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A Split Nation? Don’t Believe It

Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution. His latest book, "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire," was published by Penguin.

Is the United States irreparably divided? To read some of the more excitable commentators on Tuesday’s election, you would think Americans were teetering on the brink of a second Civil War.

“To the victor,” thundered Time magazine this week, “goes a nation divided. A nation split over its place in the world, over its basic values, over its future direction.”

On one side, so the story goes, there is the Red Republican America of the rural heartland. On the other, there’s the Blue Democratic America of the urban coasts. So bitter has this year’s presidential campaign been, we are warned, that these two Americas are further apart than at any time since World War II.

The two Americas supposedly fighting this war are brilliantly caricatured in my favorite film of the year, “Team America: World Police.” Republicans are personified by the trigger-happy anti-terrorist squad Team America, which inadvertently destroys the Eiffel Tower and the Egyptian pyramids as they attempt to “take down” the foes of freedom. Democrats fare no better; they’re epitomized by the bleeding-heart liberal luvvies of Hollywood’s Film Actors Guild, who are duped into attending a bogus peace conference by deranged North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

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But is this really the state of the union in America today? It’s certainly true that from March on, when John Kerry became the Democratic Party’s candidate, he and President Bush were neck and neck in the polls. It was clear for weeks before the election that Bush could count on most of the states running down the country’s geographical middle from Montana to Texas and most of the South. Kerry, for his part, didn’t need to worry much about the West and much of the Northeast.

And it seemed fairly clear as well that the outcome would hinge on decisions by a small number of undecided voters in a small number of swing states, not to mention the substantial number of first-time voters, habitually ignored by the pollsters.

Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom that America has been rent asunder by this election strikes me as fundamentally wrong. Having spent much of the last few months on the road across the country, I am happy to report that civil war does not appear imminent. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the notorious political polarization in the United States is really nothing to worry about; it may even be something to celebrate. What we are seeing here is a sign of democratic vitality in a land that remains fundamentally whole. To a “nonresident alien” like me -- which means I get the taxation without the representation -- the most striking thing about this vast country remains not its political division but its astonishing homogeneity. Where else in the world could you fly 2,500 miles (say from Miami to Seattle) and find so little difference at the other end? Same Starbucks, same Wal-Mart, same SUVs, same people.

Yes, Americans were worked up about the election and, yes, there were some real differences between the candidates. But the things Americans have in common still greatly outweigh these differences.

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For a start, there’s a shared belief in democracy, hence those “Joe Schmo for School Board” signs you see everywhere, -- not to mention those 16 California propositions. Americans also share a real ambivalence about American power overseas; despite appearances, this was not a contest between imperialists and anti-imperialists, because only a tiny minority of Republicans want anything other than a short-term American military presence in Iraq.

Americans are not all Christian fundamentalists, but most of them are Christians (which can no longer be said of secularized Europe). Americans were not all in favor of the war in Iraq, but they remain a remarkably patriotic people, passionately convinced that their system of government is the best in the world.

Even those red and blue electoral maps are deceptive. You can meet Republicans in Manhattan and Democrats in Texas. And there would not be swing states if there were not near-equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats in up to 15 out of 50 states. Remember too that only 11 states have been won consistently by one of the two parties in the last eight presidential elections. (Yes, Jimmy Carter won Texas in 1976 and Ronald Reagan won Massachusetts in 1980).

Another key point is the extent to which American political divisions are not straightforward ethnic or religious divisions -- the sorts that so often lead to bitter conflicts in other countries. Sure, evangelical Christians are more likely to support Bush. But Catholics are very evenly divided. Likewise, everyone knows that black Americans are solidly Democrat (although perhaps slightly less so than they’ve been in recent elections). Four out of five were expected to vote for Kerry. But Latinos go both ways politically.

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Perhaps the most important point about today’s supposed polarization, however, is that no one ever seems to come to blows. Compared with the 1980s in Britain, this isn’t polarization at all (to say nothing of the many countries that went straight from elections to real civil war in the 1990s). Rather, what happened Tuesday was simply that Americans finally attained a normal level of political engagement after decades of low turnout. (Turnout was above 70% in every British election between 1922 and 1997, whereas the last time it exceeded 60% here was in 1968.)

As I write, the news from all over the country is of longer queues at polling stations than anyone can remember. There has been an extraordinary upsurge of party political mobilization (a neighbor of mine flew to Arizona just to help get out the vote). Call it polarization, if you like. But can it really be a bad thing that activism has replaced apathy?

To my mind, the most telling measure of the country’s new political vigor is the extraordinary health of American political satire these days. And not just “Team America.” The other night on Jon Stewart’s hugely popular “Daily Show” there was a “Fiasco Preview,” in which the deadpan Stewart told viewers: “Florida has been warned by God four times during this hurricane season not to let it happen again.”

That’s not to say it won’t descend into lawsuits again this week. But rest assured: A nation that finds this kind of thing funny is not about to descend into internecine warfare.

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