What happened to friendships?

Americans clearly have abandoned and avoided friendship because of radicalization, fear, isolation, and politics. This may be the saddest and most enduring terrible legacy of Donald Trump.

I can get in touch with most of my high school friends, despite the fact we graduated high school in 1982 (yes, I aged myself). We don’t (necessarily) share politics, religion, economic status, or geographic proximity, but for my old friends, 10 years or more absence is like we haven’t missed a day when we connect. I suspect it’s like this with a lot of people—especially men—who don’t necessarily make an effort to reach out to old friends.

My instinct here is to blame our culture, where kids graduate, go to college, go off to earn their keep and make their fortune in the world, and only return home to see their folks and those who didn’t make the move. My instinct here is wrong.

Fact: People are moving around less, not more

Some of the friends of my youth attended the same college as I did. Some of them still live in the New Hampshire seacoast where I grew up. My brother Jay still lives in the town where we all went to high school. His kids all went to the same high school, and I’m gratified when some of their teachers say they still remember me (I am not sure how much of a compliment that is, honestly, since I was not a “model student”!).

In 1992, I made the move to Georgia, for a job, figuring I’d come back one day. I never did. I suspect this is the same with many men, but the data doesn’t bear out my suspicion.

Over time, says the Pew Research Center, less people are moving around, not more. From 1946 to the late 1960s, the percentage of Americans who changed residence hovered between 18 and 22 percent. Since 1970, it’s plummeted to under 12 percent.

The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey indicates that the number of people who moved between 2007 and 2008, 34 million, was the lowest since 1959-60, when the population of the U.S. was 41% smaller than it is now. The annual migration rate, which held at about 20% through the mid-1960s, has drifted downward since then to its current low of 11.9%.

As the population ages, and healthcare extends lives, some of the share is accounted for by older Americans who settle down in retirement. My own parents moved from New Hampshire to southwest Florida when I was 19, and spent a good 30 year retirement there. The days when grandparents retired and lived in the same town as their kids are less and less, but there are more stationary older people skewing the data.

COVID-19 and the delay of young people to marry and begin families has contributed mightily to an increase in the number of 18-24 year-olds who are still living with their parents.

This raises the question: If so many young people are still living at home, and less older people are moving around, yielding more opportunities for Americans to make and maintain close friendships, why are friendships on the decline?

Fact: Friendships are on the decline

The latest data from the Survey Center on American Life shows that in the last 11 years, close friendship has eroded to crisis levels. National Review called it a “friendship recession,” David French wrote that “lost friendships break hearts and nations,” and Erick Erickson said it was an “isolation crisis” on his radio show.

Pastor Tim Keller tweeted the sad statistics.

In 1990, 40 percent of men claimed to have 10 or more people they described as “close friends,” along with 28 percent of women. In 2021, those numbers shockingly dropped to 28 percent of men and 11 percent of women.

Even worse: In 1990, only 3 percent of men described themselves as having “no close friends.” In 2021, that number exploded to 15 percent! (Women went from a number less than 1% to a full 10 percent.) A full 49 percent of men describe themselves as having three or fewer close friends in 2021, while 55 percent of men in 1990 said they had at least six close friends.

Fact: People still have childhood friends

As I do, most of the respondents in the American Life survey said they have friends they’ve known since childhood. Most also said they have friends associated with certain places, like work, the gym or a coffee shop, or through sports, hobbies or other service activities.

It makes sense to me that as the population ages, less people have their childhood friends around. Once you hit 50 years old, that number starts to waver, and by the time people hit 70, it has begun to decline. Three quarters of younger Americans have childhood friends.

Notably, 39 percent told the survey they only interacted online with their friends. I am sure this is due to the pandemic in a significant way. When you’re locked in, masked up, working from home, and all social activities are cancelled, all that remains is online or telephone. Older people might not “get” online communications as much as younger generations, but the days of 90-minute phone calls are likely gone the way of the drive-in movie.

The survey included a question that asked respondents to share, in their own words, what it was that made someone their best friend. While there is not any one characteristic or experience that Americans identify, for many, longevity is a crucial element. A 25-year-old Hispanic woman described her best friend as someone whom she has known for most of her life. "She and I have been best friends since we were in the third grade. She and I have a unique friendship, where she and I can reach out to each other after any amount of time and no matter how long it’s been there’s only good vibes and love."

A White 54-year-old man similarly leads with how long he has known his best friend. “I’ve known this person for over 30 years. We have seen the best and worst in each other and have seen each other through some difficult times.” For many Americans, being friends with someone for a long time is an important, and perhaps key, ingredient.

The Hispanic woman’s description of her best friend tracks pretty well with mine. Over the years and decades, I’ve reached out to longtime and childhood friends. As a kid, I moved around some until my early teens, so my most enduring relationships are with kids from high school, through college. I’ve flown to Europe to attend weddings, or just to visit. I’ve stopped over for a quick visit on driving trips. Most of us don’t live in New Hampshire anymore, but most of us know how to reach each other at any given time.

