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The Trojan Car

The push for electric vehicles takes advantage of our nostalgia for American car culture, but it isn't the same.

Electric cars, we have been told, are the way of the future—and the general public is so enamored of these vehicles that they must be bludgeoned and bribed into buying them through various means of coercion both subtle and overt.

The veil was lifted briefly late last month, when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg commented that electric vehicle owners “will never have to worry about gas prices again.” While President Biden may feign sympathy for Americans paying through the nose at the pump and blame oil companies for the crisis, Buttigieg’s admission should dispel any notion that high gas prices are not ultimately a feature rather than a bug for the administration’s goals.

This comes on top of the other carrots and sticks that the government has put in place to encourage electric-vehicle ownership, including lavish government subsidies (up to $7,500 in tax credit now, and as much as $12,500 if the Build Back Better spending bill passes) and outright bans on new gas-powered vehicle sales passed by several states, including California and New York, set to take effect in the mid-2030s.

Has any other wave of technological innovation ever been forced so heavy-handedly on the general public? Can one imagine the Woodrow Wilson administration subsidizing Model Ts and banning the purchase of horses by 1930? This is hardly the stuff of which American ingenuity is made.

Gas-powered vehicles needed no such subsidies, because they were eagerly and enthusiastically adopted by the public on their merits. So were the airplane, the television, the radio, the telephone, the lightbulb, and virtually every other great modern invention. The current purveyors of electric-vehicle technology are attempting to bring about a forced and artificial version of this organic process, invoking its aesthetic and many of its trappings while rejecting its core spirit.

Innovation in the last two centuries was based on an optimism regarding human potential, a belief that technology could serve as an extension of human aims, that expanding our technological prowess would expand our freedom. This approach to technology does not necessarily entail a disrespect for nature; on the contrary, by overcoming obstacles and improving our lot through technological advancement, we are acting in accordance with a basic natural imperative.

The modern push for electric vehicles, however, is rooted in a grim, misanthropic vision of human beings as subservient to the interests of an alien natural world, a vision in which we must all work to minimize our impact on the planet. This view, pushed by those who call for “voluntary human extinction” and view our species as a “cancer,” would have humans scrunch down and apologize for their existence in the biosphere.

Of these two perspectives, the first is the far more uplifting. That is why the purveyors of the electric car, while in many cases holding to the latter view, cloak themselves in the imagery of the former. Instead of making their argument openly, they try to frame electric cars as exciting and to appeal to the noble spirit of technological advancement that guided Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford, and all the rest.

If you want to see this bait-and-switch at work, then watch the 2020 campaign commercial that showed Joe Biden driving a beautiful 1967 Corvette Stingray. A polo-shirt clad Biden, to the tune of upbeat music, reminisces about his father’s driving abilities and says things such as, “I didn’t get a chance to flat shift into second, I was afraid I’d go through those guys,” and, “The thing I like most is the setup right here, and you feel like you’re in complete control. This is just… boom!”

That is the bait. Here is the switch: “I believe we can own the 21st-century market again by moving to electric vehicles. And by the way… they’re making an electric Corvette that can go 200 miles an hour.”

In promoting their vision of an electric-vehicle future, the Biden campaign was forced to rest its emotional appeal on the nostalgic image of a bygone America that the statue-topplers loathe—of sexy cars being driven by manly men (a stretch in Biden’s case, but clearly the intent). The subtext of Biden’s commercial could best be summarized as “Make America Great Again.” These are the terms on which electric vehicles must be sold to the public.

Twentieth-century America, whatever its faults, was a nation that took a hands-on attitude to life. The automobile, for Americans of generations past, was a symbol of rugged individualism, an invention that gave people the agency to travel very far very fast, on no one else’s timetable or initiative, to be the sole determiner of one’s direction and destination. It was also a chance to show off one’s personal flair, a trait most readily apparent in the vehicles sold during the “Golden Age” of Detroit automaking.

Do not be deceived. There are no 1967 Stingrays in the Build Back Better utopia. Nor is the electric vehicles’ purported ability to go 200 miles per hour the reason why they are being subsidized with a $7,500 tax credit. The electric motorist of the future will drive something closer to a Prius than a Stingray.

Even the more appealing electric vehicles on the market are lacking in a certain spirit. For all of their gratuitous features and gimmicks, the Teslas you see on the road have a dreary sort of impersonal sameness. There is a sense that one is never entirely in control of a Tesla, that it is somehow larger than oneself, not altogether at one’s bidding. It is not a vessel for exploration or adventure, but a gilded cage for moving comfortably through the urban sprawl, safely insulated from the graffiti and homeless tents.

The electric vehicle has a long history of attempts and “almosts,” and it may yet prove itself able to stand on its own merits as a valuable technological innovation rather than a cornerstone of Build Back Better-ism. But let it not be forced. If a world of public charging stations is to be our future, let it come about as an outgrowth of the same spirit that replaced the telegraph with the telephone, not the result of a central plan crafted by bureaucrats and crony capitalists attempting to usurp the legacy of great men of decades past.

Jason Garshfield is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Townhall, RealClearPolitics, and numerous other publications.



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