Moderation in Pursuit of Solutions Is No Virtue
One of the effects of turning something into a culture war is it tends to undermine support for the idea in question by sending the more timid elements in search of a compromise solution. Some people seek compromise over the best, smartest, most sensible solution, and it is these people who are the true target of culture warriors. Remember that culture wars are started and waged by the side of an issue that is opposed to change. The side that wants the change doesn’t start or wage a culture war because they don’t see it as a war at all, but instead see the change in question as natural and sensible.
But if the moderate types perceive the proposed change as an irritant, as a source of discord, then they will move quickly to call for the change to be junked and replaced with a lesser version, in an attempt to appease the culture warriors and restore harmony to society. These types believe that argument and discord is the worst possible thing, and that a bad idea, a flawed compromise, or an unworkable solution is far preferable to anything that causes a fight.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this is “civil unions” – the idea that in order to prevent a bruising political and cultural battle over same-sex marriage, some sort of compromise position must be found short of marriage. Of course, by denying marriage rights to certain consenting adults, it reinforces discrimination and inequality, which is one of the reasons why LGBT activists and their allies want marriage rights in the first place. (The other reason is that civil unions don’t actually confer all the legal benefits that marriage does.) Moderates love civil unions because it’s seen as a way to defuse a fight, even though its effect is to reinforce discrimination and injustice and gives the homophobes a victory.
This same phenomenon is at work with high speed rail as well. Now that HSR opponents have turned the issue into a culture war, moderates are starting to crawl out of the woodwork to seek a compromise solution that destroys the concept of high speed rail and replaces it with something that is slower, less efficient, and won’t carry as many people.
A good example of this is Phillip Longman’s article in Washington Monthly, The Case for Not-Quite-So-High-Speed Rail. In it, Longman argues that because Republicans turned HSR into a culture war, we should stop pushing for true bullet trains and learn to love something like the Acela:
You might expect me at this point to proclaim, like so many Americans who have sojourned in Europe, Japan, or China on gleaming bullet trains, that what the United States needs now is a crash program to catch up with our peers in building high-speed rail for the twenty-first century. And, for the record, I will proclaim that. It’s a vision almost all progressives have come to share, even as conservatives increasingly denounce it as creeping socialism, social engineering, or worse. But I’ll make an important qualification that should inform the increasingly partisan debate about high-speed rail in this country—one that is illustrated by my trip back to Frankfurt later that afternoon….
My point? Yes, bullet trains speeding at 180 mph or more from major city to major city are great for business execs in a hurry and on an expense account. But the more conventional, cheaper, “fast enough” high-speed rail lines like the West Rhine line are the real backbone of the German passenger rail system and that of most other industrialized nations. And it is from these examples that America has the most to learn, especially since it now looks as if the U.S. isn’t going to build any real high-speed rail lines, except possibly in California, anytime soon. In an ironic twist, between the mounting concern over the state and federal deficits and growing Republican and NIMBY opposition to high-speed rail, the Obama administration is being forced to settle for incremental projects that will only bring passenger rail service up to the kind of standards found on the West Rhine line. And that’s a good thing, provided Republicans don’t succeed in killing passenger trains in the United States altogether, as they are increasingly wont to try.
The debate over high-speed rail in the United States has become akin to that over organic food. Most people can’t define exactly what it is, but they tend to have strong, almost theological opinions about whether it’s morally good, elitist, impractical, and/or politically correct. Progressives are likely to tell you that high-speed rail is necessary to reduce global warming, prepare for “peak oil,” and overcome “auto dependency.” The Obama administration plays to this growing progressive consensus by proudly proclaiming that it has set in motion projects that will bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of the U.S. population within twenty-five years.
Meanwhile, especially since the elections of 2010, conservatives have been rallying their troops in full-throated opposition to any and all government spending to improve passenger rail service, often portraying it as another step on the road to serfdom. Though many Republicans, such as Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, have strongly supported Amtrak over the years (especially for service in their own backyards), we now see a new breed of Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin all making a big show of waving away billions in federal stimulus dollar for rail improvements in their states.
So how about we all calm down, chuck the theology, and look practically at what should be the future of passenger trains in the U.S.?
Longman’s words are telling. He does the typical journalistic act of blaming both sides for making HSR a “partisan” issue even though it’s only one side – House Republicans – who have done so. Progressives support HSR, yes, but so do many moderate Republicans and even some conservative Republicans. That includes many Republican legislators in Sacramento who have played crucial roles in backing the HSR project but who must remain nameless lest they bring the wrath of the Koch Brothers down upon their heads.
But because the right turned HSR into a culture war, people like Longman run away from the debate and seek compromise at all costs. Longman isn’t interested in the details of true bullet train service or why it would thrive in the United States just as it has across the globe. No, all he cares about is appeasing critics so that the shouting stops.
Think I’m kidding? Longman again:
But as great as it would be to have passenger service as fast and elegant as the TGV in the United States, there are many reasons not to put our first dollars into such an ambitious project. First off, building a truly high-speed rail system in today’s America would be so expensive, disruptive, contentious, and politically risky that it just might not be possible. It would require, for example, securing brand-new rights-of-way, because trains traveling at more than around 125 mph can’t share tracks with slower freight or passenger trains. This in turn would require using eminent domain to secure millions of acres of real estate, and these days, in the U.S., that would involve endless litigation, environmental review, and the innumerable other processes that always stand to derail any large-scale infrastructure project.
This is why America is collapsing. We have way too many people like Longman dominating our political discourse – people who want to appease obnoxious loudmouths rather than actually work toward a solution that he acknowledges would be “great,” “fast and elegant.” His only reason for not doing this is because it would be “disruptive and contentious.”
Thank god nobody ever did anything costly, disruptive, contentious, or risky in history. Surely the American Revolution was cheap, orderly, and without any argument or shots fired in anger. Freeing the slaves was similarly easily accomplished. We obviously defeated the Nazis, put a man on the moon, and cured polio without spending a dime or risking a damn thing.
I mean, this is just ridiculous. And yet Longman is reflecting the dominant narrative in Washington, DC which holds that we should never ever try and do anything bold or risky, even when facing a serious economic, environmental, and energy crisis. The true path that is costly, disruptive, contentious and politically risky is to do nothing at all, to let the failed status quo continue unchanged.
But because people like Longman are played like a fiddle by the culture warriors, these moderates are convinced that the status quo is actually the safe bet, and that anything that produces change must be avoided at all costs.
The sad thing is that Longman isn’t wrong when he says there is value to rail that isn’t exactly “high speed.” He praises the Acela and properly so; it is a good example of how even incremental improvements in rail speeds and service can bring rewards. This blog may be focused on true bullet trains in the mold of the French TGV, but we’ve always supported other kinds of rail service, such as Amtrak California’s existing routes, the long-distance Amtrak routes (I am a huge fan of the Coast Starlight), commuter rail services like Metrolink and Caltrain, heavy rail like BART and the Metro Red Line, light rail such as the Metro Blue Line, Sacramento RT, the San Diego Trolley, and VTA light rail, to streetcars such as the Muni Metro, and even things like Angels Flight in downtown LA.
America needs all kinds of rail, from slow to medium to fast. Each serves a useful purpose in our transportation system, and each should be given full-throated support by people who care about economic recovery and sustainable prosperity, doing something about global warming, and finding affordable energy independence.
People who are more interested in finding compromise than in actually solving our problems