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Carter Conservatism

Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, delivered from the Oval Office on July 15, 1979, has long been a symbol of Democratic defeat—and defeatism. Republican politicians from presidents on down have used it to tar Democrats as the party of “malaise,” a word that Carter himself never uttered in the address.

Rarely has a speech so backfired. Yet what if the text, obscured by recriminations, turns out to be one of the most conservative presidential statements of the last 30 years?

It was delivered as the Carter presidency was beginning to crater, as the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution caused oil prices to rise, and gas shortages once again afflicted the nation as they had six years before during the Yom Kippur War. Anger over higher prices and long lines at the pumps threw the administration into disarray. Carter wanted to make another speech on the energy crisis, the fifth of his presidency. But his advisers thought it would be ignored, if not ridiculed. Only something bolder, broader, and different from any speech hitherto made by a president could transform the situation. As Pat Caddell, the president’s pollster, wrote in the memo that was the genesis of the speech:

This crisis is not your fault as President. It is the natural result of historical forces and events that have been in motion for 20 years. This crisis threatens the political and social fabric of our nation. Yet, this crisis also presents the greatest opportunity for you as President to become a great President on the order of a Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. More interestingly, it presents you with the opportunity, so rare in American history, to reshape the structure, nature and purpose of the United States in fundamental ways which your predecessors could only dream.

From Caddell’s point of view, the crisis was not really about gas or energy or anything that could be solved by legislation. In his polling data, he saw a crisis of spirit. For the first time since the Depression, Americans were no longer confident in the future. This was especially so as the great expectations of a “better world” of the 1960s became the disillusionments of the 1970s. By the end of the decade, the U.S. was facing both rising inflation and unemployment, a government that seemed to be a dysfunctional cockpit of brawling special interests, a world situation that was deteriorating in the aftermath of Vietnam, and an apathetic populace. Caddell thought Americans would be receptive to a speech that, instead of appealing to mom, apple pie, and the flag, laid out the nation’s problems honestly and bluntly.

Such a speech could also catalyze the political transformation that Caddell had been looking for since the administration began, one that “devises a context that is neither traditionally liberal nor traditionally conservative, one that cuts across traditional ideology. …What we require is not stew, composed of bits and pieces of old policies, but a fundamentally a new ideology.”

Caddell’s vision was Lincolnian in breadth and scope. He wanted Carter to deliver his own Gettysburg Address. Many within the administration thought Caddell had gone mad and tried to keep his ideas from the president. But Carter’s thinking paralleled Caddell’s. The president believed that the Vietnam War, the gold crisis of 1971, and the oil shocks had so hurt the economy with high inflation that Americans had begun to lose the standard of living to which they had been accustomed since World War II, a quality of life they saw as their birthright as leaders of the free world. This had caused the alienation that Caddell’s polling picked up.

Carter felt the country was on an unsustainable course, and only through lower expectations, conservation, and sacrifice could the U.S. survive as a free nation—or at least “free” as Carter defined the term in his speech:

We are at a turning point of our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. … All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to the true freedom for our nation and ourselves.

Could Russell Kirk or Richard Weaver have said it any better if they were debating Ayn Rand? Carter defined freedom as self-sufficiency rather than the right to take resources from other nations for our own well-being. He even gave a nod to the populist “drill here, drill now” contingent who felt the country had enough resources already to be energy independent: “We will protect our environment. But when this nation critically needs a refinery or a pipeline we will build it. …We have more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias. We have more coal than any nation on earth.”

This was not the speech of some America-hating leftist. Carter did not try to tear down the country, he simply wanted it to come together and direct itself toward a goal other than unlimited growth or unending progress. As Andrew Bacevich points out in The New American Militarism, the president recognized the high cost of empire:

In July of 1979, Carter already anticipated that a continuing and unchecked thirst for imported oil was sure to distort U.S. strategic priorities with unforeseen but adverse consequences. He feared the impact of that distortion on American democracy still reeling from the effects of the 1960s. So he summoned his fellow citizens to change course, to choose self-sufficiency and self-reliance and therefore true independence but at a cost of collective sacrifice and lowered expectations.

