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The next four years


The 2012 election provided plenty of reasons to celebrate, Barack Obama's re-election only one of them. A record number of women in the Senate. The first openly gay Senator. A House of Representatives with more Latinos, more Asian-Americans, three new openly gay members....

Also worth celebrating: the stunning dedication of voters, some of whom stood in line for six hours – until 1 o'clock in the morning – continuing to stand and wait even though the election's outcome was clear. In areas hit by Hurricane Sandy, storm-traumatized people found their way to makeshift voting precincts and voted. By candlelight.

Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

But the election also left some very troublesome debris. Among the problems: the amount of money spent on campaigns. It's a hoot that the efforts of Karl Rove, Sheldon Adelson, and the like bore so little fruit. But that's in part because Democrats and their supporters spent plenty of money themselves. The money that went into campaign advertising was unconscionable, and there's little reason to hope for change.

Second: this was the ugliest campaign I can remember. We might dismiss the pronouncements of people like Donald Trump, but Mitt Romney's lies weren't coming from the fringe. Nor, locally, were the direct-mail pieces aimed at Democrat Ted O'Brien, painting a decent, honorable man as siding with people who sexually abuse women and children.

But a third problem may be more serious, and will be harder to overcome: that is the deep, deep division in the country. The scene captured by television cameras at the Romney and Obama Election Night rallies in Boston and Chicago said it all.

The Romney supporters were almost exclusively middle-aged and older. And white. The people cheering and crying in McCormick Center in Chicago were young, old, black, Hispanic, Asian, white....

This, of course, is how the vote broke.

America is a multi-racial, multi-cultural nation – in some places. The red-blue voter map seems to get more startling with each new election. With a few exceptions, the blue states flank the shores of the Atlantic (north of the Mason-Dixon line) and Pacific Oceans. Except for the Midwestern cities, the vast expanse of the interior and southern United States is heavily red. And even in solidly blue states like New York, get very far out from the cities and you're in red country.

We are a nation at once diverse and segregated, a nation that both prides itself on its melting-potted nature and fears it. This is not new, nor is the outright hatred that some Americans feel for others. But it is a serious problem, and it will make it more difficult for the president and Congress to face the enormous challenges that are ahead. Wealth disparity, infrastructure decay, education, climate change, energy, health care: a divided nation can't deal successfully with these.

Shortly after midnight on Election Night, columnist Eugene Robinson, an African American, posted this on the Washington Post website:

"The GOP and Mitt Romney ran a campaign designed to capture a huge share of a shrinking segment of the electorate: white men. Sorry to be so blunt, but that's the demographic Republicans tried to capture, with their incessant talk of 'taking the country back' and their long-running attempt to portray Obama as somehow alien and threatening."

"Note to the GOP: It's our country, too," Robinson wrote. "And no, you can't have it back. We all have to share."

There ought to be a way to reach all but the most extreme in this divided nation. We ought to be able to celebrate our diversity rather than fear it. But the divisions we saw in the 2012 election campaign, and the intractableness we're seeing among House conservatives in these early post-election days, show us how tough it will be to move forward.

If Barack Obama can pull most of us together, if he can use his immense oratorical skills to point the way to common ground, it could be an accomplishment that dwarfs anything else he does in eight years.