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posted: 11/11/2012 7:03 AM

Nation's political divide is deepening

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  • An electoral U.S. map displays red states v. blue states on election night.

    An electoral U.S. map displays red states v. blue states on election night.
    Associated Press

By Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post

This was another paradoxical election. An increasingly conservative Republican Party held onto the majority of seats in the House, while Democrats retained the White House and Senate, Wisconsin elected a gay senator, Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage, and Washington state and Colorado legalized marijuana.

The Democratic governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, said the will of the people has to be respected, but warned pot smokers not to celebrate: "Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don't break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly."

The people have spoken, but the messages of Election Day are not easily heard in the cacophony of our political culture. Americans have conflicting thoughts. If anything, our political divisions are deepening over time. We have a divided government because we are a divided people. This is who we are.

Contrary to what the president famously declared when he came to prominence in 2004, and which he echoed in his victory speech, there really does seem to be a Red America and a Blue America, each seeing a markedly different reality. That's why seven in 10 Democrats say the economy is getting better, while nearly six in 10 Republicans say it's getting worse, according to exit polls.

Somehow, Vermont, which re-elected a socialist senator, is part of the same country as Oklahoma, where voters on Tuesday passed a measure to eliminate all affirmative action in state hiring and contracting.

When President Obama took a stage in Chicago in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, he described the country's stark ideological disconnect as an outcome of our political blessings:

"Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated," he said. "We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.

"That won't change after tonight, and it shouldn't. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty. We can never forget that, as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today."

By traditional calculations, the president was perfectly positioned to lose re-election, with the economy crawling along, the unemployment rate stubbornly close to 8 percent, and key states like Florida and Nevada struggling to emerge from a protracted housing crisis. But when voters were asked in exit polls Tuesday whom they blamed for the nation's economic malaise, only 38 percent said Obama.

Instead, 53 percent blamed a man so out of the spotlight recently that he may well be in a witness protection program: George W. Bush.

"Obama's done the best he could with what he's been handed," said Donna Namchek, 43, a business manager in Henderson, Nev.

Many said explicitly that Obama inherited a mess and needs more time to clean it up.

And many said exactly the opposite: That he failed. That he is a smart guy who couldn't get the job done and ought to be replaced. Some, angrier and sensing malign forces at work in the world, expressed fringe theories that Obama is secretly a communist, or is fundamentally anti-American.

Some voters said they were sick of the campaign and its negativity, and want a more united government.

"It's been brutal," said Karen Wood, a 39-year-old hairstylist who stood in a long line at Manchester Memorial High School in New Hampshire to vote. "It's been so much advertising, most of it half-truths if not outright lies. And I'm tired of watching them beat on each other. It's a sad state of affairs. I don't remember it ever being like this."

Said Kathy Roadarmel, 43, a teacher in Gainesville, Va.: "I think we need to re-evaluate the whole Democrat-Republican thing." She worries about the effect of the negative TV ads on her children: "It doesn't teach living together, working together. It's a bad influence."

At Mitt Romney's campaign office in Independence, Ohio, Steve and Christina Biro offered a completely different vision of the threat facing the country.

"It's called communism," said Steve, 59, a retired telephone company worker who grew up in Hungary and became a U.S. citizen last year. He said he thinks the United States is heading toward fewer personal liberties and more expansive government.

"We see it as a beginning of Nazism," Christina said.

Steve added, "Or communism. Take your pick."

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