Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Democracy and Friendship

National, domestic politics have dubious consequences for various sectors of the citizenry across today’s nations. The climate in most of these bodies has become increasingly nationalist and populist in rhetoric, and has taken form in social if not legal separation or discrimination, be it on the basis of religion, class, race or other factors. Is it possible that a return to friendship as a dominant moral paradigm could be a remedy to the modern and divisive nature of domestic politics?

In his essay, titled The Demise of the Nation State, Rana Dasgupta makes the case that the world is seeing a trend towards nationalism and radicalism because of the declining importance of sovereign states in the face of 21st century life, in which deregulated finance and large, borderless tech monopolies threaten the nation state’s authority itself; the response is a widespread sense of anxiety, which paves the way for scapegoating and thus nationalism, or a desire to fight against existing power structures.1 Globalization and neoliberalism, as noted by Arjun Appadurai, produce nationalism in places in which a loss of national economic sovereignty must be accounted for with a renewed sense of cultural sovereignty.2

It is countries experiencing the aforementioned phenomena in which democracy is experiencing a backlash. It creates the conditions for the right-wing politicians of the world to promise to fight against the failing liberal ideals, appealing to the majority sectors of the population using a nationalist rhetoric.3 It is in conditions such as these ethno-nationalist attitudes become popular and take form in slogans such as “America First,” or “Make America Great Again.” In the first case of these slogans, both of which were widely popular in America leading up to the election of the populist Donald Trump, indicate a desire to elevate America’s position in the world at the expense of other nations’ chances for  prosperity. The second slogan evokes a time in which a less potent nationalism was present, but one that still privileged white Americans over all other Americans. Trump regularly calls for the building of walls and the deportation of migrants as he implores Americans to believe themselves physically endangered or economically threatened by them.

A paradigmatic shift away from national insulation and ethno-nationalist thinking in the direction of friendship could provide the major shift needed to clean up domestic politics everywhere. According to Alexis de Tocqueville, democracy is capable of breaking the links of the chain which binds society in a hierarchical fashion in aristocracy; he posits that sympathy is not possible in a highly stratified society, and therefore in getting rid of the stratification among classes as democracy does is necessary to create a space for sympathy.4 This sympathy is crucial in order to create and maintain friendships.

In order to create friendship within a nation and make national politics a site for friendship and not a destroyer of it, democracy in its current state everywhere must be examined. In this day and age in which large, rich corporations have more than their fair say in politics, be it electoral politics or the authorship of various national policies, the people, from which the word democracy is itself derived, aren’t afforded as loud a voice. Governments must make strides to work towards an ideal in which the final say is given to the people and not what is in the best interests of large corporations. This would stabilize modern democracy and create the capacity for sympathy of which de Tocqueville spoke.

But this, however, would only serve to bring about what Joshua Mitchell refers to as a paradox of democracy; that is, with the collapse of the social and economic stratification which comes with aristocratic society, money, and not honor, is the currency by which people are measured.5 It is money and the ability to partake and transact in capitalist democracies which is the ultimate judge of one’s character. Although sympathy is allowed to exist, it is the break from the measure of honor, which maintains class distance in aristocratic societies, that makes money the ultimate measure. It is therefore not difficult to see why at this moment in history, in which there has never been a greater disparity in wealth between the richest and poorest, two radically different responses to democracy. Progressives advocate for high taxes to lessen the gap between socioeconomic classes and provide relief and welfare for those in need, while conservatives advocate for a less intrusive taxation agenda which provides little to no benefits, opting to paint immigrants and foreigners as the reason for any disparity to protect the richest citizens.

 To introduce friendship to this cocktail would serve to minimize the importance of wealth. If people saw the good that could come of benefiting both those of the lower classes and migrants looking for better opportunities than those previously available to them, money could itself be a tool of good to elevate those in need. To care for the well-being of someone else is a virtue of friendship. If people were able to feel as positively as they do about those with whom they share a socioeconomic, racial, religious, etc. background as those with whom they do not share a common identity, the democratic stratification we see today would be lessened and a space for sympathy would easily provide us with a more rational and less violent and chaotic system of democracy. Friendship is key to bring about the change in domestic politics away from the grotesque. True democracy is derived from the people, and in a society in which everyone cares about their neighbors as much as they care about themselves, citizens would share a similar ethos and no longer care about rising to prosperity at the expense of their compatriots. Here, friendship can be a tool to unite and create a space for democracy.



1. Rana Dasgupta, “The Demise of the Nation Sate” from The Guardian.

2. Professor J. Mahallati, In-class lecture on 3/27/18.

3. Ibid.

4. Joshua Mitchell, “It Is Not Good for Man to Be Alone” in Friendship & Politics, 272.

5. Ibid., 274.

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