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Factions are breaking the U.S. apart

Here's a story about two friends that exemplifies why political labels don't mean much anymore.

My friend: down-the-line Republican. Hates big government, large tax bites and anyone or anything that intrudes on her privacy. Self-educated, lives on a horse farm. Myself: fairly reliable Democrat. Occasional crossover voter who will support pro-choice, pro-environment Republican candidates (when they materialize ). Graduate school educated, city-slicker.We're driving back from a long trip with another adult and three kids, all jammed into the two rows of seats inside her spankin'-new Ford Duelly, which almost without exertion also pulls a four-horse trailer behind. Normally we stick to talking horses and gossiping about the horse people we know in common. But on this night the talk turns to politics.

On abortion rights, we're surprisingly in accord. Neither one of us feels the government should intrude on a woman's personal life, though we come at it from completely different perspectives. She would never have an abortion and believes abortion is wrong but does not think she has the right to judge other people or tell other women how to live. Hers is, in my view, the quintessential conservative position: pro-life but vehemently opposed to government interference in personal matters.

Though we essentially agree on where the laws should come out, my beliefs derive from an equally quintessential progressive analysis: it's a woman's body and entirely her decision what to do with it.

Then we go on to single motherhood. I tell her it is fundamentally irresponsible for a single woman or girl without a husband to bring a child into this world. I also think it's unfair to the child to deny him or her access to a loving, stable father. Dan and Marilyn Quayle would be proud of this Democrat. My friend (happily married with three seemingly well-adjusted teen children) spits back that (a) men are unreliable, (b) God "don't make no junk," (c) there are no guarantees in life and (d) single, pregnant teens who decide to "go it alone" are making the courageous decision.

As the argument heats up, Rap artist Lauryn Hill's song about the child she bore out of wedlock plays in the background. My friend says, "This is my life story." Dan and Marilyn would look disparagingly upon this Republican.

The verbal crossfire reaches a passion-driven pitch. She describes how her husband didn't marry her until she was seven months pregnant and that she could have easily made it without him. I tell her society is unraveling at the seams with the boom in births to unwed moms. And the verbal to-and-fro progresses until the other adult in the truck politely asks us all to "zip it."

I feel sorry for party leaders. Our little debate is a microcosm of how difficult it has become to put all Americans into two camps. We are too individualistic. Politicians are stuck with having to patch together people with pieces of united beliefs but completely differing opinions on a myriad of issues. The alternative, a multiparty system, isn't too appealing, either.

I once interviewed the speaker of the Romanian House of Parliament, where coalitions are cobbled together among more than one hundred political parties. He told me, "If you have a large family in Romania you can start your own political party."

Let us hope we don't splinter ourselves into political oblivion.

Bonnie Erbe, host of the PBS program "To the Contrary," writes this column weekly for Scripps Howard News Service. Her E-mail address is bonnieerbe@CompuServe.com