... for a Divided America


Los Angeles Times

November 4, 2004

Tuesday's electoral map looks eerily familiar. Despite the nation's trials and triumphs of the last four years, and George W. Bush's ambitious first term, the outcome of presidential balloting differed from 2000 in only a few smallish states — New Hampshire, New Mexico and probably Iowa. The red-versus-blue designation, adopted during the 2000 stalemate, seems to be indelibly coloring the map.

After the old Democratic Party lost its hegemony in the Deep South, Americans came to assume that, in a more closely linked nation less locked to the power of individual states, geography needn't determine political affiliation. But now we are left to wonder: Will a GOP presidential candidate ever again carry New York or California, and will a Democrat ever carry Texas or Georgia?

Bush improved on his 2000 performance by winning the popular vote this time, but his failure to broaden his national market share stands in marked contrast to most other presidents who have won reelection. Narrow wins by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were followed by convincing incumbent landslides four years later. Bush, by contrast, won a second term and a stronger majority in the Congress by further galvanizing already red states.

None of this augurs well for a less-polarized nation or a blurring of rural red and urban blue into a mellowing purple. The administration and Bush's red-state supporters will probably feel emboldened by Tuesday's results to press ahead with their agenda, and that will only increase the feeling of alienation in states like California and New York.

Tuesday's exit polls added to the sense that the red-blue schism might be more intractable than we would have liked to believe. That's because it is defined less by issues of the day than by battling cultures. For a plurality of Bush supporters in all-important Ohio, for instance, "moral issues" were more important in driving their choice than national security or the economy. Church attendance has become the most reliable predictor of political allegiance, and the likes of Karl Rove are cynically adept at exploiting this cultural divide. Witness the proliferation of needless anti-gay marriage initiatives nationwide.

New York state has defied the federal government with its activist regulatory actions. And an alienated California has unilaterally moved ahead on environmental regulation and, now, on stem cell research. If red and blue Americans can't relate to each other enough to put some purple on the map, their division will lead to more serious balkanization than a go-it-alone stem cell policy.