Political commentary

Why do liberals put so many bumper stickers on their cars?

The 19th century psychologist Gustave Le Bon has the answer

by T. Nelson

Political Commentary

Why do liberals put so many bumper stickers on their cars?

S cience teaches us that we can sometimes learn the greatest truths by studying the most insignificant phenomena. For example, gravity, the force that drives galaxies, may be caused by the shrinkage of space caused by tiny subatomic force-carrying particles called gluons. The eternal mystery of why bananas are curved was solved by studying molecules called auxins, which cause the bananas to bend upwards against the force of gravity, perhaps to prevent short animals, like monkeys, from reaching them.

But there are some mysteries that still defy understanding. One of the most baffling is: why do liberals put so many bumper stickers on their cars? This question, seemingly trivial and even amusing, actually tells us a great deal about our modern age.

The Narcissist Theory

Some psychologists have tried to explain the wallpapered outer surfaces of cars owned by liberals as a case of mass narcissism. Liberals, say the psychologists, believe their views make them better people than everyone else, and they want others to know it. The bumper stickers, then, are merely a form of self-advertising.

There seems to be some truth in this theory, but it doesn't fully explain the phenomenon. Why is it, for example, that libs never notice that the slogans on their bumper stickers contradict what they actually do? Coexistence? Equality? Tolerance? The more bumper stickers like this there are on a person's car, the less likely it is that its owner will exhibit any of these traits.

Anti-Obama bumper sticker
Anti-Obama bumper sticker—a rare sighting of a conservative bumper sticker on a car from New Jersey.

The meaning can also be ambiguous, as with those little decals of fish with feet and the word “Darwin” inside, which look like Darwin was eaten by a fish, but incompletely digested. Just what does this decal really mean? As an anti-creationism message, it's flawed: it could just as well be taken as a veiled reference to the Biblical story of Jonah.

The liberals-as-narcissists theory also fails to explain the empirical facts I have accumulated in long, tedious observations following such vehicles on I-495 at seven miles an hour. The Prius driver in front of me, glancing smugly in his rear-view mirror, probably imagined my car as a coal-burning behemoth belching out vast plumes of deadly carbon dioxide. But it can be empirically demonstrated that a person's driving ability varies inversely with the number of bumper stickers on their car. Judging from the level of tolerance of drivers toward each other, drivers of big pickup trucks such as F-150s and Silverados are by far the most polite and considerate on the road, while drivers of those little Prions are among the least, being surpassed only by drivers of those little Mazda 3s.

In fairness, however, I cannot recall ever seeing a Prius speeding. The other problem for Prius owners is the small rear window, which ensures that the drivers cannot see the raised fists and the crumpled bicycles in their wake. Both Prii and Mazdas, however, are ideal for liberals because their small rear window leaves more space for bumper stickers. Clearly the manufacturers understand their customers very well.

Then there is the mysterious “13.1” bumper sticker that I saw one one car. The sticker means the driver ran half a marathon, which is 26.2 miles. That is equivalent to 1,921 trips from my TV to the refrigerator and back. Assuming one beer per trip, it works out to 180.0937 gallons of beer. Pretty impressive.

The Bullet Hole Theory

Another theory is that liberals use bumper stickers not to express their opinions, but to cover up the bullet holes produced by rednecks shooting at them. According to this theory, under each Worship Gaia sticker is a circular perforation which the liberal, being unskilled in mechanical things, is unable to figure out how to repair. Those fading Obama 2008 stickers are wide enough to cover a machine gun trail, if the lib puts two side by side.

Although I know little about firearms, I've been told that a semiautomatic rifle, such as an AR-15, would leave a more precise trail, whereas a shotgun would produce a two-dimensional cluster of smaller holes exhibiting, to a first approximation, a Gaussian distribution. Such distribution patterns would require a minimum of two bumper stickers to cover, although the area would of course depend on just how close the pickup truck was to the liberal.

But this theory, too, has a problem. For it to be true, there would have to have been a time when the back of the car had no bumper stickers at all. Clearly, then, this theory is also inadequate.

Gustave Le Bon's Theory

A 19th century psychologist named Gustave Le Bon has given us the real answer in his impressive 1895 work The Psychology of Crowds [1]. The content of bumper stickers is calibrated to appeal to the crowd. The simplicity of a one-word message is perfect for crowds.

Psychology is not much interested in crowds these days, having ceded much of group psychology to sociology, which had much the result you would expect. While Le Bon simply presented his insights, today's sociologists have to at least pretend their results are based on empirical research, lest they be accused of just presenting their opinions. Le Bon discusses not only crowds, but the fate of civilizations (which are just really big crowds) as well.

Kant bumper sticker
Bumper stickers are not suitable for conveying complex ideas.

What happens when people bunch up together to form a crowd? According to Gustave Le Bon, a crowd forms a single collective being emerging from the subconscious of the individuals that it comprises. The beliefs and capabilities of the crowd are those that are shared by each of its members, but their reasoning power must be blocked in order to keep the crowd from turning against itself and dissolving. Therefore, says Le Bon, the crowd can never show high intelligence: it is shared stupidity, not shared wit, he says, that creates the mind of a crowd. If this were a bumper sticker, I might say the only infinitely renewable resource is stupidity.

If Le Bon is right, as Mother Earth's population density increases, we will all become part of a bigger and bigger crowd, and will therefore be forced to suppress all traces of mentation in order to fit in. Bumper stickers suit that strategy perfectly. Liberals, according to this theory, are showing us our future. Wherever he is today, Le Bon would be smiling about the 140-character limit of our Tweet-based culture.

Le Bon's group psychology explains how people who seem reasonably intelligent when spoken to on an individual basis can subscribe when in groups to ideas that, to an outsider, appear utterly moronic. Collectivists are following the crowd, and their ideology is designed accordingly. Many of them are young people, who are programmed to seek social status and approval. This is reflected in how their ideology is transmitted: not by reason, but by threats of group disapproval and ostracism.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Liberals are collectivist, and bumper stickers are expressions of group consciousness. Bryan Caplan [2], Ann Coulter [3], and many others also made the connection. On a bumper sticker there's no space for intelligent discussion; quoting many lines of Proust would just get you nicked for creating a traffic hazard.

But it's more than that: many of the stickers are nonsense. For example, someone once pointed out the inconsistency of the “Free Tibet” sticker. How do we do that? By declaring war on China? Apparently not: next to it was one that said “War is not the answer.” The slogans cancel each other out. If you wanted to be consistent, you'd have to say either: “Free Tibet. War is the answer!” or “Don't Free Tibet. We don't really care about Tibetans!” Neither would make you look like a nice person, and that's really the purpose of these stickers.

Clearly, the purpose of liberal bumper stickers is not to stimulate thought, but to suppress it. The slogans on the backs of these free-range Prii aren't intended to be meaningful; they're nothing more than expressions of group solidarity. And to the liberal, being part of the group is all that matters.


[1] Gustave Le Bon, The Psychology of Crowds, English translation of 1895 ed., Sparkling Books.

[2] Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter. Princeton, 2007.

[3] Ann Coulter, Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America (2011).

See also:

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