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Healing the divisions in postelection America

Sunday - 11/11/2012, 4:06pm  ET

By PAULINE ARRILLAGA
AP National Writer

APPOMATTOX, Va. (AP) - Baine's Books sits in the heart of this historic village, a Main Street institution where townspeople gather for coffee and conversation and, every Thursday after sundown, an open mic night that draws performers from near and far with guitars and banjos in hand, bluegrass and blues on their lips.

Talk of church and school, and most certainly music, almost always takes precedence at Baine's. But we've stopped in at election time, and Lib Elder is at a corner table tucking into a chicken pot pie, an Obama-Biden button pinned to her blouse right next to her heart.

She knows without asking why a reporter has come to this corner of southern Virginia to write about an election that divided America among so many lines.

Red or blue. Left or right. Big government or small. Tea party or Occupy. Ninety-nine percent or 1. Employed or out-of-work. Black or white or brown.

This is, after all, "`where our nation reunited,'" said Elder, her voice tinged with slight sarcasm as she quotes the slogan adorning every sign into the town where, on Palm Sunday 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, marking the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

It's a nice idea, that a place could symbolize peace and harmony and, even, healing after what was inarguably the most divisive time in our nation's history.

It's just not something that Elder finds particularly authentic after another cutthroat election year across these "united" states.

The acrimony is still too fresh and far too raw. There was the family member, related by marriage, who accused Elder of "hating" her country because she had sent him a fundraising email for Barack Obama; Elder mistakenly believed he was a Democrat. And the white teenagers at the Appomattox Railroad Festival who saw her Obama button and jeered: "You know he's black, don't you?"

Peace and harmony? Elder, for one, doesn't see them. Not in Appomattox. Not in America. Not even now that Election 2012 is behind us at last.

"I think we are much more divided," said Elder, who heard similar concerns when she made get-out-the-vote calls during the campaign. "It's not that people hate the election. ... They just hate everybody screaming all the time. It's harder to hear anything, the louder you get."

And these days, she added: "Everybody's voice is louder."

It's a familiar election-year narrative, that Americans _ not just the candidates, not just the parties, not just the pundits who shriek at us from partisan programming _ but everyday Americans themselves are divided by an ever-widening gulf. We see it in the narrow margin separating winner from loser on Tuesday.

Exit polling also seems only to reaffirm these chasms. On one side we have most women, the poor, people of color, urbanites, young voters and those who worship infrequently. On the other we have most men, those who are rich and white, rural Americans, senior citizens and those who worship regularly.

Said Republican strategist and CNN commentator Alex Castellanos as he visibly agonized over this on election night: The country, "right now, it is split into pieces."

But is all of this an every-four-year phenomenon that goes away when the yard signs come down and the Facebook tirades finally end, or at least subside? Can we do as our leaders do? Debate with fingers thrust in each other's faces, tearing one another apart, and then shake hands, return to our corners and somehow attempt to live and work together once more?

In this slice of Virginia, a literal battlefield turned electoral battleground, there are those who are no longer sure.

They, like Elder, sense that something has changed. That the much-discussed polarization of this election will live on long past it, in ways depicted by more than a mark on a ballot.

Friendships may wilt, suggested local lawyer Michael Brickhill, as some "fade out of social circles that you no longer feel comfortable with ... if there are strong differences of opinion."

He recalled a business dinner in California not long ago in which the group agreed not to invite a guy who'd been ranting about the election.

"They were really, really afraid that he would not be able to relate on the common ground that we had formed," which had nothing to do with politics, Brickhill said.

Others may be hesitant to, at least publicly, brand themselves by party identity, said Bryan Baine, a former composition instructor who now owns the bookstore in Appomattox.

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