This time last year just after George W. Bush had won his second term you would have thought the second Civil War was about to break out. I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase "a country divided."
At first sight, last week's elections seemed to furnish further evidence that the red-blue divide is deepening.
None of the four propositions Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed was radically conservative. They were mainly designed to weaken the entrenched opposition he faces in California from the Democratic Party machine and the public-sector unions. That not one of them passed tells you something obvious but important: A majority of Californians are Democrats. So while it seemed like a nice idea two years ago to have another Republican movie star as a blue state governor, what worked for Ronald Reagan in the 1960s now looks hopeless.
Add to this the looming battle over President Bush's second-choice nominee for the Supreme Court, Samuel A. Alito Jr. a judge whose conservative record is already causing liberal pressure groups to prophesy a return to the antebellum South and it looks like the U.S. cultural cleavage is deepening.
Or does it?
One of the most striking things to a newcomer to the United States is how very like one another these allegedly divided Americans appear to be. If you fly the 2,588 miles from San Francisco to Miami, as I did last week, the thing that hits you is how fundamentally the same these two places are.
To prove my point, ask yourself where you would end up if you flew the same distance eastward from London. The answer is Baku, Azerbaijan. If an Australian flew 2,500 miles north from Perth, he'd be just short of Kuala Lumpur. Only consider the immense cultural differences that separate these places and you realize at once that the most amazing thing about the United States is not its polarization but its homogeneity.
That's also borne out by serious scrutiny of public opinion. In their book, "Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America," Morris Fiorina, Samuel Abrams and Jeremy Pope comprehensively debunk the notion that American society is deeply divided. On numerous issues, which just don't get debated because consensus is taken for granted, Americans have quite similar views. Even on the issues about which the political class gets excited abortion, homosexuality, religion it's amazing how much middle ground there is.
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This makes sense for two reasons. First, look at the electoral map that breaks down last year's presidential election by county. There are very few parts of the United States that are bright red or true blue. Most of the nation is what you get when you mix the two colors together: a soggy purple.
The other proof is to compare American liberals with their European counterparts. Whether the issue is the economy or G-d, the former are significantly more conservative.
And that's why the real story this week wasn't Schwarzenegger's setbacks in California. It was Mike Bloomberg's landslide victory in his race for reelection as mayor of New York.
New York City is scarcely a Republican stronghold. Its many minorities traditionally have been reliable Democratic votes. Yet Bloomberg has demonstrated in this election that it's now possible for a GOP candidate to win votes across the racial and ethnic spectrum. He won the backing of nearly a third of the Latino voters and, even more remarkable, one of every two black voters.
Almost as interesting was the case of the Democratic candidate who knew how to win on "values." Challenged on his opposition to capital punishment by his rival in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Timothy M. Kaine responded that his personal views were rooted in his Catholic faith but that he would nevertheless enforce the law if he were elected. As a former missionary, Kaine had cast-iron credibility. Expect more faith-based Democratic campaigns in next year's congressional midterms.
That said, it's much too early for the Democrats to start preparing for power. Some unsuccessful Republican candidates are privately blaming their defeats on Bush's dismal recent performance. Seemingly unable to win his "war on terror" in Iraq, and not much more impressive in the "war on weather" back home, Bush is suddenly unloved.
When this happens to a British prime minister, there is a frenzy of speculation about leadership challenges. Not in the United States. Here, barring impeachment or assassination, every president has his sell-by date, and Bush's is the end of 2008.
No one knows who will succeed him, but despite all the talk of impending civil war, it won't be a new Abraham Lincoln. John McCain is a potential contender and, despite his denials, Bloomberg may have just entered the lists. For victory three years hence will surely go to whichever candidate appeals most to the nation's big purple center.