Toyota makes me think of America.

"How's that?" you ask. "Toyota cars and trucks may be popular with Americans, but they're made by a Japanese automaker." Of course, Toyota is a foreign car company. More precisely, Toyota, like other auto giants, is a transnational corporation with manufacturing plants and dealerships around the globe. Heck, some of the defective parts involved in the Toyota recall were made right here in Indiana.

Nevertheless, all of the problems and bad press swirling around Toyota gets me thinking about the good old USA.

"Over the course of a few short weeks, Toyota's reputation as a dependable and trustworthy automaker has been decimated."
First, there is the problem with the gas pedals on some of Toyota's best-selling models. According to consumer complaints and subsequent press accounts, the gas pedal gets stuck, the vehicle accelerates and drivers lose control of the car. This malfunction has been implicated in a number of traffic accidents and fatalities.

For the better part of two weeks, the news cycle has been dominated by stories detailing the scale and scope of the problem. By last count, some 8 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide in order to address the issue.

This week, the other shoe dropped. On Thursday, Toyota acknowledged problems with the anti-lock braking system on 2010 models of Prius, the automaker's hybrid vehicle. That same day, the U.S. National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened up an investigation into the situation.

Over the course of a few short weeks, Toyota's reputation as a dependable and trustworthy automaker has been decimated. Despite the company's attempts at damage control, Toyota's stock prices are down, and consumer confidence has been shaken to the core.

The whole thing makes me think about America.

America once had a solid reputation. We were a dependable country. A country you could count on when you needed it most. A country that upholds the rule of law and defends human rights the world over; a country that extends freedom and opportunity to anyone regardless of race, class, religion or ethnicity. Of course, much of this is mythology. But all myths are grounded in some truth. And despite a mixed historical record, America has done a lot of good in this world.
"These days, America's reputation is like Toyota's. ... Both Toyota and America have tarnished brand images."
These days, America's reputation is like Toyota's. Sure, Toyota has made some terrific cars, cars that were safe and reliable. Today, Toyota is beleaguered on all sides: by frustrated customers, angry stockholders, opportunistic competitors, government regulators and a press with an insatiable appetite for drama, sensation and scandal. Both Toyota and America have tarnished brand images.

And like some Toyota vehicles, America's gas pedal seems to be stuck. We can't let up on the petty partisanship that puts political gain before the public good. We're addicted to fossil fuels and can't face the fact that our way of life is unsustainable.

America's also got a terrible problem with violence. Obama's budget cuts all sorts of "discretionary spending" but leaves military spending untouched. And now we're stepping up the saber rattling with Iran. Simply put, America is on a collision course with disaster, and we're pushing the pedal to the metal.

To make matters worse, the brakes don't work. Last year's economic meltdown is all but forgotten on Wall Street. The disaster was diverted -- at least for the most powerful banks -- and instead of putting the brakes on reckless investments and a "greed-is-good" culture, the financial services industry is left to its own devices.
"Like the automaker, America has dropped the ball on quality control: from education and infrastructure to public safety and effective government."
Even the Supreme Court can't see the wisdom of putting the brakes on corporate power. The high court's recent decision that allows corporations to spend as much as they like on political campaigns is yet another instance of our inability -- or, more precisely, our unwillingness -- to stop the corporate colonization of our political system.

Yeah. Toyota and America are very much alike. Like the automaker, America has dropped the ball on quality control: from education and infrastructure to public safety and effective government.

Toyota's problems began when the company overextended itself. Once upon a time, Toyota was content to produce safe, affordable and reliable cars that customers could depend on. Then Toyota jumped on the luxury vehicle and SUV bandwagon, and soon they were trying to do too much, too fast.

America is overextended, too. At last count, we're waging two wars (and any number of covert actions) with a military that is being pushed to the limits. The country's debt is staggering, and we are living beyond our means. And our broken health care system is destroying families and wrecking the economy.

Like Toyota, America's got to get back to basics. If not, we may find that neither
Toyota nor America is too big to fail.

Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.