Despite its name and our best intentions, the United States never formed a perfect union. From the founding, significant differences separated us, leading pretty quickly to a horrific civil war and eventually to a place where, in relative calm, we've sorted ourselves into red and blue enclaves.
By world standards, we behave pretty well; there's no need to call out the army when elections are held. Defeated candidates and their followers have no worries about prison or execution. But in recent years, the electoral aftermath has left hard feelings on the losing side, turning half of us into spoiled children.
The George W. Bush triumph in 2004 and the Tea Party massacre in 2010 left the blue side feeling blue. There was talk of moving to Canada. And there was political analysis to the effect that the South had actually won the Civil War, given the popularity of NASCAR, evangelicals and Paula Deen.
Three weeks ago, the winds shifted. President Obama's re-election set off a larger bout of pouting in red territories, where the talk even turned to secession. Through blue eyes, it was hard to see the threat posed by a center-left president. But many on the red side are convinced that Obama is a closeted socialist who intends to steer toward the dreaded European model.
By this week, more than 700,000 Americans had signed petitions urging their states to leave the union. A half-dozen states from the old Confederacy led the way, with Texas making the loudest noise. "Secession fever" was said to have spread from the fringe to the center of the Texas GOP as Rep. Ron Paul declared secession "a deeply American principle." (Despite earlier calls for secession, Gov. Rick Perry declined to sign the petition.)
Daydreams of reviving the Texas Republic (1836-45) seem, in some ways, linked to the fantasies of the Old South's Lost Cause -- grown men who put on gray uniforms and strut around reliving the "virtues" of antebellum days.
This is nonsense, of course. Even on the red side, secessionists represent a tiny fraction of voters. Their value is largely comedic. Presented with the "threat" of secession, the blue side flashed a smile and quickly agreed to an amicable divorce. But how to divide the household?
"We get Meryl Streep, Woody Allen, Bill Maher, Katy Perry and Jerry Seinfeld, and you get Ron White, Jeff Foxworthy, the Osmonds, Larry the Cable Guy and all the NASCAR people," Paul VanDevelder said in a commentary. "For the first time ever, we'll get to keep 100 percent of our tax revenue (go ahead, look it up)," he told the red side, "and for the first time ever you'll get the satisfaction of paying for your own schools, hospitals, military bases, bridges, highways, dams and flood control. This may strike you as a real hardship, but trust us on this one: Paying for your own stuff can be incredibly rewarding."
VanDevelder stressed that the blue side gets nearly all of the good wine, leaving fried chicken and obesity to the red states. But he failed to mention that the red side gets most of the guns and nearly all of the oil, a potential problem for the blues.
Just as secession (and secession humor) was making steam, however, "Lincoln" opened at movie houses across the country, offering a grim reminder that secession wasn't always a joke. Ending slavery and securing the union was an agony beyond anything we can imagine today.
Even from our vantage point a century and a half later, it seems miraculous that this imperfect union has held together as well as it has. (The European experiment is not going nearly so well.) Let us continue to understand that, even if an election goes against our red or blue leanings, our greatest strength lies in our ability to tolerate differences. It's what sets us apart.