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The two-nation trap

A divide-and-conquer strategy may be tempting. But a Democratic presidential candidate must speak to all of the people.

FACING A BITTERLY DIVIDED country, the Republican candidate decided that the only way to win was to secure his base. The math, he knew, worked in his favor. The opposition was divided, and the presence of more than two candidates in the race meant he could still be elected even if he won a minority of the popular vote. By capturing all of the states in the region where he had the most support, moreover, he would win in the electoral college - no matter how much he ignored the region where he was most disliked. Victory achieved in this fashion would no doubt make governing difficult, since the losers would view him as illegitimate and would resist his policies. But victory was the first priority; without it, none of his ambitious plans for the country could take effect.

The scenario, as any historian of 19th-century America will immediately recognize, is the one that resulted in the election of Abraham Lincoln. America was so bitterly divided in 1860 that none of the four candidates who ran for president that year could speak for the country as a whole. The only alternative was to unify one particular region and hope for the best. Lincoln did precisely that, winning every Northern state except New Jersey (which was divided between him and Stephen A. Douglas) and losing every Southern and border state. He obtained less than 40 percent of the popular vote. And even though Lincoln won a significant electoral college majority, his victory failed to stop the onset of the Civil War.

Given the political realities of the 19th century, Lincoln had no choice but to follow a ''two nation'' political strategy. This is no longer the case. Throughout much of the 20th century, protecting Americans against economic depression and securing our way of life against totalitarianism encouraged politicians to follow a ''one nation'' ideal and insist on what we all had in common. FDR might have railed against businessmen for their undue influence, but the New Deal was broadly supported by Northeastern liberals, Midwestern union members, and others, and it dispensed its largesse to the South and the West. Military mobilization in both World War II and the Cold War drafted young people from all over the country, spurred industrial production across the heartland, and brought new generations of Southern military officers to prominence.

Because policies became national in scope during the 20th century, so did politics. Whatever differences existed over race or economic regulation, both parties tried to build inclusive coalitions. Democrats combined in one party urban African Americans and Southern segregationists. Republicans appealed to the upwardly mobile in the Northeastern suburbs as well as the newly rich in the Southwest. There were exceptions to this search for inclusion, but even they proved the rule. When Senator Joseph McCarthy accused others of being ''un-American,'' his divide-and-rule tactics were - eventually - brought to an end by a bipartisan establishment that valued moderation over extremism.

The New Deal and the Cold War are, as they say, history, and because they are, there is much talk of how we are once again becoming two nations divided by race, region, ideology, culture, and religion. Such claims are often exaggerated. While Americans may have real differences on subjects like gay marriage, stem cells, and the war in Iraq, none of our divisions come close to those that faced Lincoln - or, for that matter, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. There is no compelling reason for politicians to repudiate the one-nation politics of the 20th century in favor of the two-nation strategies of the 19th. Yet that is exactly what is happening. We are having Civil War politics without having a civil war.

. . .

Republicans have taken the lead in this endeavor. Those who question the administration's priorities, especially in foreign policy, are accused of lacking patriotism. Tax policy benefits the Republican-supporting rich at the expense of traditional Democratic voters. Even funds for homeland security have been distributed to the disadvantage of those areas of the country that are most likely to experience attacks but which also happen to harbor large numbers of Democratic voters.

There is a short-term political logic to such a strategy. If a Republican candidate can put together victories in the states of the South and far West, where Republican tax cuts and appeals to patriotism resonate, all he needs is Maine and New Hampshire to win an electoral college majority. A Republican who achieved 270 electoral votes in such a fashion could become president without receiving a single vote from California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin. This is a regional strategy exactly like the one that made Abraham Lincoln president, only in reverse: It's accomplished by winning all the states he lost and vice-versa.

Meanwhile, the party that once stood in opposition to the Great Emancipator could win the presidency by carrying all the states that produced his victory. Winning the 15 populous states that a Republican can afford to lose, along with liberal-leaning Vermont, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia, would give a Democrat 265 electoral votes, requiring only one swing state - New Mexico would do it - to get elected. (This strategy involves winning only 19 of the 51 jurisdictions that cast electoral voters, but those 19 contain 53 percent of the US population.) A Democrat, in short, could win by writing off the South and West just as a Republican can ignore the North and upper Midwest.

