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Conservatives and Trains, Part Two

How NOT to convince your conservative friends and relatives about high-speed rail.

In my previous post, I discussed why conservatives in the United States are loathe to get on board with high-speed rail. In this post, I will talk about how to not to persuade conservatives in supporting high-speed rail.

It has to be pointed out that high-speed rail proponents are doing a bad job in convincing conservatives. More often than not, when someone makes the case for high-speed rail, it is never done with the conservative in mind. Instead, the case is made in a way that most people who are liberal or already support high-speed rail would support it. In short, the argument is basically about talking to oneself.

Writer Zack Hamburg wrote an essay in 2016 making the case for high-speed rail. It is basically a liberal argument that won’t move a conservative at all. He uses arguments that make sense, but it isn’t going to change the mind of someone on the right. I want to take some of the arguments one by one to help see how they don’t work.

If you want to make arguments about how liberals can best woo conservatives to pay the taxes to fund high-speed rail, you need to read this review of Amtrak that appeared in the transportation blog Jalopnik in March. If you want to know why conservatives don’t want to pay the bill for trains, just read the essay. Yes, you can say that just because Amtrak was bad, it doesn’t mean high-speed rail will be, but they will say they are already paying taxes to support a system with problems and they will not be that interested in paying more. Yes, other nations tend to have slower trains for intercity routes, but the average person doesn’t know that.

None of this means you can’t make the argument for high-speed rail, but there is a certain viewpoint when it comes to trains in general and you have to make the argument in that context. And the true context is that trains in America kind of suck. If you are going to persuade people, you need to do it honestly and also find a way to say that high-speed rail is a better alternative to the current rolling stock of Amtrak.

With that you also need to be aware of the following bad arguments to make:

The Cosmopolitan argument. One of the first arguments made is that other nations have done this. This is a similar argument done when it comes to universal health care. Someone on the right is not going to care that France or China has high-speed rail and that will not make them want to write their legislator to support a high-speed rail line in their state.

Most conservatives tend to be America focused. Conservatives really believe in American exceptionalism. They don’t think the United States is like any other nations. Conservatives believe that the United States is different. Saying that we should have high-speed rail because France has the TGV trains is not the best way to move this argument forward. You have to say this in a conservative context. Yes, it is limiting, but that is where the average conservative is. You have to make that argument on their grounds, not on your grounds.

The “Green” Persuasion. Which leads to the environment: stop talking about how “green” trains are. Conservatives do care about the environment, but they are not going allow the state to take billions of their tax dollars in order to build a high-speed rail line just because it has a smaller carbon blueprint than flying. When people say that high-speed rail puts out fewer emissions, the conservative then sees it as a toy for urban liberals and they are not going to shell out money for someone else to use.

Cars as tools of Satan. Another high-speed rail argument is comparing trains to cars. We hear about the construction of highways and how cars give rise to sprawl. But most conservatives live in suburbs, exurbs and rural areas where you have to use a car. When people start talking about conspiracies against rail or talking about the Koch brothers and how these shadowy figures helped destroy high-speed rail, you can see the conservative rolling their eyes. The attack against cars feels personal for the conservative that lives in the suburbs and drives an SUV.

Automobiles have done a lot of good things, but they have also done a lot of bad things. Instead of trying to get people to see their cars as pests, the argument has to be framed in the context of choice. I will be getting into this new viewpoint later, but for now, cars should not be viewed as the enemy- if you are going talk to a conservative about high-speed rail.

The problem with these arguments is that they aren’t meant to persuade rail skeptics and conservatives. They are made by people who live in metro areas for people in metro areas. If you are a conservative living in the suburb of a metropolitan area, you are going to wonder why you have to give up some of your hard-earned money to help some hipster in the city be able to get from one metro area to another one.

Conservatives won’t care that Japan or Germany has high-speed rail. They really don’t care about environmental benefits. They don’t like liberals from the cities telling them how bad their SUV is. The standard argument for high-speed rail is one that basically talks to the already persuaded. So if that doesn’t work what does?

So this is how not to make an argument for high-speed rail, but we still have to show how to build it and also show where it is being built in America. That will take place in part three.



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Dennis Sanders

Dennis Sanders


Middle-aged Midwesterner. I write about religion, politics and culture. Podcast: newsletter: