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Was Carter right?

15 July 2010

11:27 PM

15 July 2010

11:27 PM

Today marks the 31st anniversary of President Jimmy Carter’s famous
‘malaise’ speech. On July 15, 1979, Carter, then running for re-election against Ronald Reagan, ignored the advice of his campaign team and gave Americans a grave warning. The nation,
he said, was facing a fundamental "crisis of confidence". (He didn’t actually use the word malaise.)
 
"Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption," he said. "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 … The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us."

His message was clear: if Americans didn’t check their dependence on gargantuan amounts of foreign oil and their drift towards an all-consumer culture, the country was in peril. The USA
needed to change.
 
It was a disastrous move, politically. Carter seemed to taint himself with something seriously unAmerican – pessimism. And in contrast with the impossibly optimistic Reagan, with his talk of
"morning in America", he sounded like a merchant of gloom. Reagan took full advantage, of course, making digs at Carter by alluding to "those who would have us believe that America
has reached the zenith of its power." The Gipper then trounced Carter in the election and the malaise speech has become a by-word for Democratic defeatism.
 
Today, however, some of the more original thinkers on the American Right are looking back at the speech in different light. Was Carter’s message not, in fact, a quintessentially conservative
one? In urging Americans to restrain their appetite for foreign oil and consumer goods, he was appealing against profligacy, hubris, and what he called "a mistaken sense of freedom". His
point was one with which all good British Tories should feel familiar: this country is going to the dogs.

Was Carter right, then? For the best conservative argument in his defence, I recommend a chapter on Reagan in the brilliant Andrew J Bacevich’s book, The Limits of American Power: The End of American
Exceptionalism
.
 
But not everyone agrees, of course. Ross Douthat, a very good and shrewd journalist for the New York Times, agrees that Carter’s address had moral force, but reckons that its practical implications on energy consumption were untenable:

“The speech became an argument that the late-1970s energy crisis was so dire, and so enduring, that the only reasonable response was for the government to effectively take over the
energy sector — with caps and quotas on how much oil Americans could import, buy and use, enforced by an “energy security corporation” and an “energy mobilization
board” — and make war on fossil fuels. And no matter how much you dislike oil companies, or how worried you are about global warming, in the light of what happened in the decades
following the Carter presidency those prescriptions don’t look very good at all.’”

Maybe so. But the very fact that such Carter’s ideas are beginning to find an improbably warm reception on the American Right does suggest that conservatism in the US is a’
changing. And more than thirty years after Carter’s speech – see video below — perhaps it is worth listening to those words again.


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