The headline scrolled across the CNN screen the day after the November presidential election, adding an ominous tinge to an aftermath that included a news “report” that hundreds of students at the University of Mississippi had rioted against Obama’s reelection.

It turns out that it is not only politicians and their spinmeisters who engage in semi-hysterical brouhaha. CNN’s gun buyers were not arming up for fear of imminent civil violence, but rushing to buy cherished assault weapons in anticipation that a renewed Obama administration would ban them in a second term. As for that midnight “riot” at Ole Miss? Well, one Obama-Biden poster was burned. But most of the kids who poured out of their dorms after Obama’s victory was declared were mostly set on taking smart-phone photos of each other.

The narrative of a bitterly divided country may suit a media world that thrives on endless conflict, and it certainly played to those Republicans who were surprised they lost an election they had come to believe was theirs. For much of the US media, this was going to be an election that was “too close to call,” another of those quadrennial cliff-hangers that would keep viewers up all night. And for Republicans who had spent the first Obama administration years drinking their own KoolAid and believing that the President was an “un-American” interloper who would be dispatched at the first opportunity, they could not imagine any result but victory.

And then Obama won.

And not in a squeaker, though some die-hard Republicans tried to claim Obama’s victory was an election “without a result” because it left the partisan alignment in roughly the same gridlock grip as before. They pointed to Obama’s thinner margin of victory than in 2008, and that he’d lost Indiana and North Carolina, which he’d carried the last time.

But the data paint a different picture. The President won all the other swing states — New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado and finally Florida — mostly by margins of several points. His popular vote, once California’s millions of mail-in ballots are finally counted, will hit almost 51 percent to about 48 percent (which tops John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996 and George W. Bush both in 2000 and 2004). Moreover, though they had to defend 23 of the 33 Senate seats that were up for grabs, Democrats actually increased their working majority there to 55-45.

The reality is that the Mitt Romney Republicans were thrashed. They couldn’t beat a President who had governed through a flat economy, and they couldn’t break out beyond their base. By the time it came to vote, economic optimism was returning and people were willing to listen to Obama’s pitch to be allowed to “finish the job.” The Republicans’ biggest error was in believing they only had to talk to people like themselves: mostly white, male, older and living outside the big cities. Add that up and it no longer equals a majority, which is why the myth of a divided country is starting to fade.

It is important to make a distinction between American society and the nasty divisions on display in US partisan politics.

Americans may not see Washington as the answer to all problems, but they don’t want it to abdicate either.

American society was much more divided in the 1960s and 1970s, with draftees dying in the thousands in Vietnam and inner cities burning every summer on the fuel of racial resentment. The changes in sexual mores were revolutionary, underscoring the breadth of societal divisions.

But in politics, a basic establishment consensus prevailed. In Congress, lawmakers worked comfortably across the partisan aisle. That consensus wasn’t entirely healthy, and we should be careful about nostalgia for a more collegial Congress. Clashing visions on the issues are a sign of a healthy democracy. It is only the rejection of any compromise that makes it stagnant.

And Americans are not so far apart that compromise is beyond reach. Some of those who see a rising “values gap” in the United States point to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last June that showed the widest differences since it had begun polling in 1987. But the “gap” is almost entirely a result of the Republican side moving further rightward while Democrats remain roughly in place.

Take two typical questions asked since 1987.

“Government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Agree?”

In 1987, 79 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans agreed. In 2012, while 75 percent of Democrats still agreed, only 40 percent of Republicans did so.

“We need stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment. Agree?”

In 1987, 93 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans did agree. In 2012, the Democrat percentage was still 93, but only 47 percent of Republicans still agreed.

Many on the Republican side moan that “Obama is changing America.” The reality is that it is the Republican Party that has changed, and the numbers belie the Tea Party claim to be the voice of mainstream America.

Mainstream America actually forms a policy circle from centre-left through centre-right, which Obama’s agenda, described by Rahm Emanuel as being for “middle class progressive growth,” aims to navigate. It is within that circle that political compromise can emerge.

Easing partisan gridlock so that America can come together within the mainstream circle is unlikely to get the boost in moderation it needs from two forces whose influence thrives on divisions: electronic media and political money. Their durability and unwillingness to change has already been on display in the frenzied focus on the “financial cliff” formed by the year-end expiry of the Bush tax cuts, combined with mandated across-the-board spending cuts.

But the extent of Republican weakness becomes starker when measured against the failure to achieve Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s declared goal, uttered prior to the 2010 midterm elections, that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President.”

Few phrases in the American political lexicon are sadder than “one-term President.” It reeks of failure. Of the last eight elected presidents going back to Franklin Roosevelt, all but two — George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — won a second term. The political difference between winning once and winning twice is almost incalculable. Losing reelection dims that first victory and any first-term accomplishments.

But reelection signifies an accrual of political capital that is essentially personal for a president. When defeated vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan suggested a week after the election that Obama didn’t “have a mandate” because the GOP had retained the House of Representatives, conservative commentator David Frum responded: “Whether he has a mandate is a matter of opinion. Whether he has power is a matter of fact.”

Some Republicans, sobered by their fifth loss in the popular vote over the last six elections, have called for a reality check on the game plan of blind obstinacy. Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal urged his colleagues to stop being “the stupid party (of) dumbed-down conservatism.”

And there is a hint that Obama can succeed in bringing Americans — if not all of their political leaders — onto some middle ground. The President indicated in his post-election news conference that he understands the perils of “presidential overreach” in a second term. He now accepts he won’t change Washington. His challenge is to make it function. For about 15 months, until the next congressional election cycle hardens minds, he has the asset of the more resonant public pulpit that his decisive reelection provides. Obama needs to find his narrative voice again to mobilize Americans to accept the centrist and constructive solutions they indicate they want.

As Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in the New York Review of Books, America’s biggest problems are structural, not cyclical. Obama’s campaign, with its emphasis on investment in education, infrastructure and research, recognizes this. So do the calls for a “grand bargain” on spending and the deficit longer-term.

Canadians must also pay attention to the shift in the political landscape to the south. Ottawa needs to be creative in articulating a vision of how North American partners can work together on the big, long-term issues of global competitiveness and the rise of China. Our game plan has been built around energy exports, but the United States, at the moment our only serious customer, is on track toward energy self-sufficiency. That will give the President much greater freedom, not only in energy matters but on the environment and in foreign policy. What is the Canadian answer if Obama starts to push cautiously harder on climate change?

The United States may be moving past the paralyzing debates of “big” government versus “small” government, hopefully to enter the age of simply “good” government. The election result suggested that while Americans don’t see Washington as the answer to all their problems, they don’t want it to abdicate either. Just ask the auto workers of Ohio who rejected Romney’s opposition to the bailouts that saved the auto industry. Or look at Governor Jerry Brown’s success in getting Californians to agree to a tax increase in order to avert further education cuts. Those are hints that this election may harbour the seeds of consensus to make the next few years potentially very promising.

Photo:  David Peterlin / Shutterstock

Contributing Writer Jeremy Kinsman served as Canada’s ambassador or high commissioner to 15 countries and organizations, including Russia, Britain and the European Union. He currently heads a Community of Democracies program for democracy development and is Regents’ Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. He is distinguished visiting diplomat at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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