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US election blog

America's great political divide on Flight 57 from Paris

by Barbara Giudice

Article published on the 2008-10-28 Latest update 2008-10-28 16:44 TU

Well-known faces at Paris's Fiac art fair(Photo: Reuters)

Well-known faces at Paris's Fiac art fair
(Photo: Reuters)

When I moved to France from the United States over 30 years ago, I was surprised by how reluctant French people were to talk about their politics at their place of business. And the smaller the place of business, the less was said.

At that time Americans back home would not hesitate to let you know who they were voting for and why.  It was their right, their privilege, to scream it from the rooftops. 

The French explained to me that politics was too important - too much hinged on a vote - to bring it into the workplace indiscriminately. 

Who you voted for showed which side of the great divide between left and right you were on. Your career could be affected in a small company if your boss knew how you would be voting, or who you frequented outside the working day.

In the States there was not a great divide, and therefore it was just less important who you voted for or who knew about it. 

Even at the height of the Vietnam War, when polarisation was the hallmark of political life, if you were a little to the left or a little to the right, no one really cared in America. There seemed to be faith that things would work out in the end, or that they would somehow go on as before. 

Not so, this year in the US campaign for the presidential race. It does matter. 

Not so much because there will be any major shifts to the left or to the right, as European politics would have it, or used to have it.  But because of a cultural divide that this US election campaign has embodied.

And it goes deeper than the culture wars of the Bush years or the values that Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin represents versus the values of the Obama generation.

It has its roots in deep wounds from the events of 9/11 and how these events were perceived and exploited emotionally, politically. 

I was on a plane from Paris to New York recently to cover the election and set up RFI’s live election night special, and got into a conversation with a young American neighbour to my right. 

That’s where I noticed the change.  

There is so much at stake this time, that we automatically danced around political affiliations for quite some time, not saying straight off who was for what. He was from Texas, I live in Paris via New York. He worked in the oil industry, I’m a journalist. 

When he expressed fear about Palin as a possible vice-president, we got on to the “drill, drill, drill” philosophy of the Republican ticket. And this segued into the war in Iraq.

By that time my young interlocutor had let the cat out of the bag; nailed his colours to the mast; called a spade a spade.

The war in Iraq was a mistake, he said.  How couldn’t Americans have understood that going after terrorists is not the same as going after a country?

So, it had taken a while. But from our conversation we each had figured out how the other would be voting.

Then my young friend went on to something else. He said he had been to a few Arab weddings in Texas. Every wedding meant 500 people.  And they were all considered family.

He said he tried to explain to people back home that under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis may not have been well off, but they didn’t have bombs raining down on them. All the bombs that have fallen in the war, he said, have surely killed one in 500 people, which means, he said, that every Iraqi has a member of his family who has been killed. 

Just then the American neighbour to my left said, without lifting her face from her paperback, “I lost my son-in-law in 9/11.” 

That’s all she said, and continued reading her book.

The conversation stopped. There was silence for a very long time. The cultural divide was not bridged. The perceptions relating to an American trauma were not altered. Everyone remained exactly where he or she had started out. 

And the stakes of this campaign and the current American conversation hung like dank smoke in the pressurized air of flight 57.