Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Contrasting extremes: America's election


America is an interesting country; they do things differently there. And increasingly it seems a place of extremes. The imminent election is increasing the perception of polarisation in US politics. Barack Obama's detractors tar him as an un-American socialist, and Mitt Romney's opponents label him as an aloof, rich, hard-right zealot.

I’m in California this week, writing a daily newspaper for an insurance conference taking place at some luxury hotels in Dana Point, Orange County. My hotel is in nearby, famously plush Laguna Beach.

Conference delegates are guiltily enjoying the west coast sunshine and evening parties, and fretting about loved ones back on the east coast being ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Contrast seems to be the theme of the moment. California is staunchly Democrat: "Laguna votes Obama" fills the window of the Demorats' local campaign HQ.

Executives at the nearby conference appear uniformly Republican: they bemoan Obama as "anti-business"; they will GOP victory on November 6; and they say a new occupant in the White House is a precursor for commercial prosperity's return. 

I witnessed another great contrast yesterday, while taking a pre-work beachside morning jog to clear a hangover generated by some late night partying in Laguna for Halloween.

My run took me along a particularly affluent stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, past boutique shops, muscle cars and luxury beach front properties.

After ten minutes I reached a sort of promenade, adorned with a lifeguard tower, bikini girls playing beach volleyball, and ubiquitous Old Glory fluttering against an azure sky.

Two men in suits approached. My immediate suspicion was that they were delegates from the event I was sent here to cover. One was fiddling with a BlackBerry, while the second spoke in the kind of boorishly loud tone with which Europeans enjoy stereotyping Americans.

Sharing the scene with these besuited men were several others, less smartly dressed, sat eating their breakfast on a nearby bench, contemplating the Pacific sea view. They were collecting free food handed out to the homeless and unemployed.

I heard the second suited man say: “Of course a lot of them aren’t really unemployed anyway. They might be working for cash, and not declaring earnings to the government.”

A few feet away a man on the bench sat up and shouted at the other man’s back.

“Tell that to 23 million Americans,” he yelled.

I had witnessed a very public, very political exchange, with these two men representing the two polar extremes of American society as the country prepares to vote.

The details of US unemployment statistics are up for debate, but the message was clear. 

Obama and Romney undoubtedly have very different visions for America. Their detractors like to talk up the contrast between them and suggest they represent extremes. The election result looks too close to call. 

America is certainly a place of extremes: conspicuous consumption and struggling poverty. It’s also a fascinating place, and I genuinely love it here.