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The Prius: An icon of conservatism

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Commuters are rarely provided wondrous vistas during their daily drives, and this day was no exception. At the red-light on the corner of Wisconsin and Bluemound roads, adjacent to the Fleet Farm but just short of making out the Kwik Trip gas station, a traveler has little recourse but to observe the vehicles surrounding them to pass the time. After all, a red light stays red longer if you watch it, or so grandmothers are apt to say.  

Amidst the usual rusted Chevys, dirt-fearing Subarus, and unburdened Ford F-150s whose daily workloads entail little more than transporting groceries home from Costco along this Midwestern, pothole-infested thoroughfare was a Toyota Prius sporting a remarkable bumper sticker, proclaiming “Not a Liberal.” It necessitated a double-take, this departure from the norm being so jarring. Amusing, to be sure, but I then began to dwell on stereotypes attendant to various vehicles and was struck by how wronged the Prius has been by its involuntary association with the Left. 

The Prius, a gas-sipping hatchback hybrid — meaning the vehicle’s propulsion is shared between a battery bank and a conventional gasoline engine — has long been considered a symbol of eco-snobbery and progressivism; and has acted as the transportation du jour for Hollywood- and Silicon Valley-types.  

One could be forgiven for thinking “Feel the Bern” or “Resistance” stickers come standard from the factory floor, with “New Car Smell” being swapped for “Air of Superiority.” One can often find packs of Prii (plural for Prius) parked outside Whole Foods, vegan distilleries and the local commune.  

This progressivist reputation is most unfortunate and ill-suited to such a brilliant vehicle. In many ways, the Prius is a conservative automobile, both politically and in disposition.  

I separate these two notions of conservatism consciously, as there are political conservatives who are most cosmopolitan in their daily lives, such as the late William F. Buckley. Then there exist dispositional conservatives who are personally thrifty-to-a-fault but like the thought of state-sponsored social programs, such as about every Lutheran in existence. The Prius should appeal to both strains. 

To this conservative coalition, I offer the Prius as an avatar of all that we collectively hold dear: the best fusion of old and new technologies, practicability and humble philosophies that stand the test of time.  

We conservatives are occasionally accused of being Luddites. Baseless to be sure, however much we may squint suspiciously at new-fangled technologies and perhaps opine about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of the latest development in toilet paper. But honestly, who needs an app that informs us of when the roll is getting down to its last few squares? 

No, we are generally welcoming of technological advancement and celebrate the free market’s capacity to offer incredible opportunities to raise standards of living around the world. However, this warmth toward improvement is tempered by the understanding that with newness comes challenges. As Thomas Sowell is fond of saying, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”  

Cars of yore were simple things, and often simplicity would be sufficient. However, they were grossly inefficient — especially those horrors of the Seventies: Ford LTD, anyone? — and with gas price volatility, inefficient vehicles have become financially burdensome to the average commuter.  

Meanwhile, fully battery-powered cars such as the Tesla family struggle from their absolute reliance on battery propulsion. This manifests in fluctuating travel range due to ambient conditions affecting the battery, as well as all the niggling issues of fit and finish that come with new concepts.  

Perhaps the most obvious drawbacks to battery power occur on that most American undertaking: a road trip. Electric vehicle fueling stops take more than the five minutes a gas refuel does —  including a bathroom break and grabbing a later-to-be-regretted hotdog from the rollers.  Instead, should you be fortunate enough to find a charger before running dry, they consist of an hour-long irritation repeated every three hundred miles as one waits for the battery to charge. Granted, when Cracker Barrel installs charging stations at all its locations, this may not be such an imposition. If you have money to splurge on a Tesla, you can probably afford a Weasel-ball and grits combo-meal.  

The Prius is a manifestation of that most delicate balance between the advantages of the new — with its battery bank and gasoline savings — and acknowledging the wisdom of the old — that venerable internal combustion engine which has been ferrying humanity around for over a century. Should the Prius batteries go low, the engine transfers power to it. Similarly, when the engine strains to get to highway speed, the battery lends aid. This beautiful collaboration propels the vehicle forward without any input outside of depressing the driver’s gas pedal.  

But vehicular fusionism is of no use if the object in question isn’t practical. Thankfully, the Prius exhibits its brilliance in spades. Imagine a vehicle that can carry a truckload of material without that load being exposed to rain. Then, consider that this vehicle gets 50 mpg and can be expected to surpass 300,000 miles with seemingly little effort. What is more, it can do all this and slide into any parking spot in any city or pot-luck function. Members of the Lawrence community, I present the Toyota Prius.  

The Prius is a pick-up truck in cruelty-free sheep’s clothing, and I know this personally. My wife and I recently purchased our first house and were preparing the guest room for her mother to visit us. We had a bed frame, mattress and sheets. The only thing lacking was a box spring. What to do? Well, we headed off to the store and lo! There before us was a two-piece box spring. I pulled the car up, loaded the box springs, closed the hatch as much as I was able and used some bungee cords to hold the load securely in place. Easy day. Transporting lumber, car parts and a wheelchair? Easy day. The Prius is Mary Poppin’s bag but with a marginally better sound system. If you just believe, there isn’t a thing you can’t fit in there.  

There are fewer better feelings than pulling up to a gas pump and knowing the tank can be filled for less than twenty bucks. Dispositional conservatives are known for their frugality, and would it not be nice to have a vehicle that can be heard muttering from its tailpipe when your kid asks for some spending money, “Do you think the stuff grows on trees?”  

For the more spendthrift conservative, the inexpensive nature of the Prius is still an advantage. Think of how many more cigars and bottles of scotch one could purchase with that leftover fuel cash. Not many, but some, at least.  

The Prius’s longevity should not be overlooked by either prospective buyers or outside observers, as this is a tangible result of Toyota’s philosophy that over-building their products is both correct and prudent. The company eschews the most cutting edge for proven designs that under-stress components. Toyota has been duly rewarded by consumers, becoming the world’s largest auto-manufacturer. They are like a Mitch McConnell with wheels, slow and steady with a charm all their own because of it.  

The Prius should be considered conservative because it is conservative. Its nature is one of wise, technological pragmatism married to a chassis that provides its owner an effective means of transportation for themselves and their property. May the day come when liberals feel it necessary to mention their politics on the rear of their Prii not because they already do but instead for fear of being thought conservative. 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know at abell@lawrence.edu. Cheers!