LET'S FACE it, we are a divided country. As the last elections proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, we are not yet "One Nation Under God," but instead two fairly distinct cultures with two ways of looking at the world. You could chalk it up to simple population density if you wanted. Almost every city in America with a high population density supported Al Gore. The rural areas and small towns supported President Bush. We are divided between the blues (Gore supporters) and the reds (Bush supporters) as the now well-known voting map indicated. And there is no better way to witness first-hand the divisions in our national culture than a spring break drive down to north Florida.
While Charlottesville is technically in the South, compared to most areas of the Deep South, we might as well be Boston, Massachusetts. While traveling down I-85 south through North and South Cackalacka, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, these cultural differences quickly make themselves obvious. We're talking Waffle Houses - lots of them. Highway billboards selling us Jesus as if He were a new car. The "Shooter's Express" quick-service gun shops. And lest I forget, the mullets. Glory Hallelujah, the mullets. This is as close as one can get to culture shock and still remain in the same country. But regional idiosyncrasies aside, this rift in our national culture is a problem too serious to ignore. The problem is that it will take more than legislation to close this gap.
In fairness, this social divide is much easier for us to observe than it is for foreigners. A visitor from another country might not be able to tell the difference in behavior between a Californian and a Texan. But chances are, most of us would not have too much trouble doing just that. This cultural schism is not a reprisal of the Civil War. These differences are not confined to just North and South. There are regions throughout the country that bear strong similarities regardless of their location.
Many pundits roughly describe the political divide in America as one between the more moderate east and west coasts with the conservative interior. But such a description is in itself too broad. There are areas in the North that are very conservative just as there are areas in the South that are more liberal. During the Cold War, it was easy to be more unified since America had a common external enemy. That is not really the case anymore, at least in terms of this "enemy" being another country.
However one chooses to articulate this division, it is a very real one - one that could grow deeper with each passing year. There is a significant amount of distrust between the two. The stereotypes go that the "blues" are self-absorbed, non-religious people with little regard for family values and a high tolerance for social decay. On the other hand, the caricature holds that the "reds" are tobacco chewing, fundamentalist, militia-forming NASCAR fans who would rather shoot something than read a book.
On the whole, these are unfair descriptions. But we would be lying to ourselves if we did not admit that each one holds at least a grain - sometimes more - of truth. We have a harder time seeing this rift here on Grounds because most of us come from similar backgrounds - middle-class, suburban families.
Certainly, students from the infinite suburbs of Northern Virginia might have a slightly different outlook on the world than students from rural southwestern Virginia, but the national division in question here is much greater. The most frustrating aspect of this divide is that it requires far more than government action. President Bush cannot just sign a bill telling both sides to "just get along." In order for this split to begin to heal, it will take a substantial amount of respect from both sides, recognizing that this country is far more diverse than most.
What matters is that looking in from the outside, Americans have much more in common from a historical and cultural perspective than anything that divides us. On the government side, politicians - the president more than anyone - have to bear in mind that they represent everyone, not just the people who voted for them.
Adopting extremely conservative or stridently liberal policies does not help in this regard, no matter which party is in power. As any "blue" who has driven to Florida for spring break now knows, the cultural and social differences in our country are deeper than we might think.
Diversity can sometimes be cause for celebration. But in this case it is not, thanks to the wide gulf between the two concepts of what it is to be American. This rupture deserves more attention if we are to avoid the shameful prospect of becoming two nations who simply occupy the same continent.
(Timothy DuBoff's column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at tduboff @cavalierdaily.com.)