A Dead Car Battery and the Death of Democracy

tattered US flag

The transmission whined, the dash lights flickered, and my trusty little Mazda just wouldn’t turn over, no matter how hard I depressed the fancy “push to start” button that I so longed for while searching for my perfect sedan. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t use your car for a couple of weeks in the winter. A note of caution to my fellow drivers. Not a huge problem, but not a quick fix either without a friend around to give me a jump. So we popped the hood, ran two extension cords from an outlet in our living room out the window and across the sidewalk to our (newly purchased) car battery charger, and hooked it up – red to red, black to frame – and let it go for a few hours, while we sat stranded in our house yearning to buy groceries. When the indicator on the charger finally turned from yellow to green, I unhooked the cables, pressed my fancy little button one more time while holding my breath, and my sporty little guy revved right back to life. Phew! 

As I was putting the hood down – now in the dark of the post-solstice evening – a neighbor happened by and saw the two cables running from a propped open window, duct taped haphazardly to the sidewalk, and leading to a charger that was still strewn under my chassis. 

“Did it work?” she asked in an approachable demeanor. 

“Yes, thank goodness!” I responded. 

Then, taking another intentional look at the rig I’d put together to charge the battery, she continued: “And they expect us to buy electric vehicles! How on earth would that work?!” 

Now I can’t pretend to know her political beliefs or voting habits, and she seemed nice enough. But something about the idea of electric cars really had her miffed, and she wanted to let me know. 

It was one degree above freezing and I’m guessing she wasn’t doing laps around the block hoping to eventually find someone to chat with about electric vehicles. No, I assume she just wanted knee-jerk validation that the whole concept of electric vehicles, or at least the societal expectation that responsible consumers should prefer them to gas guzzlers, was absurd. She was the victim of a liberal society guilting her into the horrifying prospect of owning a Prius. 

I’m not one to avoid a fun topic like sustainability and politics, but there’s a time and place, and my sidewalk before dinner in freezing temperatures was not it. So I just said, “Right, well, it would be tough if it weren’t a major priority for the municipality to make charging stations more readily available to the whole neighborhood, I guess.” 

“Yeah, the whole idea is ridiculous,” she confirmed, and walked away, seemingly contented that I had justified her disdain for Elon Musk and his radical band of futurist fantasizers. 

But this brief interaction hints at a much bigger issue that we are witnessing unfold in brutal ways in America: Prideful ignorance. And that is precisely what has pushed our sacred democracy to the edge of the precipice. To be sure, this cliff has been on the hazy horizon for decades as we have marched steadily and unflinchingly towards it; but this week more than ever, after witnessing a violent & unprecedented insurrection in our nation’s capital, it’s hard to feel that we won’t Wile E. Coyote ourselves right over the edge if we don’t make sweeping changes to our political discourse and action. 

Returning to my neighbor’s question – How on earth could we as a society realistically be expected to move towards electric vehicles? – here’s my more thorough (though still unrefined) answer that I wish she had been willing to absorb:

  • First we need to use government funding to incentivize automotive companies to invest more of their R&D budgets into electric cars and how to make them more affordable to the general public.
  • We also need to rapidly expand the complementary slate of green energy research initiatives and put money behind innovative clean fuels & battery technology rather than relaxing regulations for companies exploiting fossil fuels. 
  • While research and innovation are being supercharged with progressive policies and proper funding, our local municipal infrastructure needs support to install enough charging ports to make electric vehicles realistic without becoming a burden to our ageing power grid. 
  • Societally, we need to place a priority on green transportation and commercialize it the same way we have for close to a century with combustion-based vehicles: You can’t go more than a few miles in most areas without coming across an intersection with competing gas stations, but only wealthy suburbs and corporate office buildings have a handful of charging ports for electric cars. Charging stations and whatever else electric cars require would need to be at least as ubiquitous as gas stations currently are in order for electric cars to be realistic for most people.
  • Consumers should also have much greater incentives to invest in electric vehicles, beyond the lure of long-term savings, so that they could eventually occupy a more competitive place in the auto market.

There are probably a lot of great white papers out there answering her exact question in much more painstaking detail than I’ve offered here. But as invested as she was in haughtily dismissing the prospect of electric vehicles, reading those papers and considering their points would clash with her prideful ignorance. 

It’s extremely important that our populous has opinions about these kinds of issues. For a democracy to function, people need to be allowed to have and express their opinions on all matters where public and private life intersect. Citizens pay taxes, so they should have a say in how those taxes are used; they can voice those opinions by supporting and voting for lawmakers who pass policies in support of their beliefs. That’s pretty much how democracy works. 

But as my neighbor so enthusiastically demonstrated, sometimes, those opinions are desperately (and eagerly) uninformed. And if the people who hold those opinions don’t wish to become informed but nevertheless champion their beliefs with pride and energy, then what other possible fate could await us than what we witnessed in the Capitol Building?

We can’t all be experts on every topic, but fortunately we aren’t expected to be. We don’t live in a pure democracy – we live in a democratic republic, in which a democratic vote leads to the appointment of legislators to make decisions on our behalf. We hope that the ones that hold office will act as the public servants they are elected to be and do their due diligence to seek and find the experts on these impactful topics so that they can make informed decisions that are in our best interest. 

But the republican nature of our political structure does not absolve us from investing our time in becoming informed about the issues that drive our vote. Whatever issues you hold dear, you owe it to yourself and your fellow Americans to do your homework and justify your beliefs with evidence, not rhetoric. Healthcare? Tax policy? Guns? Defense? Civil liberty? Education? Immigration? Infrastructure? Sustainability? If any aspect of these issues has ever persuaded your vote, you have a responsibility to understand at least the basics. 

That you have the privilege, right, and obligation to vote in this country does not grant you the moral authority to do so in prideful ignorance. There is rightful scorn for those who do not exercise their civic duty to cast their ballot in elections, because it truly is such a precious responsibility that mustn’t be taken for granted. But the true villains, the true threats to our delicate little experiment in self-governance, are those who consciously choose and embrace ignorance when they exercise their democratic rights. And should there ever be a requiem for our American democracy, their ignorance will be the gravelly breath stoking the organ’s final notes. 

Published by Brian Bayer

With a degree in journalism from John Carroll University, Brian's post-collegiate road took him to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he spent three and a half years wearing various hats, including as a teacher, a community outreach volunteer, and a freelance writer focusing on themes of social justice, poverty, and healthcare. While bearing witness to incredible injustice and inequity, he decided to seek the solutions by returning to his hometown of Pittsburgh and to pursue a graduate degree in International Development, which he earned in 2021. He is a proud fellow of the New Leaders Council, alumni of the Johnson Leadership Portfolio program, and serves as a board member with the Sto-Rox Neighborhood Health Council. As the founder and editor-in-chief of The Progress Pages, he hopes to provide a creative outlet for innovative minds seeking to elevate progressive ideology.

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