Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Resurrection of Jimmy Carter

In the last few days I have seen two bloggers, conservative Rod Dreher and progressive Kevin Mattson, recall and praise Jimmy Carter's famous (or infamous) "malaise" speech and lay claim to it as a conservative, no progressive, statement of values.

You may recall that Carter delivered the speech to a national television audience on July 15, 1979. The country was in the midst of a national energy crisis. Carter had cut short a vacation after truckers and residents had rioted in Levittown, PA to protest fuel costs and rampant inflation. Carter came home and called a national summit of leaders to talk about the country's challenges. Ten days later he delivered the speech. In it he said:

I know, of course, being president, that government actions and legislation can be very important. That's why I've worked hard to put my campaign promises into law -- and I have to admit, with just mixed success. But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America. So, 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.

He suggested that there were two possible paths ahead:

...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.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.

He then proposed a series of steps to be taken to address the energy crisis. These steps included finding and using more domestic sources of energy. including both drilling and the expansion of solar power, and he called for major conservation efforts. He challenged every person to make personal sacrifices to use less energy and he called on the Legislature to bring him legislation mandating various forms of conservation.

So was it a conservative speech or a progressive speech?

Here is conservative Dreher at Beliefnet:

This was not the speech of some America-hating leftist. Carter did not try to tear down the country, he simply wanted it to come together and direct itself toward a goal other than unlimited growth or unending progress. As Andrew Bacevich points out in The New American Militarism, the president recognized the high cost of empire:

In July of 1979, Carter already anticipated that a continuing and unchecked thirst for imported oil was sure to distort U.S. strategic priorities with unforeseen but adverse consequences. He feared the impact of that distortion on American democracy still reeling from the effects of the 1960s. So he summoned his fellow citizens to change course, to choose self-sufficiency and self-reliance and therefore true independence but at a cost of collective sacrifice and lowered expectations.

Self-sufficiency, discipline, sacrifice, conservation, independence, the striving for meaning and purpose beyond material wealth. All of these characteristics were once associated with conservatism, and they were all part of a speech given by a man who was naval officer, farmer and large landowner, small businessman, Sunday school teacher, and Southerner. Does this not sound the background of a conservative?

Here is progressive Mattson at The American Prospect:

You might have heard that the speech was a disaster. That it was all about Jimmy Carter, the "loser" president, shirking his responsibilities. Sean Wilentz writes in The Age of Reagan, "Carter appeared to be abdicating his role as leader and blaming the people themselves for their own afflictions." This interpretation is repeated countless times in history textbooks.

But in fact, the speech worked. It prompted an overwhelmingly favorable response. Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers. The mail that poured into the White House testified that many citizens felt moved by the speech. One man wrote to Carter, "You are the first politician that [sic] has said the words that I have been thinking for years. Last month I purchased a moped to drive to work with. I plan to use it as much as possible, and by doing so I have cut my gas consumption by 75%."

In the end, Jimmy Carter did blow the situation, but it wasn't because of the speech itself. Rather, he blew the opportunity that the speech opened up for him. Just two days after July 15, Carter fired his Cabinet, signifying a governmental meltdown. The president's poll numbers sank again as confusion and disarray took over. Carter could give a great speech, but there were two things he couldn't manage: to govern well enough to make his language buoy him or to find a way to yoke the energy crisis with concrete civic re-engagement initiatives. Though Americans were inspired by the speech, many were still stumped as to what was expected of them. As Time magazine described it: "The President basked in the applause for a day and then set in motion his astounding purge, undoing much of the good he had done himself."

Short-term losses, though, sometimes hide long-term opportunities. Today that language of civic sacrifice resonates even more powerfully, after eight years of conservative rule grounded in talk about the virtues of free markets and self-interest. Carter's vision of humbled leadership and engaged citizenship also contrasts nicely with the hubris of George W. Bush. A vision of government and citizens working together to overcome a crisis might offer progressives a way to set realistic expectations about what government can and cannot do. It would seem that our current president has started to learn that lesson.

What strikes me after reading Carter's speech again and then the comments of Dreher and Mattson is how in modern understanding both terms conservative and liberal has become unmoored from their meaningful roots.

What does it mean to be a conservative today? For the last eight years it has meant letting the financial markets run free so the rich can get richer and it has meant using America's military power to extend its empire under the guise of defending freedom and promoting democracy in the world. What is conservative about any of that? "Free markets" is a core conservative value, but where in the free market orgy that we have recently experienced were the values of thrift, self-discipline, conservation, sacrifice, honor? These were once known as conservative values too. And where in the Iraq misadventure was any sense of the limits of power, any acknowledgment that fallen human nature cannot just be remade with guns and money? Nothing so demonstrated George Bush's unhingement from anything conservative when he championed a free election in Palestine and then was surprised that the democratically elected government turned out to be Hamas. Democracy doesn't just happen with an election. Any conservative knows this. Culture and tradition can't just be changed overnight.

To their credit progressives have historically been consistent champions of personal freedom. Civil Rights for minorities, equal rights for women, gay rights, workers rights, etc. At its best the progressive vision has worked to remove barriers to equal access and level the playing field so that everyone has an opportunity. But an opportunity to do what? To shop? To have bigger homes and cars and TVs? Too often the progressive message has lacked a connection with a larger vision that we are trying to build something worthwhile here. We are removing shackles and barriers so we can build heaven on earth, so we can create more healthy communities, a more livable planet, a more just social order. But when individual freedom is detached from social vision, we are free to check out and watch TV. Community service and civic engagement are core progressive values. It takes a village to raise a child, but the villagers have to come out of their homes.

It isn't surprising to me that a conservative and a progressive would both claim Jimmy Carter as one of their own. He was both conservative and progressive. He embodied the conservative values Rod Dreher named: "self-sufficiency, discipline, sacrifice, conservation, independence, the striving for meaning and purpose beyond material wealth." But he also believed in the progressive vision that we could put those conservative values to work to bring meaningful and lasting change to our society. He supported the onward march of personal freedom and continued to work tirelessly long after he left the White House to give others the chance to have a piece of the economic and political pie. But the key here is that although he was free himself he continued to work on behalf of the others. Personal freedom connected to social vision.

In any case I am glad to see Jimmy Carter getting another hearing. His 1976 presidential campaign was the first one I worked on and it pained me to watch him be tarred and feathered as his presidency wore on. I have long since come to see that he was not a great President; he was not just a victim of circumstances beyond his control like the hostage crisis that finally undid him. He had a good vision of where the country needed to go, but he lacked the skills to move that vision forward. He ran a brilliant campaign in 1975 but he did not run a brilliant White House. The "malaise" speech, though, was brilliant; it was the follow-up that wasn't.

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