Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
More than thirty years ago, while I was racing the academic tenure clock at the University of Texas at Arlington, I conducted a study of political friendship patterns in the Senates of Maryland, Ohio and North Carolina. The objective of the research (and subsequent papers) was to explore why certain pairs of legislators formed political friendships and others did not. I found that physical proximity was a really good predictor of friendship patterns – even better than race, ideology, political party, ethnicity and gender. It is often said in politics that where you stand depends on where you sit. Well guess what – legislative friendships also depend on where you sit!
I was reminded of these findings recently at SLLF’s Emerging Leaders Program when Professor Ed Freeman invited participants to share thoughts about fellow participants as we wrapped up our three-day program. Four different participants noted how their physical proximity to others in the program had created unlikely bonds that transcended party, ideology, region and gender- just as my scholarly research three decades ago had suggested (nice, and unusual, to see academic research reflect real politics!).
One male Republican legislator from a Southern state noted his newfound respect for a liberal female Democratic seatmate from a Northeastern state. For three days, this “odd couple” sat side-by-side as we explored various topics ranging from leadership attributes to the American Civil War to jazz musicians. Following a “leadership walk” where the two shared their personal visions and leadership challenges, the Republican legislator noted that after these days together, “I know what is in her heart and I would follow here anywhere!” The Northeastern Democrat expressed similar views about her Southern colleague. The power of proximity.
Another pair of seatmates shared a similar story. One was a liberal, Midwestern Hispanic Democrat from one of the largest cities in America. The other was a rural conservative Republican from the Deep South. Politically, these two could not be further apart and yet, by the end of this program, they had formed a mutual respect and an unlikely bond that will be continued well beyond this past week. The power of proximity.
Interestingly, the power of proximity also built bridges between legislative and corporate participants. A legislator known for both his insightful comments and for his spot-on impressions of prominent political leaders, noted that he had formed a relationship with one of the corporate participants over notes passed during class- probably not a method of bonding approved by the faculty, but a relationship nonetheless. The power of proximity.
Finally, one inspirational relationship was formed before the program began, as two legislators were brought together by Delta Airlines – they shared a plane ride from Atlanta to Charlottesville. The two met because one was doing some last minute reading for the program, and the other recognized the book as this program’s homework. One of the legislators uses a wheelchair to help him get around. From the moment the two met, it seemed that they became inseparable, with one pushing the other. I suspect there was never a request for assistance- being together, one member saw a need and stepped in. The other graciously accepted the assistance and a bond was formed. The power of proximity.
These relationships occurred in spite of, not because of, common political leanings, world views, or characteristics. They formed because people spent time together. They occurred because people had the opportunity to get to know each other as people, not as Republicans or Democrats. Not as liberals or conservatives. Not as Southerners or Northerners. But, as people who shared the similar visions for themselves, their families, their constituents, and their country.
Now imagine what would happen if legislators were given the same opportunities in their own states. What a difference it would make if legislators in a state could see those across the aisle not as the opposition, or as the “other party,” but as people who, despite their differences, are just as interested in doing what is best for their constituents and for the state as we know we are. They are. How can we get there? The power of proximity.
I am not Pollyanna and I understand that we will never take party, or ideology, or regionalism out of politics or governance entirely, and I don’t think we should. However, I believe that legislators and leaders can create opportunities for members to reach across those divides – perhaps seating on committees could be determined by something other than party. Maybe legislators can form caucuses across partisan and ideological lines. What if leadership planned social events that included all legislators instead of just one party, or one committee, or one region. Or, if a leader was really feeling ambitious – what would happen if seating on the floor were not by party, but perhaps by seniority or alphabetical order, forcing those with significant differences to spend time together.
Maybe, just maybe, those legislators would begin to see each other as more than partisans, but as people who share a common interest in making the state better, and improving the lives of all constituents. It happened in Charlottesville, Virginia- perhaps, with some effort, it could happen in your state.
NOTE: I can provide copies of the academic papers if you having trouble getting to sleep!