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To understand this summer, look not to 1968 but to ’79

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation.

Racial tensions. Blood in the streets. Civil disobedience. Electoral turmoil. War without end. Divisive rhetoric. Anger. Fear. Sadness.

Michael J. Lansing

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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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/25/2016 - 09:41 am.

    Deflection or Ignorance?

    July 1979: The fundamental error in Carter’s thesis truly was camping on typical social issues rather than currently acute economic matters created by the OPEC (Arab sector) Oil Embargo that brought not only constantly rising fuel prices to 1970s American lives, but also broadly felt collateral economic consequences of great civil concern. Carter knew this to be our core dilemma and fundamental threat. In fact, he appointed Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in August 1979, to find urgently needed solutions. Jimmy Carter could not/would not reveal our true crisis. It is reasonable to believe he knew, in July 1979, fundamental failings of prevailing econometric analysis and remedy.

    Praising Carter’s return to standard social rhetoric at that time of intrinsic economic danger is not helpful to factual understanding of the era. As one who does know the fundamental and potentially catastrophic threat (as told to me by one directly involved in secret Fed operations of the late 1970s), I am acutely aware of this public messaging purpose.

    President Carter was not ignorant of his reality, at least not immediately after Volcker took over the Fed in August 1979. We do know he paid the 1980 political price of his 1979 message. Had be been more revealing, would he have survived, and at what price? That is the most significant root question of its time. One may argue that Carter preserved the nation by not revealing truth. One may also argue that he indirectly fomented ongoing unrest associated with the ever-growing sense of “malaise” noted by this author. Without insights enabled by professional knowledge of those economic secrets, no scholarly dissertation is realistically footed in addressing what came of Carter’s decisions in both July and August of 1979.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 07/25/2016 - 12:34 pm.

    Carter’s tax policy was a huge stop sign

    for the economy. Reagan had a message of hope and economic growth.through lessening taxes and regulations. I don’t see a plan that gets Americans back to work by either party in 2016. It wasn’t the malaise speech that did in Carter, it was the economy, handling of the hostage situation, his tax policies and lack of faith in Big Government.

    If we are looking to change the direction of our country we need to take control of our political system. Term limits and less power in DC (more power at the local level) would be a start.

    • Submitted by 18576 18576 on 07/25/2016 - 03:12 pm.

      Reagan, taxes/regulations

      You are still operating under the misunderstanding of what Reagan did/didn’t do. He raised taxes overall. He started with tax cuts thinking it would work (actually like any supply-sider he knew thay would not work but made the rich richer), and then had to raise them to make the economy improve. There are many similar Reagan myths that you can easily discover with very little effort and research.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/26/2016 - 07:29 am.

        And More Than That

        Few people recall that Reagan passed increases in the FICA payroll taxes, which for most people of average means more than offset the cuts in income. Further, the FICA tax applied to higher incomes. Prior to that, well paid blue collar workers like my old man were done paying FICA taxes around October and then got an effective pay raise. After the Reagan tax increases, they paid on 100% of their income.

        So while the wealthy got a great benefit from the income tax cuts, the FICA increase had little effect on them.

        Liberals are lousy at messaging, which is why you hear little about the Reagan tax increases or the Obama tax cuts. Even the White House never referred to the “Obama tax cuts”, and I would suggest that few progressives will even know what I’m talking about.

        The other thing Reagan benefited from was the collapse of global oil prices, which he had nothing to do with. But that’s for another post.

        • Submitted by Jim Million on 07/26/2016 - 09:00 am.

          Benefit Recipients

          The principal recipients of FICA benefits funded by “well paid blue collar workers” and other members of the middle class are those same contributors, albeit, in mostly deferred payments. Little has been recently spoken or written about reciprocal threats of current wage stagnation, even regression in real terms.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 07/25/2016 - 01:01 pm.

    Iran hostage crisis

    No doubt a part of the voting electorate scorned President Carter’s hard rhetoric in favor of Reagan’s rose-colored view of America. But Carter was also tripped up by the Iranian hostage crisis. One attempted rescue failed abysmally. There are some who feel (I am one) that Carter was also undermined in his bid for a second term by a side-deal by the Reagan campaign with the Ayatollahs to delay release of the hostages being then held until after the election.

    It’s pointless to try to sort out which of many factors contributed to Carter’s defeat and the undeserved reputation his Presidency received as “failed Presidency.” Carter was, and is, a great, if flawed, man. The fact he could speak honestly to a public which so often does not want to hear the hard facts is not his fault. It speaks to his stature that he had the courage to speak as honestly he did.

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 07/25/2016 - 02:17 pm.

    I’ll take

    Carter over Reagan every time.

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