Conservatives and Cars

50s carI thought conservatives liked cars. Not that I can remember any particular moment when I figured out that conservatives liked cars. It’s a feeling born of a lifetime of meeting people and talking with them about their cars and their politics.

But conservatives didn’t like any car. They liked American cars. The early VW owners, who waved at each other on the highway, usually decorated their bugs and vans with flowers and peace signs. Maybe the country club set imported cars from Europe, but the typical American, the Marlboro Man, the NASCAR fan who really cared about cars, bought only from Detroit.

In the 60s, when I first began to care about cars and politics, the guys with the muscle cars, the jacked-up cars, the loud cars, did not usually march with anti-war protesters. They were more likely to be leaning on their cars, staring at them and their funny clothes.

So Detroit is a perfect conservative symbol. A family can put love of country right in its driveway. Buying a car is the biggest investment in American manufacturing that a family can make.

Americans didn’t invent cars, but we invented cars for the masses, a triumphant blend of capitalism and individualism. Millions of vehicles coming out of Detroit were especially suited to the American landscape. Station wagons and pickup trucks made the promise of individual freedom in transportation come true for any American family.

Any white American family, that is. No black family could travel as freely as whites until the 1960s, and it’s still iffy. But white or black, buying an American car was an affirmation that we make what we need, we support each other. As much as flying a flag, a car from Detroit was a symbol of American patriotism.

How natural then for an American car manufacturer to pay millions of dollars for two minutes at halftime on Super Bowl Sunday to herald their triumphal return from the near-dead just three years ago. What a coup to recruit Clint Eastwood, the most famous Republican ex-mayor in the world, who rarely does commercials.

Here is what Detroit asked Eastwood to look us in the eyes and say:

“It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again. Seems that we’ve lost our heart at times. The fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.”

We’re with you, Clint!

steve hochstadtWell, not all of us. Conservative political voices went nuts. The next day Karl Rove appeared on Fox News to say,

“I was, frankly, offended by it. I’m a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, I thought it was an extremely well-done ad, but it is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.”
Maybe I should have seen it coming in January as John Boehner sat in steely silence when President Obama told Congress that General Motors was once again the #1 car manufacturer in the world. It turns out that’s not an American message any more. Conservatives don’t like what happened in Detroit. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, today’s front-runners in the Republican presidential race, are running in Michigan on their opposition to the rescue of American cars and trucks.
Republican politicians seem to be attempting the mass hypnosis of the American public. They want us to believe that Silverados and F-250s and Rams are symbols of Obama. If Clint’s Super Bowl words are a Democratic message, what part of it don’t Republicans like?
Karl Rove and John Boehner, visionary and pragmatist, the ideologue and the vote counter, right at the center of Republican politics for the entire 21st century, agree on this: We hate Obama. Obama helped Detroit. A union is involved. The revival of American cars is a Democratic success story. So take your Detroit jobs and shove ‘em.Steve Hochstadt
I think Republican Party leaders have made a big mistake. Hatred for President Obama and anything that Democrats do blinds them to their own constituents. I still believe that conservatives like American cars. It’s only conservative politicians who sneer at them.
Maybe that’s why Eastwood, who last year couldn’t recall ever voting for a Democrat for President, recently said, “there was a Republican philosophy that I liked. And then they lost it.” Looks like conservative Americans will have a tough choice in November. Clint Eastwood won’t be on the ballot.
Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives 
Published by the LA Progressive on February 20, 2012
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About Steve Hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (2004) and Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (2012), both from Palgrave Macmillan. He writes a weekly column for the Jacksonville (IL) Journal-Courier and blogs for the History News Network. "His latest work is presented at www.stevehochstadt.com."