Late last week, I posted on a local Toyota dealership that had sent letters to its customers blaming an overzealous media — and not the company itself — for the recall mess currently slamming the company. As an aside, I happened to mention that many of the cars now being recalled were built in the United States, that those plants are now (temporarily) closed, and that as a result, Toyota’s problems were going to have a negative impact on the American economy.
A few readers — and I want to emphasize that it was only a few — had a surprising reaction to my observation: no wonder Toyota is in trouble if they’ve been building cars in the United States. Here are three examples of what they said:
[T]oyota never had problems until they started making them IN THIS COUNTRY,funny thing about that huh?
Toyotas have never been cars that I cared for, as they appear to be poorly designed and built. But having them built by Americans? That cracks me up! The 2nd worst car designers having their cars built by the worst car builders in the world!
I love my country and all that, but I am often dismayed and chagrined at the lack of pride American workers have in their jobs. . . .I am willing to pay a bit more for American goods, but consider it unacceptable to have to pay more for inferior goods. Wherever we go, I see Americans who do not seem grateful for their jobs – lots of grousing, clock-watching, distraction, attitudes that detract from efficiency.
Okay. So if I get this straight, the design flaw isn’t the issue, but rather the way the cars are built. There are only two small problems with that argument. First, American workers didn’t design the accelerator pedal (or the Prius’s brakes or the Camry’s steering) — Japanese engineers did. Second, some of the cars being recalled were built outside the United States.
To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that a few isolated comments represent the views of all Care2 readers, or progressives in general. But nonetheless I’m dismayed by the fact that more than a couple of folks decided to blame the very individuals they should regard as some of their closest allies.
Since the Roosevelt Administration, America’s workers have served as the backbone of the Democratic party. It was FDR, after all, who helped the UAW and other unions gain the right to organize and represent workers. From then on, the Democratic party embraced workers both in terms of its rhetoric and its policies. President Obama’s decision to save GM and Chrysler represents only the latest example of Democrats’ commitment to the American worker.
Unfortunately, some progressives appear to have forgotten that. Many say that they support American workers while at the same time mocking their output. They (we) make assumptions that American workers are lazy, that they don’t care, that they take no pride in their work.
And then they (we) wonder why blue collar voters have been trending Republican since the Reagan Administration. Or why workers make up a significant chunk of the Tea Party movement. Or why workers have started to prefer the party that promises to make them rich while implementing policies that make it harder for them to keep their jobs.
The reality is that most American workers produce excellent products that they (and we) should take great pride in. The reality is that the myth of shoddy output is twenty or thirty years out of date. The reality is that it is entirely possible to buy American cars (and other products) and be assured of outstanding craftsmanship and quality.
As The Washington Post‘s Warren Brown noted in March 2009,
[I]t’s not so much that Detroit does not make cars Americans want to buy. . . . Detroit makes good cars. The only people who don’t know that are people, who for reasons both valid and ill-founded, long ago abandoned Detroit.
If you live in a big city outside of the industrial Midwest, look around. Hardly anyone drives American cars anymore. And tell the truth — whenever someone you know has bought an American car, weren’t you just a little bit surprised? Didn’t you wonder why they didn’t buy the comparable Toyota or Honda (or Lexus or BMW)?
To be completely transparent, I’m as guilty of this as anyone — we bought a Volvo in 2006, and didn’t even look at American brands when we shopped.
For far too long, liberals have bought foreign brands. Owning a foreign car is as much a part of the lefty/coastie/academic community’s self-image as Whole Foods, yoga, and Mac laptops.
We — all of us, including me — need to acknowledge our share of the responsibility for having abandoned Detroit. We need to understand that any effort to rebuild the American auto industry requires each of us to start buying American again — and by that I mean cars built in the United States, whether they are in GM plants or Toyota plants.
If we really care about the American worker, if we really want to help turn around the economy, and if you really want President Obama to succeed, there is nothing more important that we could do today. We all have an individual role to play. Let’s change the way we think and what we regard as trendy.
It’s not like we have to sacrifice for this to happen. Detroit is producing great cars; to cite one example, the Ford Fusion was just named the Motor Trend 2010 Car of the Year. And many are cheaper than their foreign competition. They should be flying off the lots. But right now, they’re not. The problem is not the product, but the perception.
So let’s make buying American cars cool again. Let’s make it so that movie stars will want to arrive at the Oscars in Ford Fusions instead of Toyota Priuses. Let’s make it so that high schoolers will want to drive Mustangs, Camaros, and Tesla Roadsters instead of Porsches and Lamborghinis. Let’s make it so that athletes will want buy the Cadillac STS instead of the BMW 5 series.
There are two stark realities here. First, Democrats and progressives cannot hope to sustain a majority without the support of American workers. Second, the United States cannot sustain economic growth if it continues to allow its manufacturing base to erode.
Reversing forty years of bad industrial policy won’t happen overnight. But we as progressives can start today by changing our world view so that it matches reality — and by respecting the hard work of our fellow Americans. Doing anything less would be strategically foolish and economically disastrous.
Photo: Strikers inside of a closed General Motors plant celebrate as the end of the 1937 sitdown strike is announced, Flint, Michigan. Public domain, via the UAW Archives, Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
Charles J. Brown is Senior Fellow and Washington Director at the Institute for International Law and Human Rights and the founder of Undiplomatic, a blog on the intersection of foreign policy, politics, and pop culture. You also can follow him on Twitter.