Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

In the United States, the recent wave of protectionism, neo-nationalism, and populism is undeniable. That became especially evident and prevalent during the presidential election of 2016. Now, our current president proudly chants the phrase “America First” and ran on a policy of the elimination of immigrant rights and destruction of our most basic institutions; and he has a vast following of avid supporters as well.

The United States is not the only country experiencing this. From Venezuela to Poland, right-wing populism is ravaging politics and governments. But this isn’t only happening on a wide, bureaucratic scale, either. Everyday citizens, especially those who are white, poor, and uneducated, have come out in vocal support of racist jingoism, only becoming more emboldened by the support they receive from those with political power. This was seen when white nationalists marched at the University of Virginia and Donald Trump proclaimed that there was blame on “both sides,” when the Polish president responded to a deeply offensive nationalist march by calling it a “beautiful sight.” Such brash and widespread actions like these have not been seen since World War II, and it is deeply worrying.

For those of us concerned, there is one question: how can we fix this?

In many ways, the right-wing trend occurring now is a reaction to a world that is increasingly growing more tolerant towards and proud of diversity. This is, undeniably, a good thing – it is vitally important that we respect and value all humans regardless of race, gender expression, etc. But we must not dissolve all forms of identity. As Todd May claims in Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism1, neoliberal economics does not provide the capacity or foundation for globalization. In fact, it takes away sovereignty from nations, leaving them feeling as though they do not have a true national identity, leaving them to feel the need to find identity in other forms, such as ethnic, cultural, etc.

In his article, “How Liberals Can Reclaim Nationalism,”2 Yascha Mounk writes that, in order for us to combat neo-nationalism, we must embrace inclusive patriotism. This patriotism celebrates the diversity that belongs to every nation by promoting a pride in that country itself. By doing this, we can avoid grand identity crises that lead to virulent populism and protectionism, and instead find a way in which to embrace one’s identity while still being inclusive. As Mounk puts it:

“It is a state in which all members have the same rights and opportunities irrespective of the group into which they are born or the culture to which they belong. It is a society in which people feel that they have something important in common because they seek to govern themselves together, pledge to help one another in an hour of need and recognize that these shared commitments are ultimately more consequential than any difference of color or creed. And it is a culture that does not shy away from celebrating the nobility of this collective identity — embracing the nation’s flag not because we claim never to have failed our compatriots in the past but because we aspire to realize a common future fair to all.”

The basic tenants of friendship are found in this idea of inclusive patriotism that can combat neo-nationalism that is on the rise in our domestic politics. As we have learned from philosophers such as Aristotle, who claims that the best city is one in which citizens can become friends3, and Hannah Arendt, who claims that true citizenship is impossible without friendship4, friendship has the power to influence and promote politics that unite rather than divide. Goals such as inclusivity and diversity are honorable; but trying to eliminate all forms of identity and bonds between others is not, and it often leads to neo-nationalism, populism and protectionism. In order to combat this, we must embrace the inclusive patriotism within our own domestic spheres that Mounk calls for and which aligns with theories that claim that friendship has the power to influence domestic politics. Inclusive patriotism strongly aligns with the basic definition of friendship, in that no matter how different we are, we can still respect, value, and love one another on the basis of common ground and mutual attraction. 

  1. May, Todd. Friendship In An Age of Economics – Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lexington Books, 2014.
  2. Mounk, Yascha. “How Liberals Can Reclaim Nationalism.” The New York Times, 3 Mar. 2018,
  3. Fuller, Timothy. “Plato and Montaigne: Ancient and Modern Ideas of Friendship.” Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, by John von Heyking, University of Notre Dame Press, 2008, pp. 197–213.
  4. Nixon, Jon. Hannah Arendt and The Politics of Friendship. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

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