recipients for one’s benevolence, undermines political friendship. It also corrodes one’s own political effectiveness.

Political friendship reminds us that civility in politics, as a cure for hyper-partisanship, begins with ourselves. The degree to which our common life flourishes depends upon how well we act as friends toward those immediately around us, as well as toward our fellow citizens.

John von Heyking is a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge and International Fellow of the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life.

John is a Troy Media contributor. [popup url=”” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″] Why aren’t you?[/popup]

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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