. . .

Were he to become the Democratic nominee, Howard Dean would surely be tempted to follow the sort of two-nation strategy followed by President Bush. Unlikely to convince Evangelicals that he was born again in Christ, certain to alienate the hyper-patriots of Texas with his opposition to the Iraq war, sure to offend mineral-extracting interests in Montana and Idaho, Dean may be best off ensuring that voters in more liberal states really get out and vote. In so doing, he could achieve what Mr. Bush so far lacks: a regional base that can produce both an electoral-college and a popular-vote majority.

For all the talk about Dean's ultra-liberalism, the governor has tried to build support outside his base by publicizing his NRA membership, appealing to white guys who display the Confederate flag, and espousing fiscal discipline. These steps in the direction of a one-nation strategy, clumsy as they may sometimes be, make better sense than a strict concentration on states in which Democrats are already strong.

After all, if a Democrat is elected in 2004, he had better hope he campaigned on a one-nation strategy. One reason is narrowly political. Such a victory would not be accompanied by a majority in Congress, given the fact that redistricting so strongly favors incumbents. This means that, unlike President Bush, a Democratic president would not be in a position to use legislation to reward and strengthen his constituency. He would have to pursue a one-nation strategy to govern, even if he had opted for a two-nation strategy to win office.

But there is another, more broadly political, reason why the eventual Democratic nominee should try to win votes across the whole country and not just in his preferred half. The importance of Abraham Lincoln lies not in how he won the presidency but in what he did with his victory. Lincoln's death and the subsequent politics of reconstruction and Southern resistance kept the divisions exposed by the Civil War alive. But Lincoln left behind, through words and deeds, an understanding that Americans of all regions and races belonged to the same nation. Without that sense of unity, none of the domestic and global accomplishments of the hundred years after his death would have been possible.

Lincoln's example suggests the need for a similar commitment to the one-nation idea today. Instead of attacking President Bush for the divisive way he took the country to war, Democrats should develop strategies for sharing the burdens (and costs) of protecting America against terrorism. They should insist that any effort to exploit the differences between one religion and another, or between the religious and the nonreligious, violates the principle that whatever our faith commitments, we are all Americans now. They need to demonstrate that those who use government to reward, indeed to pay off, campaign contributors at the expense of everyone else are putting selfish needs before the common good. And most important, they must insist that children not yet born are the fellow citizens of those who live today; future generations cannot and should not have fiscal burdens imposed on them because we are afraid to make tough choices about what government takes in and what it spends.

In the end, neither party can successfully pursue a two-nation strategy because most Americans dislike the shrill voices of culture warriors and seek to avoid confrontation. President Bush seems to know this, even if a Tom DeLay or Newt Gingrich do not. He tries to take the high road while allowing others in the Republican establishment to go on the attack. Yet so powerful are the extremists in his party that on some issues, such as gay marriage, the president may be forced into the corner of intolerance from which he has otherwise been able to escape.

While the term ''one nation'' was invented by a conservative, Victorian British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, the idea has best been realized in America by Democrats. Their domestic policies, such as Social Security and Medicare, emphasized universality. They were the ones who insisted that the sacrifices imposed during war be shared by all. In spite of the segregationists within their midst, they were able, with the help of the long-departed breed of liberal Republicans, to ensure that black Americans could belong to the same nation as white ones. Their record has by no means been perfect in this regard. Democrats and liberals have supported forms of affirmative action that classified and divided Americans by race, and they have used culture-war issues such as abortion for their own partisan gain. But the Democrats nonetheless deserve considerable credit for the capacity of all Americans, in the last several decades, to feel a roughly equal investment in the idea of America.

Despite this remarkable legacy, Democrats, in the face of the current Republican onslaught, seem lost and uncertain. Their best hope is to offer what the Republicans have decided to reject: a vision of the United States in which everyone shares - and everyone benefits. The next Democratic president should not only win, he should win in a way that puts the politics of division to rest.

Alan Wolfe directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

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