Optimism or Nihilism?

Nihilists believe that all values are baseless.

Nihilists believe that all values are baseless. Most people in the West aren’t weighted down by that belief. After all, people get up each morning, go to work, get married and have children, plan for the future, and try in their own small way to make the world a better place. They wouldn’t recognize the anarchy society’s atomization as a response to nihilism’s negative world view and the resulting self-absorption. Or that it destroys any belief in loyalty, optimism, and common beliefs and standards. A nihilistic life becomes, as the philosopher Max Stirner argued, something where the individual is the only law.

So what, you ask, does nihilistic anarchy have to do with the current state of the domestic auto industry and its future? In a word: Everything.

From its post-war dominance, American automakers stumbled through the years of self-doubt that accelerated with the incessant finger pointing of the Vietnam era. Unable to recognize the good in itself and its products, the American auto industry slid deeper into exhaustion and self-loathing that mirrored the self-doubt overtaking the country. Its post-war strength had been its undoing because American OEMs could move everything they made. There was no incentive to do better, and this cynicism opened the door to today’s foreign competition. Societal self-loathing and narcissistic guilt accelerated the move toward an “anything but American” outlook that opened the doors for the Europeans, Japanese, and Koreans.

This malaise was epitomized by the domestic cars of the late 1970s and 1980s. Rather than stand up and be counted, American OEMs gave up and copied the competition. Without a compass to go by, it was enough to be fast followers that offered American-made forgeries that hooked few people. American auto executives couldn’t defend—or define—a set of uniquely American automotive beliefs and ideas. (Many still can’t.) As a result, we were treated to the spectacle of cars their creators referred to as “an American BMW” or “every bit as good as the Honda Accord.”

Step back far enough to see the forest and not just the trees, and you’ll see that benchmark vehicles are benchmark vehicles because they are not clones, or “good enough” renditions of what the market says it wants. They are originals. As such, they have a wide latitude for change. It’s why the public has allowed Honda’s Accord to grow, mature, and become more luxurious. It’s why iDrive and Chris Bangle’s neo-Bauhaus forms haven’t decimated BMW. To the buyer, both are to faithful to the promise, and this proves that nihilism is a fraud. The core customer believes in these companies and their vehicles because they have a transcendent meaning.

Of the current domestic car crop, only DaimlerChrysler’s 300 and Magnum, Chevy’s Corvette, and Ford’s 2005 Mustang express strong beliefs through either their design or engineering. Customers want to be seen in them because they express a confident image, an American image, one in which the vehicle is at peace with its heritage. Nihilism says vehicles are commodities that give an individual the best deal in the prettiest wrapper. There is no loyalty in this U.N. view of the automotive world, just anarchy. Optimism says loyalty arises out of building vehicles that reflect core values, set standards, and are designed and built by people intent on preserving the common good. It’s the only formula for success.