Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Monday, March 14, 2016

Jimmy Carter: Almost Always Right

In 1979, Carter gave a speech that was called the Crisis of Confidence speech, but is widely known to history as the "Malaise speech."  In it, Carter was talking about the energy crisis and subsequent economic crisis.  But he was really preaching a sermon to the American people about how they had lost the values that had "made America great."

Here are some excerpts:

I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.
I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.
The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.
This piece certainly feels relevant today, but what is so striking about it today is how unhinged from reality much of that crisis of confidence is.  As Carter noted then and is true today, we are economically, militarily and politically without peer.  
Confidence in the future has supported everything else -- public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.
Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. 
Here, you can see how this crisis could lead to a man like Trump, just as it lead to a man like Reagan.  Reagan, however, would seem to be infinitely preferable to a man like Trump. The impulse towards authoritarianism that Trump represents grows from that sense of crisis.  In a crisis, Rome would appoint a dictator to cut through the Senate and Equites.  Today, people clamor for a strong man with no ideas, simply because he projects strength.
In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.
This was the part that was widely panned at the time.  There was an economic crisis, and Carter offered a Baptist Sunday School lesson.
But this section is critical.  Because increasingly, we are a culture that defines itself by what it doesn't have, what it doesn't own.  And we constantly measure ourselves against the opulence in our midst.  We can see what more looks like every day.  And even if you are a millionaire, you can see what the multimillionaires have and they can see what the billionaires have.  
The American poor are wealthier than 90% of the people who have ever lived.  They have marvels like electricity, television and running water that would have floored Louis XIV.  We live in one of the safest, most prosperous times in history.
But the sense of want and emptiness is very real.  It fuels the Trump and Sanders phenomenon, albeit from different directions.  It is why my students are so incredibly stressed out, because they feel they are one bad grade away from destitution and a failed future.  It's why people think America needs to be "made great again."
We have worshiped Mammon, only to find Mammon doesn't spread itself that thin.
Carter went on to say:
What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.
Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don't like it, and neither do I. 
And what, I wonder, does he make of today's Congress?  Carter went on to predict the Reagan '80s. 
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.
This is the world we live in.  This is the world Reagan bequeathed us.
Carter went on to talk about the energy crisis, but it was his diagnosis of what was wrong with America in the 1970s that feels so fresh and relevant today.  We are a nation that no longer values important things.  We want "winners" without asking ourselves what winning entails.  We want "tough talk" without paying the costs of backing that up.  We want what we don't have and fail to appreciate what we do.

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