It looks like we'll have domestic car companies to kick around for a while longer. So here's a modest proposal for liberal Democrats: At least think
about buying American.
Yes, liberal Democrats, a USA TODAY/Gallup poll in February found you to be "among the least pro-buy-American consumers" in the country.
As a resident of Washington, D.C., which gave President Obama a 93 percent-7 percent victory over Republican John McCain on Election Day, this is not news to me. The other night I did a car census of my single block and found:
Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Land Rover, Hyundai, Infiniti, Honda, Lexus, Honda, Lincoln, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Toyota, Subaru, Acura, Honda, Ford, Lexus, Lexus. That's 17 foreign, three for the home team.
One of those Hondas belongs to my husband, and it's been going strong with virtually no problems for eight years and nearly 100,000 miles. One of the Fords is a Focus four-door hatchback that belongs to me.
I bought it in 2007 for lots of reasons--cheap, cute, nice color, zero percent interest. It was also American, but I didn't start caring about that until a few months ago.
When U.S. car companies began their steep descent, I felt an unfamiliar stirring. Rashly I pledged on Facebook to my 270 "friends" that henceforth I would buy only American cars.
It was quite a journey from the person who was genuinely puzzled at the Detroit airport 17 years ago when the Avis lady asked if a foreign car was all right with me. Sure, I said, thinking what the heck kind of question is that?
Then I got lost on my way to interview a United Auto Workers official-it was pre-MapQuest and pre-GPS-and a guy at the UAW office talked me to the address over the phone. As I drove into view, he said in a disgusted tone, "Jeez, is that you in a Toyota??"
Talk about a moment of blinding clarity.
On the other hand, Gallup found that half of all prospective car buyers would consider both foreign and domestic vehicles. That rises to 61 percent among those who make more than $75,000. And 22 percent of liberal Democrats-6 to 16 points higher than any other ideological group-said they'd ONLY look at foreign cars.
Psychologist Drew Westen, author of "The Political Brain," explains the class effect this way: "A lot of people in both parties, as they get wealthier, start buying foreign cars because they think they're better made. The Democratic Party has a high concentration of highly educated people. They are likely to have more disposable wealth and they are also more likely to read Consumer Reports before they buy a car."
In purchasing as in politics, liberals don't tend to be "my country right or wrong" types. Their brand of patriotism often involves criticism and protests, and has been a hard sell in presidential campaigns.
Most recently, Vietnam veteran John Kerry came under attack for protesting the war he fought. And Barack Obama, an Iraq war critic with an African father, was forced in a campaign debate to defend his lack of a flag pin to a moderator and an opponent who were not themselves wearing flag pins.
The tendency to analyze helps explain why liberals are more resistant than most to "buy American" appeals or what author Roger Simmermaker calls "consumer patriotism." As Berkeley psychology professor Jack Glaser explains, "Patriotism is pride in country. You might think of nationalism as blind patriotism-love of country no matter what. It's more of a comparative thing. You believe your country is superior to other countries."
No cold-blooded assessment of American cars over the past two decades would find they are superior to those of other countries. Gabriel Shenhar, a senior auto test engineer and program manager at Consumer Reports, says it's only in the last five years that U.S. manufacturers have begun to improve reliability, fuel economy, comfort, noise, fit and finish.
Who would have guessed customers would care about things like that? Apparently, for a long time, not U.S. automakers.
As Obama put it at a town meeting Wednesday, a day before the deadline for a Chrysler-Fiat deal: "We used to build the cars that consumers wanted, and at a certain point those weren't the cars that were being designed." The bad decisions have caught up with the companies, he said, even though "a lot of the cars that are coming out of Detroit have gotten really good; they are on par with foreign imports."
There is plenty of evidence to back him up on that point. In Consumer Reports' "Best and Worst 2009 Cars" issue this month, the Chevrolet Avalanche was the top pick in the pickup truck category. The Corvette made the list of 11 cars top-rated overall. Two cars-the Ford Focus and the Pontiac Vibe-showed up in "Best cars under $20,000."
Other research confirms the trend. In a dependability study
last month by J.D. Power, Jaguar and Buick tied for first place. Two Fords and a Chevy made it into the Kelley Blue Book's Top 10 Green Cars
for 2009. In a first-quarter survey conducted this year for Ford, the company tied for first place
with Toyota and Honda on customer satisfaction.
Simmermaker, author of "How Americans Can Buy American: The Power of Consumer Patriotism," says buyers need to get past their foreign-brand loyalty and long-held misconceptions. "It's a really tough thing to get people to change their minds about the quality of American cars, but the quality is there," he says.
The self-described protectionist also makes a patriotic argument that buying U.S. cars helps the country. American automakers have more factories in the United States, Simmermaker says-more than 100, compared to eight apiece for Toyota, Honda and Nissan. He says U.S. firms buy more parts from American companies and pay more taxes to the U.S. government.
"We should be supporting the companies that support America the most," Simmermaker says.
Shenhar says it's clear from Consumer Reports' forums and letters that "most people would rather buy American if they could -- if it didn't involve too much compromise."
The problem is that it could well involve compromise. Despite progress, no U.S. cars made the Consumer Reports lists for most reliable, most comfortable or most fuel-efficient. And while there are some American SUVs and family sedans that can now hold their own with foreign counterparts, Shenhar says, "there still isn't a competitive domestic small sedan or small SUV."
Westen says his brain research shows that patriotic themes such as American ingenuity and leadership in the global economy resonate with liberals. Chrysler and General Motors are surviving on bailout money while trying to avoid bankruptcy or total collapse (Update -- Chrysler is indeed going into bankruptcy
for 30 to 60 days). They aren't in a strong position to make that kind of pitch.
But Obama is and he's doing it. At the town meeting, he said his goal is to create "a strong, viable, competitive auto industry" that anticipates the market of the future and once again makes cars people want to buy.
On Thursday, announcing the Chrysler bankruptcy, the president made an explicit request. "If you are considering buying a car," he said, "I hope it will be an American car. "
Obama's job approval rating among liberals is 90 percent. Maybe he'll get some traction. My Focus needs company.