After I’d cast my vote on November 7, 2000, I said to a lady walking out of the polling place with me, “I’m glad that’s done. Tomorrow we can all just be Americans again instead of being so divided.” She smiled and nodded. Little did I know that there would be legal challenges, recounts and an unprecedented ordeal to follow. It was almost as though a president had never been chosen by electoral votes even though he’d lost the popular vote. In reality, it had happened at least twice before.
I have begun to wonder if we will ever reunite as a nation, and what it means if we don’t. Since the Civil War, even the bitterest of disagreements have been set aside after elections, and everyone has accepted the outcome of the free and fair exercise of our vote. The 2000 election marked the first time in my memory courts and attorneys were involved in any significant, public manner. The result has been truly ugly. Although there have always been some irregularities in various elections, the accuracy of the system as a whole had never been doubted. Now questioning elections has become second nature in only a few short years, and today’s election will be supervised by tens of thousands of attorneys. I understand how Al Gore felt, but still deeply wish he’d stepped aside when it became clear the way the electoral votes would swing, as so many gentlemen had done before him.
Worse than the undermining of our election process, however, is the undermining of our unity. We’d always been one nation (most of us under God), indivisible. We agreed on principles, if not on policy. We all wanted a stronger America. We all wanted to be safe, and we all wanted effective laws and an effectual government. After an election, despite some inevitable grumbling, we all supported our president and respected the Office of the Presidency, and we cared about our country more than about who happened to occupy the chief executive office for a few years. After all, should our candidate not win, there would be another election in 4 years.
The division that has developed since 2000 seems to be a desperately wide gulf, but it doesn’t have to be. The House of Representatives and the Senate are likely going to be occupied by even larger Democratic Party majorities by morning, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Do I disagree with their policies? Yes, I do, and I think they’ll hurt the economy* and perhaps perpetuate the rift between ideological groups, but I also recognize the fact that if they do those things, the next election will see a change of power yet again. That’s the first step in reunifying: we must recognize that the party we happen to disagree with winning an election is not the end of the world.
The second step is to recognize that most Americans are not at the far edge of their ideology, whether conservative or liberal. Many of the Democrats who will win tonight will succeed because they’re not the ultra-liberal fringe of their party, but moderates. The core of America is still moderate. If we fail to recognize that our similarities are greater than our differences we will remain divided, and as Lincoln observed, paraphrasing a Biblical quotation, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” While I don’t think the country would fall apart in the face of prolonged differences, I do think that the longer we remain separated into vehement ideological camps, the less our “representatives” have to actually represent us. They can continue lining their pockets and doing whatever lobbyists tell them to, or nothing at all, so long as we’re fighting each other instead of watching them.
No matter who controls our legislative or executive branches in the morning, all Americans will win if we begin again to hold our representatives accountable to us rather than staying at each other throats.
*This post isn't about division, but it is notable that I first wrote it on 11/07/2006. The paragraph read: "The House of Representatives and the Senate are likely going to be occupied by Democratic Party majorities by morning, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Do I disagree with their policies? Yes, I do, and I think they’ll hurt the economy and perhaps perpetuate the rift between ideological groups..." Is our economy better, or worse off than prior to the 2006 elections? While it's not fair to blame one party for the current economic difficulties, it's clear that one party has certainly worked to prevent recent reform efforts that might have helped avoid it. For more information, please read Orson Scott Card's essay on the subject.