Sorry Frankie, electric cars are political

evs-are-politicaleditors-blog-entry3Want to win some fans in the comments stream at a web site like PlugInCars, HybridCars, AllCarsElectric, etc.?

Take on all those out-of-touch troublemakers who insist on politicizing electric cars and write something like, “HELLO, it’s a car, not a political decision!”

Then, wait for all the other commenters to flock to your appealing “neutrality” and allegedly a-political views on cars (and everything else?).

They’ll definitely flock to you – and this is a bit of an irony – because there’s a strong dislike out there among the police of “objective”, “rational” living for misguided folks like me who insist on politicizing EVs, and cars in general. This reflects a deep-seated desire to believe in the “neutrality” and supposedly non-political nature of EVs, gasoline cars, or pretty much any other consumer item.

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Wishing away the politics
The only trouble is, wishing something to be non-political, neutral, non-ideological, etc. doesn’t actually make it so.

Sorry, Frankie, there is no such thing as an a-political consumer purchase. And, unfortunately for those who so badly want it to be so, this is case whether there is, or is not, direct political intent.

How might that be, you ask?

Ideology vs. politics
Before we go there, a couple of important definitions: Ideology and politics. (Sorry to start by defining key terms, but, as a college prof, I just can’t seem to help myself 😉

Ideology is a fancy word for values and beliefs. Everyone’s got an ideology, or, actually, a bunch of ideologies. Politics is the formal avenue people use to express their values, or ideologies – whether these relate to cars, money, religion, guns or the environment.

Just like any car or consumer item, electric cars are caught up in values, and, because we live in a political society, politics as well.

Here’s how.

Economic rationalism is political
Now, let’s say you have no intention of making a direct political statement by buying a plug-in car such as a Chevy Volt. Maybe you’re simply buying a Volt because it makes economic sense, or maybe you just think plug-in technology is cool.

For the first guy, the most important value is economic efficiency and cost. Notice that this is a value. Check mark on ideology here.

volt-to-rightOf course, many people don’t acknowledge that basing decisions on the economic bottom line is a value judgment, one that reflects and reproduces a powerful social value. That’s because economic rationality is a dominant value, quite possibly the most dominant value in our capitalist, consumer, society.

A large percentage of the group which insists EVs, or cars, are non-political, that they’re “just” a consumer purchase, fall into this category.

Meanwhile, the techie guy buying a Volt clearly values cutting edge technology. Once again, ideology — what we might call the ideology of technological progress — is present here.

Others’ beliefs
We’ve just scratched the surface on the values question. We haven’t even begun to talk about how others’ values affect the way your EV, or purchase of any car, electric or not, will be read, ideologically and politically.

Ask any conservative owner of a Toyota Prius how many times they’ve been mistaken as a “lefty greenie”, or, alternatively, how many times a liberal owner of a large pick-up truck has been pegged as a “redneck”, and you have a good sense of what I’m talking about.

Simply stating that a car purchase, and a car itself, aren’t political isn’t going to change the way millions of others think or how they read others’ consumer purchases as sending a particular value message.

Aha, you say! That’s exactly what we’re talking about. People “wrongly” reading cars as value statements. We’ve got to stop these fools from getting away with marking cars politically, and, voila, we’re done!

Not so fast.

‘It’s just a car’
First, as I’ve noted above, the “it’s just a car/EV” crowd, has its own values – typically, economic efficiency/money saving and “neutrality” and “rationality” are the biggies. In fact, “neutrality” and “rationality” are themselves values, though, again they’re dominant ones, which is a big reason so many people get away with passing them off as “non-ideological”.

Second, and more importantly and realistically, simply stating that a car purchase, and a car itself, aren’t political isn’t going to change the way millions of others think or how they read others’ consumer purchases as sending a particular value message.

Now, you might say, Christof, you’ve made a case for cars, including EVs, being ideological, but you haven’t made a case for them being political.

Cars – including electric ones – are inevitably entangled in politics for a variety of reasons. Here are just a few:

  • Fuel. Auto fuel, whether it’s oil, coal, natural gas, or solar-generated electricity, involves political issues ranging from war (for example, the Iraq War) to environmental destruction and basic land-use questions. To name just a few, there’s the current battle over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico, there’s mountaintop removal for coal extraction, the controversy surrounding the use of fracking to extract natural gas, and the political ramifications of mining Bolivian lithium for EV batteries. In fact, as the lithium example illustrates, the same political issues and controversies raised by auto fueling are also raised by the extraction of raw materials to build cars — or refrigerators, or computers, or furniture etc.
  • Roadway infrastructure. Whether you’re talking about privatizing the entire roadway system in the U.S. (or world), or pushing for more government investment in America’s roadways, decisions about roads – shared by millions of individuals – roadway questions inevitably involve politics. Just one example here (and I could provide dozens and dozens): The question about whether the Chevy Volt should be allowed into carpool lanes is very clearly a political question.
  • Advocacy and special interest groups. From the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers to the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association to Plug In America and the Electrification Coalition, myriad groups with both direct and indirect interests in cars, including electric cars, recognize autos are fundamentally political. These groups are acutely aware that if they don’t recognize this reality and fail to engage in the political process, they risk seeing their values lose out.

Who’s more “rational”?
Sure, it’s appealing – really appealing – to deny and/or ignore the ideological and political nature of cars, including electric cars. That’s why so many commenters on the internet flock to the “cars are not political” crusaders who typically cast themselves as the guardians of “common sense,” “rationality”, “logic”, and “neutrality.”

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Additionally, we all want to believe — very badly — that intent is what matters. If we don’t intend something to be political, it can’t be political. Of course, the only place where individual intent solely determines meaning is an imaginary fantasy world inhabited by us and a handful of other people who agree with us on everything in every way. In other words, a place that doesn’t actually exist.

Attempting to admonish the “misguided” EV-politicizing crowd and make these folks feel guilty for politicizing something that’s supposedly not political might make some folks among the “it’s just a car” group feel as if they’ve successfully banished politics from cars and car talk.

Indeed, some of those irritating “politicizers” might go away. Though, unfortunately, for the “HELLO! It’s just an car!” crowd, I’m not one of them 😉

In fact, banishing the politicizers from the comment threads below specialized stories about specialized cars on specialized web sites devoted to covering these specialized cars won’t do anything other than create a tiny, hermetically sealed cyber-bubble in which the illusion inside doesn’t in any way resemble the reality outside.

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