Self-sufficiency, discipline, sacrifice, conservation, independence, the striving for meaning and purpose beyond material wealth. All of these characteristics were once associated with conservatism, and they were all part of a speech given by a man who was naval officer, farmer and large landowner, small businessman, Sunday school teacher, and Southerner. Does this not sound the background of a conservative?

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, 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. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Mr. Conservative himself, Barry Goldwater, said much the same thing when he accepted the Republican nomination in 1964: “There is a virtual despair among the many that look beyond material success for the inner meaning of their lives.” But just as Goldwater’s words were of no help in the year of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide, Carter’s words did not prevent his defeat in 1980.

The speech was initially well received, and Carter’s poll numbers went up. But all that goodwill was destroyed a few days later when Carter demanded the resignation of his entire cabinet. The serious tone of the speech was destroyed by a political gimmick.

There were other factors working against it. Carter’s demands that the American people curtail their travel, obey the speed limit, and lower their thermostats only reinforced the image of the president as a humorless, puritanical schoolmarm. Trying to limit America’s leadership role on the world as the Cold War heated up in late 1979 seemed ludicrous, if not downright dangerous. Moreover, Carter and Caddell failed to provide a vision of the new nation they were trying to create: Americans had no idea how or when all the sacrifices demanded of them would come to an end.

The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, along with the Iranian hostage crisis, brought a complete reversal in Carter’s posture. He soon began talking about the “Carter Doctrine,” intervening militarily in the Persian Gulf to secure the imported oil he had earlier wanted to cap. He talked about reinstating the draft and increasing the military budget. Within seven months, Carter had essentially repudiated his own speech. That may have saved him against Teddy Kennedy’s insurgent candidacy in the 1980 Democratic primaries, but it destroyed him intellectually against Ronald Reagan, who had no problem saying that Americans did not need to sacrifice anything.

Caddell and Carter had hoped the speech would create a new synthesis between the neoliberalism that emerged from the 1960s and the traditional conservatism of, say, the Nashville Agrarians, but the exact opposite took place. Instead, the backlash led to a synthesis between New Deal liberalism and nationalistic Cold War conservatism. Reagan never repudiated his four votes for Franklin Roosevelt and soon began gathering elements of the traditional New Deal coalition into his fold—neoconservatives; socially conservative Democrats of the Midwest, urban Catholic Northeast, and the Protestant South; and idealistic Kennedy Democrats who could not stomach the notion that a country that put a man on the moon should turn down the thermostat.

The new anti-malaise coalition, Left and Right, agreed on a nationalism that regarded an America with any kind of limits as a place that could never be America in any meaningful sense. They believed in the divine American mission and the rhetoric behind it: “leader of the free world,” “the last best hope for man on earth,” “the shining city on a hill.” Carter’s speech, to them, was heresy. Thus Reagan, with help from other former liberals, could transform conservatism from a traditional doctrine of prudence, caution, and sustainability—a tough sell politically—into a highly marketable brand of American exceptionalism.

Unfortunately, as Carter feared, the American mission and lifestyle proved unsustainable. In the short run, the Saudis and other OPEC nations and oil producers slaked America’s dependence on foreign oil. The Chinese and other emerging industrial nations were willing to provide cheap consumer goods and buy U.S. Treasuries so that American consumers could have plenty of choices at the marketplace. This cut the inflation that bedeviled the Carter administration. In return, the U.S. military provided protection and stability around the globe through deficit financing. The hoped-for reduction of government that was a part of Reagan’s rhetoric was junked because it threatened to shatter the “you can have it all” coalition. Instead, government grew, in part through a neat trick called supply-side economics in which the New Deal, the New Frontier, and even the Great Society could be offered at low cost to taxpayers through massive levels of borrowing. Wrapped around all of this was a nationalistic attitude. The launching of a few cruise missiles every now and then disguised the loss of American economic independence.

After what happened to Carter, no American politician today is brave enough to ask for limits. Bush I said that our way of life is non-negotiable. Bush II told Americans to go shopping after 9/11. President Obama says Americans “will not apologize for our way of life.” President Carter is remembered as a weak man—yet no politician now (outside of perhaps Ron Paul) has the guts to make a similarly bold speech during our current economic crisis. 

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Sean Scallon is an author and journalist living in Arkansaw, Wisconsin.

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