In this Oct. 7, 2021, file photo, the Maine State House towers over a fog bank rising from the Kennebec River on a chilly morning in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.

Why can’t we be friends?

While it is one of War’s catchier tunes, I don’t ask the question rhetorically. What happened to friendship?

I happened to be in the State House this week for a couple meetings. The Finance Authority of Maine had their booths and goodies set up under the dome. Gov. Janet Mills’ office was orchestrating their press conference about abortion. The tell-tale bells calling the House and Senate into session were tolling.

And I saw some friends.

One of the under-reported stories is an ongoing cultural shift in American friendships. Back in 1990, only 27% of Americans reported having three or fewer close friends. By 2021, that number had grown to nearly 50%.

In addition, 53% of Republicans claim they have some friends who are Democrats. Only 32% of Democrats say the opposite is true, and 28% of self-described “liberals” have ended friendships over politics while only 10% of conservatives say the same.

Now, correlation isn’t causation. Is this lack of friendship a cause of increased polarization? An effect? Driven by some other factor? Or just happenstance?

I’ve got thoughts, but I don’t know. However, sometimes treating the symptom is really the best course of action. That brings us back to friendship.  

When I was up to Augusta, I saw Democrats. And Republicans. And lobbyists. And protestors. And reporters. And a group of high schoolers. The big story? They were all talking to each other. I might even guess some of them were friends.

The last Maine Legislature – the 130th – was greatly impacted by the pandemic. It was dominated by remote work. There were some upsides in the change. For example, it became far easier for regular Mainers to testify to committees.  

Before, an engaged citizen needed to plan their day around Augusta. The State House complex operates in its own time zone known as “legislative time,” where the schedules are made up and the hours don’t matter. A 10 a.m. session might start at 11:20 a.m. if pre-meetings go long.  

In short, it was a big commitment for someone to engage in the process. But with the advent of Zoom, you could make yourself heard from the comfort of your own keyboard.  

While that change may have benefitted civic engagement, it harmed everything else. The real work of policymaking takes place after testimony is given. There needs to be a degree of trust among lawmakers and with others concerned about specific issues.  

Building that trust and those relationships is hard in a remote world. A Republican and Democrat waiting for the incessant session bell to stop ringing might kill time by talking hobbies. Maybe they will find they share a love of fishing, and pull out their smartphones to compare pictures. Incrementally, they find other things in common.

A few months later, when a contentious bill is before them, they might hold different positions. But guess what? They know the other person isn’t simply a “troglodyte Republican” or “wooly-headed Democrat.” Hopefully they will take a little time to listen to their fishing buddy and engage more deeply with the issue at hand.

Because, while they are elected to represent us, legislators are also co-workers with each other. And just like every other workplace the world over, the work goes better when you like those you work with.

As the 131st Maine Legislature gets underway in earnest, friendships will be key to their success or failure. The same holds true for the rest of us.

The decline in friendships among American adults is a travesty. The more friends we have, the stronger our social fabric becomes. With a stronger social fabric, the basics of governance and society get easier. Then, hopefully, we could avoid silly fights about whether we should pay our  national credit card for things we already bought.  

So let’s be friends. Even if we don’t always agree.

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.