Bipartisan Friendships in Politics: A Disappearing Phenomenon?

Like many who live in or were raised in West Virginia, I am grieving the sudden death of Larry Border, the Republican Minority Whip in the House of Delegates. He was the gentlest Whip I have met in my life, and was known among his fellow Republicans as the “Den Mother” because of the time he took to mentor new members. I hate to see the state lose such a decent, intelligent and talented leader, and more generally I hate to see anyone who should have had many happy years of grandchildren-hugging in front of him instead struck down without warning at the age of 60. I am grateful I got to work with Larry Border, and for whatever angel made me drop him a note just a few months before he died saying how much I respected him and that I was glad my home state had a leader like him.

Delegate Don Perdue, the Democratic Chairman of one of the committees on which Border served, wrote a sweet tribute to him that closed with these words: “I pray the river was narrow where he crossed, and his welcome worthy of the man”. Don was among a number of Democratic Delegates and Senators who considered Border a friend.

On top of the personal loss, I feel another level of sadness which is political, namely that over my lifetime the number of elected officials whom I could describe as “everybody’s friend” (think Bob Michel) has shrank almost to nothing at the federal level. Consequential friendships across the aisle, such as that of Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy, seem quaint to many modern observers, or even a matter to raise suspicion.

My disappointment about the declining number of cross-party friendships in Washington doesn’t come from sentimental feelings about the loneliness of elected life (officials still have as many friends as ever, just in more narrowly tailored circles) or dewy-eyed faith that there aren’t really any irresolvable ideological differences between the parties that friendship can’t overcome (of course there are). Rather, it’s because I recognize that many significant federal political achievements depended in some way on a friendship between a powerful Republican and a powerful Democrat. Because there was risk in the new policy, there had to be trust, and because the going was difficult, there had to be support and encouragement. These are qualities that evolve out of friendship. As federal elected officials move to socializing and making friends almost entirely “with their own kind”, an essential element for future political accomplishments is lost.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.