Racial tensions. Blood in the streets. Civil disobedience. Electoral turmoil. War without end. Divisive rhetoric. Anger. Fear. Sadness.
It all sounds like 1968. That year, which saw the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, race riots in cities across America, burgeoning social movements taking to the streets, and a seething “silent majority” seeking to restore law and order, resonates powerfully today. Then, as now, the country seems to be coming apart. Beleaguered by bad news, people of every ilk ask: When and where did we go wrong? Again and again, commentators point to 1968 as the source of the divides that define our America.
Yet if we want to understand this difficult moment, 1968 is the wrong place to look. Instead, consider 1979. A renewed energy crisis in the wake of Watergate, defeat in Vietnam, and economic decline drove a deep-seated fear that America’s future looked bleak. People waited in lines at gas stations and the unemployment office. Racial, gender, sexual, and class divisions revealed in the 1960s stubbornly persisted. Citizen confidence in politics and government plummeted. Americans felt alienated from their institutions. Things were getting worse, not better.
Rejecting a policy-based response, President Jimmy Carter gambled his political future. On July 15, 1979, he addressed the nation. Carter began by pointing out that “the true problems of our Nation are much deeper” than any particular issue. Instead, we faced a “nearly invisible” but “fundamental threat to American democracy.” Noting a “growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of unity of purpose for our nation,” the president rattled off the symptoms of doubt and disunity: “a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions” as well as “a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests” that rendered a “government that seems incapable of action.” All this left Americans longing “for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.”
‘A turning point in our history’
Carter marked the moment as “a turning point in our history.” One path, he said, would lead “to fragmentation and self-interest,” a “mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.” This emerging tendency to “worship self-indulgence and consumption” would end, he claimed, in “chaos and immobility.”
To avoid this fate, the president declared we must take a path that followed “the traditions of our past” and the “lessons of our heritage.” “Common purpose and the restoration of American values” would lead to “true freedom.” Embracing a shared challenge — in this case, the energy crisis — would demand sacrifices for all but simultaneously empower Americans to “seize control again of our common destiny.” His call for a renewal of people-oriented politics called on citizens to engage with each other across their differences to solve common problems. Only the people, empowered to transcend cynicism and work together, could get to the root of the problem.
Carter’s speech worked. As historian Kevin Mattson notes, not only did it receive acclaim, but it also resonated with a wide range of Americans. In the weeks that followed, however, Carter failed to capitalize on his refreshing honesty. Misstep after misstep permitted his political opponents — most notably Ronald Reagan — to use what they renamed as “the malaise speech” to bury him in the 1980 elections.
Public preferred Reagan’s optimism
Facing what one citizen who wrote Carter in 1979 called “a moral and a spiritual crisis,” Americans decided that they preferred to take an easier path, one made attractive by Reagan’s boundless optimism in America’s bright future. In fact, belittling Carter for his effort to get at the root of the nation’s problems became a cottage industry. Conservatives righteously resurrected the nation’s rejection of Carter and his so-called malaise at the 1988 and 1992 Republican Party conventions.
Having chosen the easy path decades ago, we seem to be paying for it now. Structural racial and economic divides, a weaponized society, debased public discourse, and consumer-driven narcissism — all buried underneath the resurgent optimism of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s — have resurfaced to again push us to the brink. The last weeks of summer hold out little hope for change. A growing cynicism leaves most feeling hopeless. More African-American citizens will die. More police officers will die. In response, politicians will parrot slogans and parade empty solutions.
Spoken 37 years ago, Carter’s words seem eerily prophetic. But moral prophecy is not enough. Nor are technocratic solutions. America’s atrophied democracy must be fixed. We, the people, must look to ourselves and to each other. Alongside calls to end the violence and the vitriol, we must reexamine what democracy means. Is democracy nothing more than elections and governance? Or is it something that regular people do every day? Is democracy only pursued in politics? Or — as Americans knew it for over a hundred years — is it a way of life? The only way to solve these problems — problems we all face — is to build our capacity to confront our differences head-on, identify our shared goals, determine solutions, and work together to fix the problems that threaten the very foundations of our society.
Michael J. Lansing is an associate professor of history at Augsburg College and author of Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics.
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