July 16, 2009

“Malaise” In Retrospect

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter’s now infamous “Crisis of Confidence” speech. While most Americans regard the speech as a low point for the nation, in recent years several prominent figures and writers have gone out of their way to make the case that Carter’s warnings about our consumption culture and American Exceptionalism should have been heeded.

For the most part I’ve avoided detailed discussion of these reappraisals as I find myself straddling the fence on many of the particulars, but after reading Kevin Mattson’s book on the speech I think a moderate voice on this bizarrely polarizing subject ought to be heard. Specifically, I think critics and supporters of Carter should be honest about the finer points and details of the speech. Yes, it was a downer. Yes, it was a rare case of a Washington politician telling harsh truths. And yes, it was a “realist” speech at a time when realism was out of vogue.

But more to the point is the fact that Carter’s calls for sacrifice and personal responsibility were not coupled with any serious discussion of how and why government had failed them. In fact the policy proposals outlined in the speech were explicitly statist and called for the expansion of the federal apparatus. That this was done using rhetorical devices that were vaguely decentralist is largely irrelevant. I do not fault Andrew Bacevich, Sean Scallon and others who have pointed to the mislabeled “malaise speech” as a uniquely honest statement about the follies of the American imperial mindset. In fact I find myself in general agreement with Bacevich, when he notes that Carter (and his speech) was more conservative in action than was Ronald Reagan.

But Carter’s call for civic responsibility was not meant for the small towns and neighborhoods across America. In fact as Mattson notes in his awkwardly titled book, Carter followed a Clintonian model of bottom-to-top, top-to-bottom citizen “empowerment.” Of course what this really means is the extension of identity politics into the core of the public sector – a concept that preceded Carter but exploded under his administration. Advocating for an “energy mobilization board,” and an “energy security corporation,” is not decentralism and those looking for a sound model for a future America in Carter’s “Crisis” speech will be looking for a long time. Diagnosing an illness and finding a cure are two very different things.

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