Is High Speed Rail a Culture War?
Over the weekend, Darnell Grisby had a very good op-ed in the Merced Sun-Star about the “debate” over high speed rail. In it, he challenged the notion that “the way we travel is a cultural issue”:
Dueling ridership forecasts in a political arena heated by cultural antagonism makes it difficult to assess costs and benefits. As a result, some say it’s better to delay the project, or for Californians to drop high-speed rail altogether. Those with a need to generate readership, or wish to get noticed for a statewide run for office, purposefully craft the environment that creates that frustration.
Framing specious arguments against high-speed rail as a cultural issue drives a level of distrust that allows shoddy research and uninformed opinion to color perceptions. Californians should fight against being used to score political points when the state’s economic future is on the line.
Grisby, a Deputy Policy Director for Reconnecting America, is certainly right about this. He marshals a lot of statistics to show that high speed rail will help people who commute, who travel for recreation or business, boost downtowns, and reduce congestion at airports and on freeways. Everyone benefits from this.
And he correctly identifies the people who are trying to convince Californians and Americans that those benefits are illusory – the right-wing Cato and Reason think tanks. As we know, Reason is funded by oil companies who have every reason to want to undermine high speed rail. Grisby is right that we should not cast HSR as being part of a “culture war” and show that it is instead a common-sense solution to a wide range of problems, that many people will embrace, especially because people around the world have already done so.
That all being said, I wish I could agree that we can pull HSR out of a “culture war” framework. Not because HSR supporters are invested in it – we’re really not. This blog’s most consistent approach to HSR advocacy is that high speed rail simply makes sense and is supported by a mountain of evidence. Yet we spend a lot of time here debunking criticism – sometimes aggressively – and this blog might well be seen as a key battleground in an HSR culture war.
That’s because of how culture wars work. They are not waged by both sides of an issue. Culture wars are waged by one side alone – the side that resents and resists change. The other side, which supports and is promoting the change in question, doesn’t view it as a war at all. The thing they are advocating for, whether it’s marriage equality or high speed rail, is simply seen as a logical outcome of compelling evidence and common sense.
Those who resist the change know they cannot win on the grounds of evidence and reason. They can’t win a fair fight. So they wage an unfair fight. They make up arguments, distort evidence, and try to change the conversation away from facts and towards more elemental and visceral things, where they might have an advantage.
In 2008, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously endorsed Prop 1A to bring high speed rail to the Peninsula. There was broad interest in an HSR station for the city. The project was evaluated on the merits and passed with flying colors and with 60% of the community voting for it.
That wasn’t the end of the story, because HSR critics learned the same thing that marriage equality opponents learned: you can’t win on the facts, but you might just win if you make it about values and culture. Soon after Prop 1A’s passage, HSR critics changed their tune and began focusing on the ways in which trains would somehow “destroy” the communities of the Peninsula. The entire claim was absurd, and not just because passenger trains had been operating there for over 150 years, and not just because other Bay Area cities had found no problems at all with aerial rail structures.
It was absurd because it was specifically intended to pull the discussion away from evidence and toward deeply held values. HSR critics realized that if they could convince their neighbors that the prized aesthetic values of the Peninsula would be destroyed by the train – even though HSR will be quieter, won’t spew diesel into the air, won’t kill children, and won’t produce traffic jams the way the current at-grade tracks will – then they could circumvent the factual arguments in support of HSR.
People wage culture wars precisely because they already lost the factual discussion. And if they make the discussion more of a shouting match, a fight, or even a war, they score even more points, because they make reasonable dialogue impossible. If you have a farm in the path of the proposed HSR route in Kings County, you could try and argue moving the tracks somewhere else on the basis of facts and merit, but the reason your farm is in the path in the first place is because factual considerations suggested it was the best location for the tracks.
So if you really really don’t want to sell your farm to the state of California, you could instead go around the county riling up people by claiming the California High Speed Rail Authority is waging a war on farmers, wants to destroy agriculture, and generally hates Kings County. You would have no evidence of this whatsoever – in fact, the Authority was happy to just bypass Kings County entirely until officials from Kings and Tulare Counties and the cities of Hanford and Visalia began lobbying hard to get a station. But you can tap into deep-seeded resentments and turn what should be a reasoned, factual discussion into a culture war.
Through scorched-earth tactics such as shouting down opposition and claiming that a simple passenger rail project is either the Death Star or a Berlin Wall, HSR critics are not so much trying to win the argument as they are trying to tire people out of the issue. As defenders of the status quo, they win if they convince everyone else that all the rancor and ugliness just isn’t worth the trouble and maybe we should just postpone HSR indefinitely for the good of the community.
That’s how culture wars are designed to work. And that’s why HSR is very much the subject of a culture war.
Grisby’s argument is essentially that HSR advocates should not get drawn into the culture war and should stick to the facts. That’s a wise policy, and this blog has followed it for the 3+ years we’ve been around.
But there is also a place for pushing back, showing how the critics are wrong, and pointing out the motivations behind their actions. This blog will continue to do that too. Because it is true, in the end, that HSR advocates are pushing for change. We push for it not because we are partisans in a culture war, but because we see a society and a civilization in evolution and believe we should push that forward in sensible, reasonable ways. And most anti-HSR people are indeed motivated by their hostility to that change. If we could persuade them on the basis of facts, then they would already have come over to our side.
We know they won’t be persuaded. Nor do we really expect they will be. Our job as HSR advocates is to withstand their assault and ensure they don’t succeed in destroying our projects. In the end, they will fade, because logic, evidence, and the population at large are on our side, and will only be increasingly supportive as the years go by.
That’s the thing about culture wars – the people waging the war eventually tire out and fade away, because they are fighting an uphill battle. And as long as the people who embrace change are persistent and don’t lose heart, they will eventually prevail.