THE HALLWAY is lined with the classroom chairs of little children. The man behind me walks with a cane and must seat himself on a different chair every time we move toward the voting booths. It is 7 o'clock Tuesday morning, and I am already the 25th person in line. The man with the cane points it toward the children's lockers in this packed elementary school hallway that serves today as Precinct 56, Ward 27 of the city of Baltimore.
"Look at this," says the man with the cane.
There are first names on each of the lockers. The names are Aya and Malik, Kameel and Kweisi.
"A piece of Americana," the man says.
But it's a piece that some wish to celebrate as part of our national mosaic and that others would relegate to a shadow area of the psyche. On this Election Day, which will give us George W. Bush for another four years, the radio says John Kerry's hopes rest with minorities. Historically, this means black people, and it means certain religious and ethnic minorities. Outsiders, all of them. In the modern parlance, it refers to the parents of Aya and Malik, and Kameel and Kweisi. The outsiders used to have names like D'Alesandro and Mikulski, Mfume and Venetoulis. They were political outsiders until they demanded to be let in, and one party embraced them.
By the end of the long day, the electoral map of America will resemble separate camps: Those such as Aya will vote heaviest along the upper sections of the Northeast, and Malik will vote in the far West, and Kameel and Kweisi will show up in a few scattered states that appear on the map like aberrations.
And millions of others, making up this great swath of Republican red, will stretch from the southeast across the land and go as far as the eye can see.
Pretty much, it has been this way for the past 40 years. That was America's last great romance, 1964, between voters and their liberal ideals. The country simultaneously tore down racial discrimination and elected Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who had looked at legalized bigotry and pronounced, "We shall overcome."
The South has exacted its revenge for this for the past 40 years.
But we call it something else. Richard Nixon called it his "Southern strategy," and Ronald Reagan had great fun talking of "welfare queens." George Bush the elder gifted us with Willie Horton, and his son made sure to call Kerry a Massachusetts liberal at every opportunity. Forty years ago, a liberal was somebody who honored John Kennedy's death and supported civil rights legislation. Thus we finish the story of Massachusetts liberals.
Anyway, Bush II didn't have to work so hard on euphemisms. For him, the work has been done, the legacy rooted deeply enough over 40 years that millions have long since chosen up sides and dug in. This is the whispered division in national politics: millions still perceived as outsiders, by dint of race or religion, or ethnicity - or by sexual orientation.
This was the great surprise about exit polls this week, which asked voters their great motivation. The highest percentage pointed to something called moral values - 22 percent calling this the most important issue and roughly 80 percent of these voters going for Bush.
In the midst of terrorism and war and an economic grind, what was the big morality issue that made the nation tremble? Gay marriage. Again, the politicians find outsiders, brandish a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and fire up the Bush evangelical base - millions who believe we have to be protected from those whose culture, whose "lifestyle," somehow threatens our own.
The day after the election, Sen. Barbara Mikulski went to Lombard and Light streets, outside Harborplace, to wave at passing drivers and thank them for re-electing her. When she's in the mood, Mikulski can talk about the political journey of America's outsiders and make you absolutely weep.
She can talk of the melancholia of those who left Europe, saying goodbye to their families and their native language, each huddling in their separate community when they arrived here. And about the factories and the sweatshops that hired strictly by ethnic background, and the waterfront and construction jobs that hired by race. She can tell you about Polish savings and loans that were established long ago because the downtown banks routinely discriminated, resulting in Eastern Avenue becoming what everybody called the Polish Wall Street.
They were considered outsiders in their time, all of them.
That's the oldest game in politics. Today, the politicians talk of firming up their base. It means knowing who your voters are - and who they aren't. And you know what their biases are - their sense of feeling like an outsider, or their sense of worrying about them - and you play to that fear; you divide and conquer.
The day after the election, as Mikulski stood waving at drivers, she wasn't in the mood to talk about presidential politics splitting the country. "I'll let the pundits talk about that," she said, and then an aide stepped in to brush aside any further questions.
Too bad. We find ourselves painfully divided today, in numbers and in national mood. The numbers say we've settled down in packs and look to hold off those who don't think the way we do. We need some national language of healing. We see names, some of them scrawled on children's lockers. The man in the voting line Tuesday proudly called it Americana. But the poor guy was limping on a cane.