Before anyone hints at a civil war in the making, Americans might consider the benefits for the nation in being divided over a startlingly close presidential vote.
If this were France, the cry would be "viva la difference!" But Americans were bred on "We, the People." They expect harmony in civic life. They see elections as a way to work out differences, not highlight them. Candidates can bare fangs in a campaign and win by one vote, but once elected they must do a group hug in Washington.
That view makes the Gore-Bush photo finish difficult to frame. A victory won by a sliver doesn't lead to majority rule. It isn't much of a mandate, either. The winner lacks the mantle of legitimacy and must instead prove himself in office. Division hangs in the air. Gridlock freezes up Pennsylvania Avenue.
And below the slim margin in this presidential election was a demographic chasm. The North generally went for Al Gore, the South for George W. Bush. Along genders, races, and ages, the vote gaps were wide.
Yet the United States is hardly at war with itself. Disputes over taxes, guns, abortion, schools, or affirmative action are largely civil, with hopes of fair resolution someday. Satisfaction levels are high.
Rather, the stark divide in the vote has a more subtle meaning. Politics, not the people, is what has shifted.
For one, both political parties have decided to leave their extremes behind to compete for the middle. Democrats are "New" and Republicans are "compassionate" (de-Newted).
Al Gore is a conservative liberal and George W. Bush a liberal conservative. They purposely blur distinctions to woo fence-sitters.
Pollsters have made it so. Now more a science than an art, polling can detect the smallest shift in public mood on a topic and allow politicians to sound-bite it into a "national issue." What was once handled locally (school quality) or in the marketplace (healthcare) now takes on national urgency in a media spotlight.
On balance, the defining issues between Gore and Bush - education, taxes, Social Security, the Clinton affair - aren't real nation-splitters. They are hair-splitters. They are on the margins of a country at peace with itself.
The nationalized issues that so divided the presidential election will find their own natural level. Welfare reform, after being a national issue in the 1980s, found a solution largely in the states in the 1990s. After Clinton's try at healthcare reform, the market has begun to reform that industry.
The next president has his work cut out for him. He should remember that these United States thrive on diversity and grow in adversity, but unite in a system that keeps both of those in check.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society