Listen Up: Cars Are Part of Politics, and Politics Are Part of Cars

The Drive loves the simple pleasures of cars and driving. But we can't and won't separate cars and the auto industry from the political world. To do so would be as dishonest as, well, a politician.

You can set your watch by it, or maybe a timing belt: Write about an American factory moving offshore, fuel-economy standards, or anything at all about electric cars, and some reader will respond: I didn’t come here to read about politics. 

In a bygone age, a reader so moved would have to scribble on a page, lick an envelope and give us a licking via the U.S. Mail. Now the reaction is immediate. But The Drive is not going to budge. “Everything is politics,” as Thomas Mann, the Nobel-winning author and German dissident once suggested. That definitely includes cars and the auto industry, in all their infinite, glorious, rippling permutations.

When The Drive opened its digital doors in September 2015, we were determined to be more than another destination for a boy-racer audience that only cares about an aftermarket wing for its Subaru STI, or Ford Mustangs. Of course we still cover Mustangs, because we love the products the car industry makes. But there’s a wider, fascinating world of automobiles out there. And it’s inextricably welded to politics and policy, business and culture—whether that’s Tesla’s Elon Musk sparring with a trash-talking coal baron, or Detroit rising (ever so slowly) from the ashes of bankruptcy and bailout. 

Cars don’t exist in a vacuum

Everything in its place, of course. You won’t hear us talk politics in a Dodge Hellcat story, unless it’s about freedom for Satan-and-Mopar worshippers. (Yes, that’s probably redundant). But cars don’t exist in a  political vacuum. I learned that lesson as a child in Detroit, where a Toyota wasn’t just a Toyota – especially in the auto factories where my grandfather, father and then brother all worked. Woe to the owner of a Japanese car who didn’t park at the far edges of Wallyworld-sized factory lots; he’d often find some choice words professionally gouged into his car doors. Vandalism, sure, but also a (literally) pointed political statement. 

Now, when some readers say, “I don’t want politics on my car site,” here’s what they’re actually saying: “I don’t want politics that I disagree with on my car site.”

But better to disagree with an honest argument than to tolerate a bland, sugarcoated diet of car stories. There’s already enough preaching to the choir in automotive media; enough cheerleading for an industry that’s overstocked with cheerleaders, apologists and hack reviewers who never met a car or company they didn’t love.

Too many issues to let it all slide

It’s also damn near impossible to write intelligently about automobiles and ignore elephants in the room. Whatever your view of the biggest, most powerful elephant of all—President Donald Trump—he cannot and will not be ignored. Trump has promised radical changes to an industry that we care deeply about, to which we feel a kinship and responsibility. Those changes include a potential 180-degree pivot on fossil fuels, emissions rules and other regulations. He calls for prodigal automakers to bring factories back home, or face tariffs that could drastically upend the auto market from here to Beijing. The administration is sailing into uncharted waters at unprecedented speed, unleashing tides of proposals that seem to advance and retreat by the minute. For members of the media, whatever they’re covering, the careening pace has been overwhelming, making it challenging to keep up and provide clear analysis.

Let’s review: The inaugural month of the Trump administration has featured near-daily talks or tussles with the auto industry. We’ve had automaker CEO’s pow-wowing with the president and joining his business council—or for Uber’s Travis Kalanick, un-joining it in the face of employee protests. We’ve had Mexican standoffs on south-of-the-border factories, and a serial suit-filer against the EPA rising to lead the EPA. That doesn’t even mention bids to restart the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. Or Ford CEO Mark Fields publicly opposing the immigration ban from company headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., where nearly one in three residents is an Arab-American—including a few of my friends who are deeply concerned with the stakes.

Make no mistake: The outcomes of these critical public policy debates will directly affect the cars you drive, in ways big and small. Not every reader cares, but others care deeply about issues like American and global manufacturing, employment, energy, fuel economy, pollution, mass transit, infrastructure, trade policy, taxation, and regulation. That’s all politics, and it’s all inextricably bound with the automobile.

Look, we get it: The endless campaign season, election and now post-election has been divisive, infuriating and above all exhausting. A car site can be an oasis of calm, a place where political leanings don’t matter and we find common ground, or at least more-innocent forms of debate: SUV’s are dumb, but wagons rock. Mustang vs. Camaro.

Your SUV is hauling two tons of politics

Yet even below those shiny surfaces, politics is always rumbling, ready to explode. The Camaro and Mustang wandered in the wilderness for a few decades, their muscle withered by the original Clean Air Act, until automakers figured out how to balance 500- and 600-horsepower cars with smog-free skies over Los Angeles. CAFE fuel economy rules were the Frankenstein that created the monster SUV, because automakers exploited a yawning loophole on light truck standards. Tightening those rules helped spawn the modern crossover SUV with downsized turbo engines—so popular that it’s supplanting traditional cars—when automakers realized they couldn’t meet stricter standards with V8 powered Hummers and Expeditions. If you drive a car, any car, you’re driving politics, from the design and placement of its air bags to the amount of gasoline that can evaporate from its tank while it sits in your garage. Autonomous cars are the next political frontier, with the potential to upend every assumption about how people drive, work and live. 

We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the intelligent and flame-free level of debate among our readers. Unlike some sites I’ve written for, The Drive has been blessedly free of basement trolls, schizophrenic screeds, ad hominem attacks or weak-ass conspiracy theories. Even when you take us to task for an opinion piece or review, you tend to do it well, with reasoned or witty arguments, supporting data and even (gasp!) links to help prove a point.

In other words, we welcome contrary points of view. But when it comes to the Big Issues in automobiles, we’re going to keep wading in, not to muddy the waters but to spark those healthy debates and hopefully find some clarity. Tell us we’re right, tell us we’re wrong, tell us we’re full of shit. Just don’t tell us to shut up, because that ain’t happening. And if strong opinions and earnest discussions aren’t your cup of unleaded, feel free to click over to something fast or furious. Like this $2.6 million Bugatti. Or is that just an ego exercise, a waste of automotive resources for some bored Kuwaiti prince? Cue debate. 

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home.