The real disconnect in this country is not between Republicans and Democrats, not between red and blue or the righteous and the libertines. The real gulf is between the political establishment that feeds off those divisions and a populace that just might be willing to confront our problems frankly and honestly.

Think about the questions that neither George Bush nor John Kerry would address head-on:

Abu Ghraib -- who are we and what have we taught our children to be?

The clash of civilizations -- why do they hate us and how do we turn that around?

The loss of jobs -- how will we make ends meet and what should we train our kids to do?

Security -- forget the silly window dressing of color coding and Jersey barriers. What changes in our daily lives are necessary to stop them from blowing us up?

And poverty -- exactly how is it possible that we can be so rich, yet be surrounded by people who have so shamefully little and see no way up?

Rather than speak to the nation as adults about any of those issues, the candidates made this a campaign about stylistic differences: Win the war by intimidation or persuasion? Make nice to your friends or bull ahead with your own plan? Barely a word was spoken about changing how we live so that we're not at the mercy of foreign oil barons.

The governing dictum among politicians of all stripes is that Americans cannot be trusted to consider adult solutions to tough problems. So in the face of the gargantuan spending increases they both favored, the presidential candidates cheered tax cuts; they differed only in how they'd treat the super-rich.

Of course, there's no popular clamor for higher taxes. But check out Tuesday's results in every single Washington area community that asked its citizens if they would pay for new services. No matter where the voters lived, no matter their party or ideology, they said, yes, these are things we need, and we have to pay for them:

In Fairfax, voters decided to buy Metro the rail cars and parking spaces it needs to ease its current crunch; Fairfax also said yes to new parks, recreation centers, libraries, a home for delinquent teenage girls and several mental health facilities. Prince George's County voters approved road, library, community college and firehouse improvements.

Arlington voters approved new parks, schools and Metro and road improvements. Even supposedly tax-shy Loudoun agreed -- overwhelmingly -- to spend a sobering $100 million-plus on new schools, as well as a new park, community centers and even a performing arts center.

These are not trifling projects. They are big expenditures, undertaken by people with stressed and economically tight lives. But in every single case, the bond issues won by large, even huge margins.

Yet if you watch the politics in either tax-cut-addicted Virginia or slots-obsessed Maryland, all you see is lawmakers falling over each other to see who can promise the voters a bigger something for an even more brazen nothing.

The central question in American politics -- nationally and locally -- is how far things have to deteriorate before the will to address problems can be mustered. Must Metro, like New York's subway in the 1970s, suffer an epidemic of crashes and outages before it gets a rehab? Must we have homeless people on every block before our suburbs and the District take on the paucity of affordable housing? Must once-stellar schools chase away an entire generation of parents before teacher quality is confronted?

In the past week alone, I've had politicians tell me that the following things "cannot be done": Ease traffic congestion in Northern Virginia, meet Maryland's needs without putting slot machines in poor neighborhoods, build new schools in the District, get Metro's service back to the level we once enjoyed.

Yet the voters seem to believe that all is far from lost. People still pay top dollar to live here; they do so with the expectation that life will be good and get better. The lesson in this election is that the people are ahead of the politicians, ready to move forward.