Press-Republican

November 11, 2012

A nation divided

Colin Read
Press-Republican

---- — Whew, that’s over now.

More than six billion dollars of commercials later, in what has become the “Television Station Advertising Relief Program (TSARP),” we have re-elected a president and produced a House and Senate each with a couple more Democrats. Very little has changed, except the spirit of a nation.

Half of the nation is overjoyed, and half is glum. Most claim the great divide is along party lines. Others argue it is along income, ethnic, gender or age lines. I think the divide is more complicated.

In the last half-dozen years, we have witnessed disasters at a distance, in New Orleans and in New York and New Jersey. We have also witnessed disasters locally, when Lake Champlain filled three feet over flood stage and when Hurricane Irene wrecked havoc.

The residents of Louisiana huddled, frustrated, as they viewed, at least from their perspective, benign neglect by a nation. Then, a hurricane hit the major urban center on the East Coast, and the resources of a nation are mobilized, even in advance of the storm. Here, the New York side of Lake Champlain is ignored when Lake Champlain experiences a thousand-year flood, while Burlington is rebuilt with state and federal aid.

A few months later, Hurricane Irene hit our region. Again, the eyes of the country are on Vermont, and FEMA swept in again to rebuild. It was widely reported that a couple of people died in Vermont in that storm, and rivers claimed sections of towns. Meanwhile, two lives were lost in Altona, as were whole sections of towns, but few noticed, especially FEMA.

I point out these differences because they portend to our nation’s divide. Burlington, an urban area, is the defacto political center of mass of Vermont. And New York City is the center of media and finance and hence political influence. Power and government are closely associated with urban centers.

Lost in this emphasis on all things urban are rural areas like ours, or rural states like Louisiana. Our lack of population concentration means we grow accustomed to the fact that, should something go wrong, police may be an hour away. In New York City, they are likely a block away. Rural areas cannot rely on government and have developed a resiliency unfamiliar to our urban cousins.

This is the root of the great divide. Our nation is less red and blue and more rural and urban. The election map just as accurately colored blue those areas with major urban centers like Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia and Boston in the east and Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle in the west.

Our nation is less Republican and Democrat than rural and urban. It may be impossible to integrate this fundamentally different reality in which one group emphasizes self reliance and smaller government while the other demands more government.

People want very different things from their government. Yet, we all pay equally. I don’t know if these differences can be easily reconciled.

The president had the wisdom to recognize this fundamental difference. He did not claim that a slight majority of the popular vote represents a mandate to lead, even if his predecessor had once made such a claim, then with a slight minority of the popular vote. Instead, President Obama recognizes this nation is divided and seems to accept responsibility to bring us together.

I hope he can. We won’t necessarily agree on entitlements from government today, but I believe the right leader can help us forge a productive and globally competitive nation tomorrow. This is not a time to view a 51 percent majority as a mandate to cater to either red or blue. We must now look for areas upon which both of us can agree. The president must bend and perhaps abandon some of his base and some approaches to which he has been wed as a lifelong citizen of cities. And, individuals like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader John Boehner must stop viewing their mission as the destruction of a presidency.

The best unifier for us all is the universal goal of producing sustainable opportunities for our children so they can enjoy the successes we once took for granted. If our leaders can stop looking at things as red or blue, rich or poor, male or female, white or non-white, young or old, and instead focus on a United States, we might actually have a good four years. If not, then we will continue to repeat a past that has not worked out so well for most of us. We can ill afford to view the fortunes of governance as the product of a winner-take-all roll of the dice.

Colin Read contributes to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press, including “The Rise and Fall of an Economic Empire.” He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh.