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Why Jimmy Carter's Malaise Speech Is More Relevant than Ever

Thirty years ago, on July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter went on national television and gave a shocking speech.  He looked straight at the American people and said: “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”  He decried a “growing disrespect for government” and “fragmentation and self-interest” that prevented Americans from tackling the energy crisis they confronted – the result of their over-reliance upon fossil fuels.  Americans, he warned, now faced a “crisis of confidence.”

Why does the speech matter today and warrant revisiting?  Well first off, and strange as it might sound, the speech was a glowing success for the president.  Many would think that being tough on the American people would have resulted in bad stuff for the president.  But that’s not the case.  Carter’s poll numbers shot up 11% in the wake of the speech, something that rarely happened during his presidency.  Americans wrote him letters in copious amounts, almost all of them positive.  Many pledged that they would join him in fighting the energy crisis facing America (for instance, walking or biking to work).  And somehow, just somehow, the American people appeared fine with hearing that the country – meaning: themselves – had grown selfish, corrupt, and soft.  They wanted a leader who confronted truths about the country’s state of being and who tried to confront the energy crisis as a deeper moral and civic crisis.

What’s this say about America and our political culture today, now that we look back after thirty years? 

To state the obvious: That Americans are happy to scrutinize their value system and think critically about the limits of individualism and consumerism.  That a presidential leader should ask questions of and place demands on citizens.  And thinking about today: That a call to conserve, if grounded in a language of the common good, might help us gird ourselves for the coming battles ahead over climate change.  One of the most provocative lines in Carter’s speech was: “Every act of energy conservation… is more than just common sense – I tell you it is an act of patriotism.”

Carter used the speech to articulate a style of leadership that was realist in spirit, charged with the warnings of his favorite theologian Reinhold Niebuhr about “limits” and “humility.”  He shared responsibility with his fellow citizens by confessing his own faults (he opened the speech with a long list of complaints lodged at him by citizens he had met with over the last few days).  His own track record, he admitted, was of “mixed success.”  He recognized the wounds left over from Watergate, Vietnam, and the assassinations of the sixties.  At one point, even though he didn’t have to, he said, “This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.”  And he did all of this in expectation of the result – Americans sharing their doubts about individualism and self-centeredness with him and their desire for a leader who spoke the truth about the county’s foibles.

Unfortunately, we rarely remember the speech, if we remember it at all, in this way.  For that, I thank my fellow historians who, ever since the speech was given, have interpreted it as a colossal failure – an expression of Jimmy Carter’s doomed presidency.  Jimmy Carter, the “loser” president, shirking his responsibilities and blaming the innocent American public: That is the standard take in history textbooks.  As one historian recently wrote, “Carter appeared to be abdicating his role as leader and blaming the people themselves for their own afflictions.” That idea has even found a place in our popular culture. When the citizens of Springfield unveil a statute of Jimmy Carter on episode 80 of The Simpsons, the statue is emblazoned with the words “Malaise Forever.”  Not only that, the citizens tear the statue down and riot.

It’s important to remember the speech better than this.  In the end, Jimmy Carter did fail, but it wasn’t during the speech.  Rather, soon after giving it, Carter fired his Cabinet, which threw the country into a tizzy, suggesting governmental meltdown.  The president’s poll numbers sunk again, as confusion and disarray took over.  As Time magazine described it: “The President basked in the applause” from his speech “for a day and then set in motion his astounding purge, undoing much of the good he had done himself.”1

If we return to the speech today and consider the success it generated for Carter in its immediate aftermath, we should understand the “Crisis of Confidence” speech – that’s its official title, after all – in the long tradition of the American jeremiad, one that descends from the Puritans of Massachusetts.  Those who study that tradition realize that jeremiads can work – they can alert citizens to their own failures and yet renew the covenant that brought them together originally.  They can draw citizens into a moral conversation about their future.  And in this case, in its contemporary application, a way to draw them into a fight for making their country better by becoming more energy independent.

The other way to understand the speech is to see it as a turning point.  The age of conservatism – stretching from Reagan’s 1980 election up through the end of W.’s second term – has been framed not by Carter’s tones of humility but celebratory nationalism.  In fact, the game plan was laid by Ronald Reagan’s direct retort to Carter, made when announcing his candidacy just three months after Carter’s speech.  Reagan explained, “I find no national malaise.  I find nothing wrong with the American people.”  Instead America stood as a “shining city on a hill,” a term he used persistently throughout the campaign.

Where did this talk of positive thinking take us?  Well, triumphant confidence can become dangerous.  It can lead Americans to questionable ambitions overseas, to think of themselves as leading the world and unwilling to scrutinize their own values or ask any questions about themselves.  Why bother when there’s “nothing wrong” with the American people?  The end-game of this was Iraq: When a president who seemed utterly confident in America’s good standing in the world pushed us to a war that was premised on over-confidence that America could only do good in the world.  That’s mirrored in the paucity of talk about civic sacrifice from America’s conservatives.  Since Carter’s speech, America’s conservatives – who have followed Reagan’s lead by seeing themselves as populist celebrants of the people – have refused to ask much of anything from citizens.  After all, there’s “nothing wrong with the American people.”  So Bush told citizens in the wake of 9/11 not to go out and volunteer or help with some sort of sacrifice but rather to shop and show the terrorists our resolve that way.  Or consider Sarah Palin who suggested in 2008 that all was well in the “real America” if not in Washington.  Such is the result of right wing populism – government bad, people good.  Such is the endgame of the anti-malaise leadership of Ronald Reagan.

But maybe, just maybe, we’re on the brink of a return to Carter’s language.  Echoes of Carter could certainly be heard in our current president’s inaugural address.  Obama told crowds sprawled across the Mall that there were storm clouds gathering.  These were not just terrorism, a sinking economy, or an environmental crisis.  This was more, he claimed, echoing Carter: “Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.”  He went on to say that the “challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many.  They will not be met easily or in a short span of time.”  Obama has returned to Reinhold Niebuhr.  His language often represents realism and maturity.  He calls for more from citizens – through voluntary service, among other things.

And now we have upon us, finally, a climate change bill that just barely passed through Congress.  What better time for the president to talk about the need for civic sacrifice in order to protect against environmental destruction?  Now seems the right time to make such a pitch – to say, in essence, that the global warming crisis is not just a scientific crisis but a moral and civic crisis, a challenge to accept limits rather than perpetual growth and expansion.  A time to call into question our consumer culture’s offering of dreams of abundance without consequence.

Carter’s speech reminds us that a leader can ask something of the American people and can tell citizens they have grown too comfortable in their ways and must face some uncomfortable truths about the perils of their way of life.  It shows that a leader can speak boldly to the American people about their problems and can in fact reenergize the civic bonds between leader and citizens.  The “malaise speech,” as it’s unfortunately titled, didn’t necessarily show exactly how we would get off our reliance on fossil fuels today.  But it did suggest that we would become better – not just environmentally but morally – if we did. 

1   New York Times, July 22, 1979, 1; Time, July 30, 1979, 13.