Fact: Politics matter more to Democrats than Republicans in friendships

Many of what I’d call acquaintances have lost friends over Donald J. Trump. As far as I know, I haven’t lost any (unless readers count as friends). As a group, Republicans are nearly a third more likely to describe themselves as having “a lot” or “some” friends who are Democrats than Democrats are as having Republican friends. The terms “Democrats” and “Republicans” include self-described independents who lean toward one party or another, so possibly the descriptions might indicate a worldview leaning toward liberal progressive and social justice left-wing versus conservative liberty-minded or right-wing.

Liberals are twice as likely to have ended a friendship over political disagreements and nearly two-thirds more likely to no longer be friends with those who are politically different than they are.

The conclusion here may like in priorities. When secular and humanist worldviews, which depend on political power and world power structures based on privileged classes, races, and nations, lack a transcendent faith for a moral foundation, they drift with the winds of fashion and issues of the day. The issues of the day therefore become supremely important litmus tests for friendship and alliance.

As Evangelical Christianity has been captured by Donald Trump, he has become the main litmus test for many on both ends of the political spectrum. Voting for Trump, for many liberals, is reason in itself for “unfriending.” For many Trump supporters, attacking Trump, especially while he was president, was perceived as a direct attack on themselves.

Trump himself perceived any reacted to any criticism as a personal betrayal. Those who put their support in him frequently adopted his character attacks as their own reaction to friends.

I never had this particular bug or illness. I worked and have been friends for many years with some of the most virulent and active Trump-haters I’ve ever met. One co-worker wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “FUDT” to a company dinner. I laughed when I saw it (after asking him what that meant, duh—it lacked context at a time, okay?). I’ve had relatives who were positively in love with Barack Obama make a 180-degree pivot over Obama’s opposition to Israel and embrace of anti-Semites.

Trump has his own following of anti-Semites, but his own daughter lives as an observant Orthodox Jew. Trump’s absolute and steel-backboned support of Israel (and Bibi Netanyahu) after Obama’s mistreatment and suspicion of Bibi drew many Jews to Trump’s side, or at least took the wind out of their Orange Man Bad sails.

I never made Trump a litmus test for my friends, and thankfully, none of them have done that to me. Oh, they’ve trolled me mercilessly, to be sure, and we don’t always agree, but I have always told them that I fully recognize Trump’s many and deep character flaws, and any evident support I had for him was more about his adopted policies and the extent to which he listened to groups like the Federalist Society for his Supreme Court picks.

One memory that sticks in my head is when I was in northern France in early 2017, a few months after Trump’s inauguration, listening to some elderly Frenchmen in a little bar deride Trump along with one of my best friends. I wasn’t there to argue with any of them, despite having just attended Trump’s inauguration in January.

According to the survey, 22 percent of Americans who have ended a friendship, an enormous number dealing with a single personality, did so over Trump.

Online radicalization, isolation, and Trump

It’s good to know that people still maintain friendships over the years, though with less gusto and common activities than in the past. As this pandemic ends and fades into history, perhaps there will be a resurgence of friendships made over things other than growing up together or political alliances.

As David French lamented, “Friendships built up through years of engagement in politics and activism vanished in the blink of a tweet.”

“You’re not with us? Then we’re not with you,” he continued.

I’ve been careful to avoid such kinds of engagement. The only activism I’ve done is a few local political campaigns, and I consider myself friends with some of the candidates I opposed. Of the political connections I’ve maintained, few of them have stopped answering texts or emails over my opposition to Donald Trump in 2016 or my vote for him in 2020.

In fact, David Thornton and I have clashed over Trump in our views and posts over the years writing for Erick Erickson, but David and I remain, happily, connected to each other primarily through The Racket News. We don’t speak as often as I’d like, because we both work “day jobs,” his at times more flexible and at times much more stringent than mine given his travel, and mine a daily commuter job.

Spending large amounts of time online, posting garbage and reading accusations and rage of what the “other side” has done, leads to radicalization. Radicals on both sides of political issues, especially dealing with famous personalities, get entrenched in “bunker mentality.” They tend to believe the political propaganda and emails that are sent by staffers and no more impactful than a used car dealership flyer.

Radicals who lose friends over politics say and tweet things they don’t mean and do so with no accountability. In media, they hurl accusations of being paid off by the Russians and fling other career-ending epithets at each other via podcast and television appearances. As Matt Taibbi wrote this weekend:

Our target reader used to be the person sipping coffee at a moment like the present, a cool Saturday morning, lazily turning pages as birds chirped outside the window. Our target reader now is a rage addict who read this morning’s news five times over already last night, furiously scrolling through a phone for “receipts” to fire back at some troll on Twitter… wait, that was me. 

During the Trump years, the spin became so violent we were all suffering whiplash and disorientation. We thought that would subside with Biden in the White House, and it largely has, at least with the White House as its focus. But the angular momentum of news and online isolation continues in other places.

Americans clearly have abandoned and avoided friendship because of radicalization, fear, isolation, and politics—specifically Donald Trump. This may be the saddest and most enduring terrible legacy of the 45th president and the division that both brought him to power and left us divided.

I believe that to bring back friendship, we will have to jettison and overcome the fear. Call a childhood friend and just talk without any agenda or convincing. If the discussion becomes political, laugh. Friendships matter more than politics, and tweets matter less than practically anything in the world.

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