The seat of Clinton County sits along a river at the foot of a spectacular mountain range in rural central Pennsylvania. On Election Day, what happened there was a microcosm of American duality: Just 327 votes separated John McCain, who won the county, and Barack Obama, who didn't.
Lock Haven, a community of 9,000, is home to Kim Saar, a staunch “Republican all the way” who backed McCain and wonders how an Obama presidency could play out. Saar supports the outcome of an election that didn't go her way.
“It's the way society is,” said Saar, an underwriter for American Dream Mortgages, just off Main Street. “We were all raised to accept it.”
After so many months of rancor and debate, of Americans dividing into political tribes and demonizing the other guy, the days following a presidential election can be odd ones. Applying brakes to the trajectory of campaign fervor and deciding when Republicans and Democrats become simply Americans again is an intricate, delicate process.
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Yet for all the extended bluster, reconciling after casting our votes is something we do well and in a calm manner envied by the rest of the world. It's kind of astounding for a nation that built itself from scratch in 1776 by violently separating from a monarch's rule.
“It's still amazing that one day Bush will leave the White House and go home and be a private citizen, and Obama will be president, and there will not be a revolution in the streets,” said presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book “Team of Rivals” chronicled Abraham Lincoln's efforts to create post-election unity by including political adversaries in his Cabinet.
The alternative is bloodshed. In Zimbabwe, for example, the ugly, violent aftermath of presidential elections this year has pushed the country even further into chaos. The list goes on: Macedonia. East Timor. The Philippines. Kenya.
In Lock Haven, though, the first moments after the outcome was certain on election night were filled with the language of reconciliation so absent in the campaign's final weeks. Obama was generous in victory, McCain gracious and eloquent in defeat. The message: country first.
Said the winner: “In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. … While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.”
Said the loser: “It's natural, tonight, to feel some disappointment. But tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again.”
In short order, President Bush invited the Obamas to the White House. Transition teams kicked into gear. No one took up arms.
Even Elisabeth Hasselbeck on “The View,” who ardently supported McCain, said she would “jump in that line and support our president.” With scattered ugly exceptions, playing nice swiftly became the dominant narrative – even more so at a moment when a war overseas and hard times at home can grease the wheels of unity.
“We express ourselves and we move on. And I don't think America is a particularly angry nation. There's an awful lot of value placed on community and commonality,” said Sheenah Hankin, a New York psychotherapist who studies conflict resolution.
The amity probably won't last, though. Nor should it.
Gathering around the national campfire to sing “Kumbaya” would be neither realistic nor beneficial to the national interest. The campaign's gaping divides revealed fundamental divisions in American society – how we should run the economy, how we should interact with the world, what role government has in people's lives. That requires, in the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, “competing in that typical American way, which is hard-fought.”
“You fight for your position. It's what our founding fathers intended,” Powell said on CNN the day after Election Day. “They wanted a clash of ideas, and from that clash of ideas the people are informed and the people make their choice.”
We can't live with us, can't live without us. At times, the juxtaposition of spluttering invective and community warmth gives America the feel of a dysfunctional family – Mom and Dad arguing, then making nice in front of the kids.
And, in fact, it kind of is.
“Some things were said that probably shouldn't have been said,” said Howard Markman, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.
“That's exactly what people do in marital conflicts. We assassinate each other's character, we throw zingers. But most people want to save their marriages,” he said. “What makes for a healthy, successful marriage also makes for a healthy, successful country.”
Rapprochement may not always be overt, but it is present.
In Lock Haven, for example, folks report that in the days leading to the election, campaign signs for both sides were everywhere and things were kind of tense. On Friday, a drive in town and outlying rural areas revealed conversations about how glad everyone was that the election was over, and just five lawn signs remained – two for Obama, two for McCain and one for free kittens.
It's hard to quantify why. It may be because, unlike many nations, ours is an experiment founded specifically to chase dreams and shape ideals of self-determination.
We may be of, by and for the people, but the notion is embedded deep in the American identity that it's about more than just one guy or one election. For a society obsessed with outcomes, perhaps we revere process more than we know.
Goodwin, the historian, went out to dinner Thursday night at a favorite restaurant in Massachusetts and was speaking to the proprietor, a spirited Republican and McCain backer who had been fretting in recent weeks as it became more apparent that his man might not prevail.
And when McCain didn't, and Obama appeared before Democratic faithful at that park in Chicago, the restaurant owner watched, listened – and wept.
“He found himself stunned,” Goodwin said. “There was that moment of thinking, ‘Maybe it's going to be OK.'”