The Sticky Business of American Ideals

Photo: Simon Dunne

I’ve lived in the U.S. for seven years now, and still, I’m often surprised by the foreignness of my adopted home. Growing up in Toronto, watching my Seinfeld and wearing my Nike’s, I assumed I was pretty much the same as any American kid. Now that I’m here experiencing American life first hand, the differences pop up in odd places.

A car’s bumper is one of those stranger, yet deeply American, places. Bumper stickers themselves are of course not uniquely American. You can occasionally find one, just one, on the back of a Canadian mini-van, carefully placed so as not to reduce resale value. In Toronto, it’s likely a Maple Leafs logo; in Montreal, it says, “Partisans des Habitants à l’intérieur;” On the West coast it might say 26.2, or more appropriately, 42.2. A dog lover might mix it up with a “Wag More, Bark Less” sticker to complement their stick figure family. A rebellious youth may affix a sticker suggesting that “Nobody cares about your stick figure family” but that would be considered gauche. In Canada, a bumper sticker is meant to be a lighthearted accessory.

Here in the U.S. it’s much more. An astounding depth and breadth of personal belief is expressed through bumper stickers. Sure, there are plenty of sports team logos, but they’re likely to be paired with stickers proclaiming: “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one,” or “God Bless our troops, especially our snipers.”

As with all pastimes, there are some zealots here, plastering their cars with viewpoints on everything from immigration to chemtrails. The stereotypes can be so blatant that you might expect they’re handing out brand-appropriate bumper sticker starter packs with every car purchase. I imagine the showroom:

“Here’s your Prius, sir, and your collection of bumper stickers: Your “Coexist” sticker, with each letter written using symbols from different world religions, isn’t that clever! Here we’ve got your Free Tibet, your “Hillary won the popular vote” and of course your collection of symbols: the peace sign, Om and equality. Plenty more where those came from. Enjoy your car!”

And on the other side of town…

“Here’s your Chevy Silverado ma’am, and your collection of bumper stickers: Your NRA logo of course; here’s the latest ‘Trump, Make America great again!’ and for nostalgia’s sake your ‘NObama’; To round out the issues, here’s your ‘Secure our borders,’ ‘It’s a child, not a choice,’ and because you opted for the Rolling Coal package, I’ll assume you want the ‘Global Warming is caused by the sun.’ Enjoy your truck!”

Slapping your politics on your bumper is brash, bold and unapologetic; it’s American as apple pie. Those who agree with whatever you’re endorsing might offer a quiet “right on” as they sit behind your car at a traffic light. The most polarizing phrases may even win a supportive honk or a thumbs-up out a rolled down window. The haters will drive by slowly, glaring at you through their side windows, looking to confirm all their suspicions about the type of person who would dare be proud of such rubbish.

How did the back of one’s car become a forum for political discourse?

The automobile is the most potent symbol of American freedom, a central figure in the surge of post-war prosperity and an icon baked into the modern national identity of this country. The car’s alignment then with the central tenet of that freedom, free speech, is no surprise.

The pursuit and protection of freedom, by all people and all affiliations, is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that it manifests in all sorts of ways: stark individualism, gregarious oversharing, unwavering opinions, a tireless work ethic. And bumper stickers apparently. While freedom is by no means uniquely American, actions here are certainly more influenced by the idea than anywhere else.

Grabbing that freedom and broadcasting one’s opinions to fellow citizens is a cherished right of every American. Before social media there were few outlets available to the average person to express their viewpoints, especially in the public eye, where a perspective could be spread beyond one’s direct social circles. A tattoo was too permanent, a t-shirt not permanent enough. The car became the canvas for the First Amendment.

The bonus was the built-in layer of personal security that allowed a divisive stance to be shared on a bumper without fear of retribution. The same comfort empowered us to wave a middle finger or yell incoherently in response to being cut off. The car was a heavy metal box between the speaker and their audience, a shield to fervent disagreement. Remove the box and we lose the swagger. It takes a level of courage that most don’t possess to wear our political ideals on our sleeves rather than on our bumpers. When was the last time you flipped someone off because they walked to closely to you on the sidewalk?

The bumper sticker may have lost some of its luster now that social media has provided a louder megaphone and more anonymity. But while there are an endless number of channels for us to reach strangers with our most ardent opinions, there remains a simple appeal to the sticker. It offers a tagline, simple and catchy, hung around our necks every time we get on the freeway. The freedom to wear it proudly is quintessentially American.