In America, the bicycle is emerging as a new conservative front in the culture wars. In May, Wall Street Journal commentator Dorothy Rabinowitz called bicyclists “the most important danger in the city”; in Colorado’s last governor’s election, a Republican candidate said a local bike-sharing program “could threaten our personal freedoms.” A columnist for the conservative Washington Times declared D.C. bike-sharing programs to be “broken-down socialism”; radio pundit Rush Limbaugh said he “won’t care” if his car door knocks over a cyclist.
Cyclists who have struggled for years to attract political attention might be surprised to hear themselves talked about as an insidious new social force. But they can also see it as a kind of welcome—a recognition that for better or worse, they have, politically, arrived.
As political ideas fracture along cultural lines, pundits and politicians are finding cyclists to be a convenient new “them” in the eternal us-them struggle. Even if conservatives don’t all agree that riders are metrosexuals, they “see bikers as obnoxious, rude hipsters,” says Sam Schwartz, former New York City traffic commissioner.
Conservative politicians know that simply opposing causes like environmentalism appeals to the base. At the extreme end, this leads to some positions that almost defy belief—“I love that smell of the emissions,” said the former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, while riding a motorcycle—but bikes represent more of an everyday rebuke, a quiet reminder that your car isn’t the only way to get around.
In this respect, Rob Ford isn’t just a mess. He is a visionary—perhaps the first candidate to win an election in part by fanning public annoyance at those reckless, entitled, tax-and-spend bicycle riders. As new bike lanes make their slow incursions into downtown traffic patterns, it’s reasonable we can expect more such victories. It might seem frustrating for bike supporters, but there is one consolation: In politics, you get attacked because you matter.