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The divided states of America

09 November 2012

POLITICS is a wordy business; so it is shocking when, on occasions, it is depicted graphically. President Obama's victory, more assured than had been feared, took place in a nation where the political divide is geographical. Political maps of the United States this week have shown the faultlines. The red swath across the middle of the continent - from Georgia to Idaho - is comprised of states that always vote Republican; the smaller but more populous blue fringes on the east and west coasts, notably California and New York, always vote Democrat. This is regardless of personalities or policies, finance or foreign wars, statecraft or social programmes. In the red states, it could well be true that many voters believed Barack Obama to be a closet Muslim intent on giving away America's birthright to foreign powers. In the blue states, Mitt Romney was often dismissed as merely a careless plutocrat with an interesting line in underwear. It mattered not a jot. All the attention, the majority of the $2 billion expenditure, the contenders' flying visits, the mobilisation of party workers, even the bending of policy, such as the shoring up of the motor industry, have been focused on the eight or nine swing states.

The spotlight on the presidential contest has distracted attention from the votes that will have a much greater effect on the next four years, those for a third of the seats in the Senate and for the whole of the House of Representatives. Democrat gains within the Senate were cancelled out by the Republican retention of a majority in the House, suggesting that the bitter, obstructive politicking that dominated President Obama's first term of office is set to continue. A straw in the wind, were one needed, was the ousting earlier this year of Senator Richard Lugar in Indiana, deemed by Tea Party activists within the Republican Party to have been too conciliatory to Democrats.

A strong opposition is generally healthy for a democracy, but not when parties become so polarised that representatives punish any sign of agreement with their opposite numbers, even when common ground is obvious to outsiders. In his victory speech, President Obama put a positive spin on this: "These arguments we have are a mark of our freedom." The passionate disagreements would continue, but he spoke of the "painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward". He concluded: "We are not as divided as our politics suggest; we are not as cynical as pundits believe. . . We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America."

We naturally share his hope that a way can be found to forge the consensus he described; so that the qualities that he listed in the speech - generosity, compassion, tolerance - characterise the US approach to its own people and to the rest of the world. It will soon become clear whether he is succeeding.

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