I want to thank some of the writers of Takimag.com for linking to discussing my TAC article “Carter Conservatism” including Richard Spencer, Kevin DeAnna and Dylan Hayes during last week’s 30 anniversary of the “Crisis in Confidence Speech.”
In Search of… was a popular 1970’s program hosted by Leonard Nimoy and I refer to it because in a way, the whole Carter Administration was an exercise in search of a new governing ideology. The speech itself was the climax of this effort that began as an effort by Carter and Pat Caddell to find such a framework in which the Carter Administration could operate in. They understood the old governing ideologies were no longer credible to most people in country that was still trying to steady itself after the upheavals of the 1960s, the Vietnam War and Watergate.
It was an ambitious and gutsy effort had it perhaps been confined to a second Carter term perhaps may have been successful. But in failing to deal with the immediate problems facing the American public, especially in 1979 when the Carter Presidency imploded, meant that they would not get their chance. As I said in my article, immediate politics, whether it was the firing of the cabinet or the Kennedy primary challenge, doomed the effort. Carter had essentially nothing to run on by the fall of 1980 other than trying to defend an indefensible record or trying to scare the public about Reagan, both of which failed miserably.
Actually, the Carter Administration is a fascinating look at how the Democratic Party and how the liberal ideology that governed it flew apart during the late 1970s, the varying factions at war with each other whether they were not-quite-neocon yet Scoop Jackson supporters, traditional Democrats and their machines, unions, conservative Democrats in the West and South, Jerry Brown and other “new politicians” and minorities and other interest group activists. The Carter Administration was in the vortex of this ideological churning that ultimately led to the Republican Era of 1981-2008. Many academics like to put this realignment back at 1968, but we have to remember that Nixon was elected as a minority president with only 43 percent of the vote and Democrats and liberals still held sway in Congress and in many precincts around the country. Reagan himself was elected with only 50 percent of the vote. But the Democrats ceased to be the nation’s majority party after 1980. Perhaps the best display of this Democratic crack-up occurred in the ill-fated White House Conference on Families which also took place in 1979.
In taking another look at Carter’s speech, persons like Andrew Bacevich, Patrick Deenan, Dylan Hayes others and myself are not trying to denigrate Ronald Reagan or turn Carter into a member of the “conservative movement.” What this is a part of is the critical look at history and myth busting that is taking place on the right and amongst conservatives in the wake of the end of their ideological reign in trying to explain why it happened and why it failed to accomplish some of its larger goals and was that failure due to larger contradictions within the “movement” or ideology or thought, starting at the beginning. And the beginning in my opinion was this speech, which is why its important. It isn’t just conservatives who believe in American Exceptionalism. Would a Goldwater Administration or a Robert Taft Administration have spent so much to put a man on the moon? I doubt it. Nor would have either probably invaded Iraq either. A new coalition built around American Exceptionalism coalesced around Reagan and that’s why he won in 1980. But it was a coalition that included large parts of “liberal crap” which we believe was its undoing.
It’s true, as Kevin Spencer said, that one can use phrases there or an action here or there to make a point or an argument about someone or something out of context (like persons do with the Bible all the time). But it also should be pointed out that Carter had met with many people at Camp David before giving the speech, including Christopher Lasch whose book Culture of Narcissim came out and was popular reading among intellectuals at that time and was hardly a “flaming liberal.” Indeed many feel Lasch’s words can be found throughout Carter’s speech. And as I said, Goldwater also talked about “inner meaning of our lives” away from mere consumption. These are ideas one can find throughout religious texts and from many learned scholars who would hardly be thought of as radicals and certainly not Stalinists.
It may very well be the policies Carter proposed where largely the same big government solutions. But that may explain why they fell on deaf ears. One could say that Carter understood the problems but could not grasp the solutions, which explains the ultimate failure of his Administration. We must remember that Carter was not elected beholden to an ideology or an interest group or a faction. He was elected because he had a critique of government that believed that the “insiders” or those who made their livings in government and in the corridors of power, had messed things up and persons like him, “outsiders” as it were, could fix them or propose new solutions come up from outside the Beltway or from the coasts. This resonated with a majority of the electorate. The Administration’s failure was largely due to the fact that it was unable to live up to its promise. If we, on the alternative right, are making similar critiques about government and the economy and culture in general, if we are saying that “small is beautiful” and decentralism is the way to go and even go so far to say “power to the people”, to dismiss such sentiments because they also fell from the lips of socialists or liberals or whathaveyou is self-defeating. Did Republicans reject Reagan because he voted for Roosevelt four times? No.
It may very well be that such rhetoric will be rejected by the Jacksonian Nationalists. I can think of ways to appeal to such persons and to talk radio audiences, but ultimately if they believe in American Exceptionalism and believe that their American Nationalism should be used to conquer other nations or for the benefit of a foreign power just for religious reasons, then there’s simply not much hope in reaching them without giving up what you believe in unless you convince them otherwise or unless something happens to make them rethink what they believe in (which does happen from time to time). Fortunately these sentiments are not widely shared by those younger than 40. If that means waiting by the clock until the pendulum swings your way, so be it. I’ve got time to kill.