A suddenly segregated red and blue US?

American politics has reached what seems to be a paradoxical moment. The nation is bigger than ever. It is more diverse than ever. The number of informational outlets is larger than ever.

Yet, somehow, the electorate is more simplistic.

The world is an extraordinarily complex mix of ideas and factions, and the problems we face as a people are probably as multifaceted as any in recent memory. Yet here we are, six months before November, with an election that looks like something out of Sesame Street: The 2004 presidential race, brought to you by the colors red and blue.

Not exactly the colors of course, but the ideas of Red America and Blue America - conservative America and liberal America, two countries in one, tied together by borders of the United States of America and little else.

The stories about the great American divide are everywhere, and as nice as it would be to simply ignore the red/blue concept as media hype, the facts seem to get in the way.

Polls and election results suggest two things: On the whole, the nation is as close to a 50/50 political split as possible - witness the 2000 presidential race and the makeup of the House and Senate. But zero in on specific communities, and the map turns monochromatic - all red or all blue.

In a lengthy series of articles, the Austin American-Statesman examined how the number of communities that are entirely red (Republican) or entirely blue (Democratic) have grown dramatically. In the closely fought 1976 presidential race, about 26 percent of the nation's counties went by landslide margins for one candidate or the other. By the 2000 election, the number of landslide counties had climbed to 45 percent.

And the split is more than just political; it is cultural. The people who live in these areas all eat and drink at certain kinds of restaurants and shop at certain kinds of stores.

You're thinking, so what? How many times do people really want to buy a copy of Guns and Ammo when they order their California roll? And how important is it that the BBQ Pit on the corner offer Chardonnay? Birds of a feather have always flocked together, and it's as good an organizing principle for a community as anything else.

Yes and no. It's true that the like-minded have always tended to live near one another, but never have the divisions been so clear or so organized around politics. The result in the nation at large is less dialogue among people with different points of view. And Washington becomes more ideologically charged, full of people from blue or red communities with little interest in debate or compromise. Congress becomes a graveyard for ideas.

The better question is, how did we get here? How did a nation that respects the power of the individual, above all, become a nation of two great herds?

But it's not completely clear that it has.

In the past 20 years, America may have become more segmented, but it has also been homogenized. The idea of singular individual "places" is disappearing with the rise of national chain stores and niche marketing. Unique communities are being replaced by community types - suburban strip mall land, upscale urbanopolis - full of chain stores that cater to certain demographic profiles. After a while it feeds on itself and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This might be called the "if you build a Pottery Barn they will come" theory of community building, and in some ways it explains the cultural differences.

Stores don't sell products anymore, they sell lifestyles. And certain kinds of communities attract outlets, and vice versa. That, in part, is why you won't find a single Wal-Mart in Manhattan or a single Crate and Barrel in Arkansas.

And where politics is concerned, there are a number of factors behind the current split. The political banter has gotten uglier. When people disagree, those on the other side aren't just wrong, they're increasingly evil or stupid or - as top-rated talking head Bill O'Reilly of Fox News says - they're "pinheads."

On top of that, the world can seem like an unsteady, scary place right now (sociologically, economically, technologically) - and that leads people back to the comfort of hard uncompromising ideas. And politicians, sensing that feeling, play along, giving people what they want in turn for votes. We in the media reinforce these ideas when we talk about ... red and blue America.

But in the end, the real question is not whether red/blue America is for real, but whether it is a passing phase - a brief walk into political segregation before the diversity and voter independence that was once the dominant trend reasserts itself. The abruptness of the change makes it appear so, and regardless of where you stand politically, you have to hope so.

A nation this politically divided is simply unable to do much to address the very real, serious problems ahead. And no one has yet offered a feasible plan for linking a political party headquarters to a rib shack or a sushi bar.

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