Look at the new US electoral map. You can see the end of the Third Way

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The Independent Online

The way in which the presidential election has split the United States almost exactly down the middle shines an intriguing light on the shifting cleavages of modern politics.

The way in which the presidential election has split the United States almost exactly down the middle shines an intriguing light on the shifting cleavages of modern politics.

It is tempting to see the outcome as signifying a nation divided, and there are certainly very real differences between the red and the blue parts of the electoral map of America. On the other hand, a close election can simply mean, as in this case, that the rival candidates have split the difference in the middle ground of politics with clinical precision. Fought to a standstill, Al Gore and George W Bush have divined with uncomfortable accuracy almost the precise point which divides half the nation on one side of the question from the other half on the other side.

What, then, was the question? The most prominent one, which may seem rather technical to outsiders, was that of prescription drugs for the elderly. It may seem arcane but it is in fact an epiphenomenon of one of the oldest and most enduring divides in democratic politics, that between big government and small.

Contrary to much of the commentary, there was in fact a clear ideological divide between the candidates. Al Gore wanted to use some of the federal government's budget surplus to pay for medicine for old people; George W Bush preferred to give the surplus back in tax cuts.

Yet the US does not seem like a nation at war with itself. Compared with the great convulsions of McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement or even Reaganomics, the contentions of politics barely break the placid surface of public life. The differences that underlay American politics may take essentially the same form as ever, but they are undoubtedly less intense.

The significance of this election is that it marks the retreat of the Clinton-Gore strategy of annexing the conservative suburbs to the Democrats' liberal urban core. That was the "new politics" copied in Britain by Tony Blair and given the Third Way label.

There are three possible explanations for the failure of that strategy. Was it because Mr Gore, with his attacks on big business and the rich, reverted to old-left type? Was it "Bill wot lost it", because the tawdriness of the Monica Lewinsky affair offended precisely that socially-conservative constituency which Mr Clinton won over for the first time? Or was it that politics the world over is returning to the ancient dividing lines because the Third Way has turned out to be unsustainable in practice?

Certainly there are parallels between the new electoral geography of the US and the divisions between city and country in Britain. What is striking about the new electoral map of the US is that Mr Gore has been left only with the big urban states of the north-east, Great Lakes and California, with increasingly-urban Florida in the balance. The urbanisation of California has produced the biggest redrawing of the US political map since the Deep South turned from Democrat to Republican in the Sixties.

Since the truce in the cold war between capital and labour, and since the end of the cold war in particular, it has been a truism of politics that elections are fought in the suburbs. But there are clearly two suburban cultures - on both sides of the Atlantic. There are the sophisticated, metropolitan suburbs of the big cities, which tend to the left, and there is small-town suburbia, socially conservative, hostile to big government based in big cities, which tends to the right.

In Britain, the fuel tax protesters and the self-described countryside movement are by no means exclusively a rural phenomenon. They are the political wing of that part of suburbia which identifies itself with "the country" rather than that part which has public transport. The suburbs themselves have divided, and they have divided along familiar lines.

Politically, both Britain and America are Two Nations. They are the same two nations that Benjamin Disraeli would have recognised. But they are not simply the rich and the poor; they are the country tories and the cosmopolitan whigs.