Classic children’s film serves to tell a poignant message
Over fifteen years ago, Disney’s Pixar released the hit film Cars, the story of rookie race car Lightning McQueen and a dying, tight-knit community called Radiator Springs on old Route 66 that was tragically bypassed by the interstate. Presenting a uniquely comprehensive view of the world in which it is set, Cars illuminates some implicit criticisms of today’s dominant political theory, which can serve as a potent opportunity for reflection on the failings of our governing system.
While the plot follows a brash race car who learns the value of community after taking an unintentional detour on his way to compete for the Piston Cup, the movie’s subtext demonstrates the harmful effects of a political philosophy that prioritizes removing natural constraints on individual autonomy, often at the expense of organic communities.
To be clear, the animated film depicting a world of anthropomorphized motorized vehicles is not overtly political. But roughly understanding liberalism as a system of political thought that seeks to remove boundaries on choice with the ultimate end of promoting individual liberty, one can see how this philosophy motivates the processes that have destroyed Radiator Springs and encourages Lightning McQueen’s selfish worldview.
The uber-successful and self-acclaimed “one-man show” Lightning McQueen finds himself stranded in the once vibrant Arizona town of Radiator Springs, living among a strangely diverse set of vehicles in what he calls “hillbilly hell.” With no potential escape, McQueen is forcefully immersed in a new world built upon unchosen association, organic mutual responsibility, and work. McQueen’s individualistic worldview, encouraged by the liberal society in which he lives, is shattered when introduced to a community that removes the default of individual choice and material success.
The rusty tow truck, Tow Mater, teaches McQueen about friendship, trust, and humility. The coastal refugee and love-interest Sally shows McQueen what it means to slow down and abandon the pursuit of worldly success. Former race-champion and town leader Doc Hudson becomes a mentor to the lost racecar and teaches him by example how to care for others and do good honest work. McQueen starts the film friendless and full of vice, but he gradually develops virtue through the association and forced dependence on others.
But this community that teaches McQueen invaluable lessons is being killed. The interstate highway that bypassed the community for the sake of easing and simplifying commerce between urban centers paid no heed to the value of communities like Radiator Springs and the bonds among its people. Each of the characters in Radiator Springs had the opportunity to leave their community for somewhere they could do business more easily and more profitably but were tied down by their loyalties to their friends there.
The ethos of the interstate seeks to give individuals the opportunity to forgo such unchosen loyalties and seek success wherever they see fit, but it ends up creating a homogenous world without organic communities like Radiator Springs and without true virtuous friendship.
During a drive, Sally relates this story of Radiator Springs’ former glory and subsequent decline at the hands of government policy to McQueen. Even the concept of such driving in order to share company and not pursue some individual goal was foreign to McQueen. Sally asks, “Don’t you big-city race cars ever just take a drive,” to which Lightning confusingly responds, “Uh, no we don’t.” The two proceed to glide romantically through the winding roads of the Arizona canyons all the way up to a picturesque outlook of the surrounding valley. Here, Sally tells McQueen the story of the slow decline of her beloved town.
As James Taylor’s hauntingly beautiful acoustic ballad written for Cars, “Our Town,” plays in the background, Sally contrasts the philosophy behind Route 66 and Radiator Springs against that which motivates the interstate and big cities like Los Angeles: Route 66 “didn’t cut through the land like that Interstate, it moved with the land.”
By attempting to make each individual equally free by providing him with identical choices and opportunities to pursue his success, liberal philosophy cuts through the natural bonds and restrictions of society in the same way that the Interstate ignores the physical and cultural landscape of the land it blows through.
Summarizing the position of how liberalism often destroys the richness of life that arises from natural forms of community in the name of liberating the individual, in a very apropos metaphor, political philosopher and Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen writes in his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed, “We have endless choices of what car to drive but few options over whether we will spend large portions of our lives in soul-deadening boredom within them.”.
Mapping this onto the film’s situation, the Interstate provides a seemingly unlimited amount of options for travel and commerce by connecting distant places in a more efficient manner, but it also limits one’s options for experiencing the world by choking out any ways of life that contradict liberalism’s autonomy and equality-maximizing principle. Sally expresses this sentiment more simply speaking of old Route 66, “Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time.”
While liberalism’s purported goal of granting the individual maximum control over his life is an attractive one on its face, especially as it has been imprinted into the psyche of the modern world after centuries of the philosophy’s dominance, the story of Radiator Springs and Lightning McQueen in Cars shows that ultimately prioritizing autonomy leads only to a liberation from nature and the obligation it imposes on us. The disconnect from nature that this ideology creates leaves us restless and unsatisfied by alienating one from the bonds that give our lives purpose outside of our own success, perhaps best exemplified by Lightning’s character at the beginning of the film.
The film concludes with Radiator Springs being put “back on the map,” with a new influx of tourism and commerce due to its association with virtuous hero McQueen. Despite this seemingly “happy ending,” one ought to consider whether the problem at the heart of Radiator Springs is addressed. Once Lightning’s gears rust over and the moment of fame ends, will the town not simply return to its slumber? This troubling question raises another one for us: can communities like Radiator Springs—both in the world of cars and men—ever survive, or is this deterioration inevitable without a serious rethinking of our political priorities?
Nico Schmitz is a sophomore majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies. Like Sally, he hails from Los Angeles and is called a coastal elite by his friends. Despite this, he most enjoys road-tripping on the interstate with his family. Send him your opinions on Cars at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Luke Thompson is a sophomore majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, political science, and theology. Like Tow Mater, he can often be found enjoying the drive down Route 66 in his hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona (don’t forget Winona). If not found there, reach out to him at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Pixar Animation Studios