The US and Government 
Driving Perceptions

What lies beneath American perceptions of government

The American Dream: Summed up in an SUV? Photo by NRMA New Cars via Flickr.

The American Dream: Summed up in an SUV? Photo by NRMA New Cars via Flickr.

There is nothing more American than the car. That, at least, is how Americans themselves see it. Car ownership, surprisingly perhaps, is less widespread than in Germany, but has a hallowed cultural niche that is shared by few other societies. The car is a symbol not just of rugged individualism, but of American ingenuity and the genius of capitalism. The interstate system is the pride and joy of American infrastructure. Speed cameras have not really caught on, and they ignite a firestorm of public resistance wherever they are introduced. Local and state elections hang on issues of traffic flow. When President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, some Republicans depicted the Manhattanite solicitor-general as less than fully American because she hadn’t learned to drive until her late twenties.

The car is a cultural obsession. Ever since Eisenhower built the interstates and mass car-ownership opened the suburbs, the US has found its national identity in its cars and the world it built around them. It is the country that invented the drive-thru, and this car culture is no less robust today. The car you drive is a reflection of your personal identity. The wealthy drive luxury vehicles, but it is more than a question of rich and poor. Hippies drove Volkswagen vans. Rednecks drive pick-up trucks, generously festooned with bumper stickers. Suburban mothers drive minivans. Macho conservatives drive SUVs and Hummers while their tree-hugging liberal counterparts drive hybrids. An American’s car is his guarantee of independence and self-sufficiency. Americans can, and mostly do, get their driving licenses at sixteen or younger. Doing so is a major rite of passage; in Virginia, it involves a court ceremony. Getting one’s first car, of course, is an even bigger milestone. To an American car-owner, his vehicle is the perfect bundle of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Devilish DMV

Its antithesis is a state-level bureaucratic outpost generically known as the Department of Motor Vehicles. The organisations vary from state to state, but the initials DMV are the universal shorthand for a shared national dread. The DMV is stereotypically a labyrinth of forms and queues, staffed by unhelpful pen-pushers. It is synonymous with government inefficiency and with the sort of bureaucratic foibles that the average Republican – perhaps the average American – probably imagines going on in Washington, on a much greater scale.

This connection is especially noteworthy because the American right’s narrative of small government and the free market can be retold effectively in automotive terms. The average American is a decent, hard-working man who is therefore rewarded by the magic of the markets. This income he owes to nothing: not his race, education or sheer good fortune, but it is instead a product of his own virtue. This is an article of faith not just for Republican politicians but the large Calvinist section of American Christianity.

So, he ventures forth and purchases that great symbol of the American way – a car. The DMV has no role but villainy. Already, some distant abstraction called “the gum’mint” has limited his choice with its bogus emissions standards and safety regulation. The DMV punishes his productive work, diluting the rewards the market has earmarked for him by making him queue for hours, fill out forms, register for things, acquire insurance, pass inspections and pay substantial taxes. All that seems to come of this is a class of condescending bureaucrats living off his toil.

State Stories

To be fair, the DMV is not a focal point for right-wing rage. For one thing, it is run at the state level, so is outside federal politics. For another, the need for its services is self-evident, and the sense of freedom lost is far outweighed by the day-to-day danger of a world without its safeguards. Still, when Americans across the land rally in their millions against the spectre of growing government, one cannot but sense that for many of them, l’etat, c’est le DMV and that semi-consciously this underpins all their perceptions of government.

This narrative is somewhat flawed. The government builds and polices the roads. Moreover, if our imaginary American is publicly employed or works for a private contractor to any appendage of any government, if he has had any public education, if his line of work relies on roads or highways or if, indeed, he has the luxury of discretionary spending now because his retirement plans are partly eased by Social Security and Medicare, then he has been enriched by his government at every step of the way. This connects to a much broader national issue. Republican politicians promise to reduce the size of government, and it is easy to see how the upper classes would stand to benefit.

Antisocial Services

Furthermore, Medicare and Social Security constitute a political third rail. Voters tend to compartmentalise, a tendency reinforced by the echo-chamber qualities of the right-wing media. To those at the Republican base, an attack on Medicare is an attack on them, but the connection between tax cuts and the country’s dismal public schools, for example, is not made. Instead, these voters support an ideology that promises to ‘create wealth’ that will mainly be amassed by the well-to-do, by destroying the actual pillars of the nation’s prosperity: the public schools and universities, the highways and airports and railroads, the pristine environment and the major effort in the last half-century to eliminate poverty and prejudice.

Yet as all these assets crumble, one imagines that the great American people will hold only one thing responsible: the pesky, evil government, with its forms, regulations and the seemingly endless queues at the DMV.