A shorter version of this column appeared first in the Wall Street Journal.
I recently said goodbye to car I had enjoyed and cherished for several years, repeating an experience familiar to most of my fellow baby-boomers. Bringing our twenty-year-old son into the garage the night before taking the vehicle back to the dealer at the expiration of the lease, I unsuccessfully invoked the bittersweet nature of the moment. “Take a good look,” I urged. “This is the last night he’s going to spend in this garage, the only home he’s ever known.”
My boy didn’t get it. “Sometimes you’re really weird, you know that, Dad?” he shrugged. “I don’t think your car is going to feel the pain.”
Of course, automobiles have never been as magical and significant to today’s young people as they were to that first suburban generation after World War II. For kids like my son, it’s easy to take cars for granted: ever since he was born, his father had one and his mother had another and teenagers in his world got their own vehicles as a matter of entitlement.
My parents, on the other hand, didn’t get their first car till I was five and I recall their acquisition of a slightly used ’53 Plymouth as a very big deal. My father had just completed his PhD in physics (thanks to the GI Bill), preparing to take his first significant job in a San Diego aerospace firm. This meant driving our little family across the country from Philadelphia, separating a twenty-something couple and their kindergartner son from the sticky web of immigrant clans back east. The car was the vehicle for adventure, a declaration of independence. We camped in National Parks on the way west toward the frontier, taking pictures of the grey, boxy, strikingly unstylish Plymouth in one scenic location after another. Even by the standards of the time, our glorious chariot counted as underpowered—with a noisy V6 engine charitably rated at 100 horses. “Just think about it,” my father proudly observed, rumbling down the Pennsylvania Turnpike—the self-proclaimed “Dream Highway” completed just before the war. “If we were riding in a stage coach, like cowboy days, it would take a hundred horses galloping together to get us to go like this one car!”
The Plymouth continued as an indispensable member of the family during our new life in San Diego, with my mother dropping my dad at work in the mornings so she could use the car for errands and shopping. For me, the grey sedan still stood for outings, field-trips and fun—especially after baby brothers began to arrive in 1956. Eventually there were three of them and that meant too many people—six, to be precise—for the now faded vehicle to handle with comfort, even in an era before mandatory car seats. A new station wagon became inevitable and my parents paid little attention to my pleas that they should somehow hold on to our comfortable old car. I was twelve at the time of separation, emotional and unreasonable about nearly everything, and I remember the last night before they traded it in as inexpressibly sad. I pleaded for a chance to say a proper, weepy goodbye and my mom granted permission for me to sleep that night in the back seat of the Plymouth, parked on the street in front of our home.
No other parting with an automobile has ever seemed so dramatic to me, but it’s always a bittersweet reminder of passing time and relentless change when you dispense with a familiar vehicle. The first car I ever personally purchased, a tan-colored ‘73 Subaru, seemed so fresh and frisky and up-to-date when I originally took it home, but a mere eight years later it had become an aging, non-descript clunker. In recent years, I’ve been switching cars more frequently because it makes sense to lease them for business purposes, so the attachment never gets especially intense.
And for my children, those connections mean virtually nothing because cars hardly count as the potent symbols of power, maturity and self-reliance they represented forty and fifty years ago. Al Gore and his acolytes equate the internal combustion engine with climate change, over-consumption and environmental devastation, and the mayors of trendy towns like Seattle and Portland have declared war on the automobile as the enemy of civilized values. For enlightened souls in the upcoming generation cars have become surprisingly un-cool; riding light rail, bicycles or even buses represents a healthier, more responsible alternative.
With cars becoming politically incorrect, politically incorrect voices naturally flourish in the one medium—radio—that relies almost entirely on drivers riding alone in their vehicles. Perennial questions about the unshakeable conservative dominance of talk radio may well stem from the fact that most radio listening occurs during automotive commutes. Those who rely on mass transit or even carpools (where conversation among fellow-travelers trumps conversation on the air) are less likely to listen to talk shows about politics, regardless of ideological perspective. And no one can doubt that conscientious liberals are over-represented on bicycles, in environmentally responsible carpools, or especially in big cities with well-developed subway systems where radio-listening counts as notably more difficult.
Cars also appeal powerfully to one of the most important conservative values, so it’s not surprising that those who drive the most would find themselves tilting to the right. The big shift from trains to automobiles after the turn of the last century provided a powerful boost to individualism and the notion of American independence. Strap-hangers in public conveyances can only travel in groups, moving along with hordes of strangers according to schedules imposed by others. Once you get into a car, however, you go wherever you want whenever you want to leave, subject only to your ability to put gas in your tank. Those who relish that sense of control, and make the requisite sacrifices to enjoy it, will quite naturally ride to and from work in splendid isolation, kept company by simpatico conservative commentary by Limbaugh, Hannity… or Medved.
The emphasis on independence and self-empowerment in conservative thinking helps to explain the red state romance with automotive transportation… and with guns, for that matter, another favorite target of liberal critics. Sure, people on the right of a certain age may prove more likely to expend emotion in saying farewell to one specific car, but we will never go along with the idea of saying goodbye to cars.