My Reaction to Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” Speech

Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech, also commonly known as the Malaise speech. It was initially very popular, but after I believe it was a week or two later when he fired many of his cabinet members, public sentiment turned against the speech.

It begins interestingly enough, with Carter admitting that he’s somewhat closed off in Washington, and that the American people don’t want to hear about what Washington thinks. He acknowledges that people dislike feeling as if they’re being dictated to. This allows Carter to come off very frank and unpretentious, and he even reads some criticisms from letters he’d received which accused him of managing the government instead of leading the nation. I don’t know if such a thing was ever done by a President before, but it feels unprecedented to me as someone who’s only lived through Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump. I personally feel like it would be nice to see government leaders acknowledge their shortcomings more often and speak to us more as equals. Instead it allows feels like I’m being talked down to from a bully pulpit and condescended to with the same vacuous platitudes. In general, I think people should be free to show some vulnerability–even our leaders.

I think the core thesis of this speech, about disunity and lack of confidence in the future throwing society into disarray, is more relevant now than it’s ever been too. I also agree with Carter’s point that too many of us have “closed a door on the past” as he puts it, by not knowing our past. Yeah, yeah everyone learns about the Revolutionary War and Constitutional Convention at least 5 times throughout their school career. But I’m talking about 20th century events which go largely unspoken. Things like the rise and fall of organized labor, the slow systematic destruction of leftist organizations via the Red Scare, the Business Plot, creation of the FED and all other events that have led us to where we are today. I firmly believe that if most Americans today knew about all that in-depth there really would be riots in the streets. Unfortunately, most people are just so ignorant to what’s been taken from us.

Of course, that’s not what Carter’s talking about here. Just the typical hubbub about how we used to believe in strong family values and God. First of all, lets forget about God because that’s irrelevant in politics–separation of church and state. As for family, while I’m not sure how bad it was in the 70’s, I do see family values being eroded away in how we demonize men and masculinity. How we still treat women badly in a lot of ways too. How young people can’t get started in life because of all the debt and terrible economic prospects for most workers today. Even just the way kids aren’t really kids anymore since they grow up on their phones, connected to people they don’t know and a world they don’t yet understand. The lack of human interaction makes people more anxious, depressed and often encourages ghosting, flaking and treating others as disposable. So while that talking point in the speech strikes me as kind of cliché and meaningless looking at it in Carter’s time, I do think it has aged like fine wine in the decades since.

Carter then goes into talking about Consumerism and the detrimental effect that has on society. Now this is where he really starts making sense. This, along with the funneling of wealth towards the top of the pyramid, is why I believe Capitalism, when unrestrained, is deleterious to the human condition. It commoditizes everything in the world, including our time and sexuality. It exploits our fears and insecurities to create problems that don’t really exist only to trick us into thinking it can sell the cure. Capitalism-Consumerism encourages us to spend money we don’t have or cant afford to spend on things we don’t really need which don’t make us happy. It perpetuates economic classes which no longer need to exist and forces us to take part in the dog-eat-dog corporate ladder, wasting most of our time in jobs we often hate, or commuting to them, so we spend less time with our friends and families. It keeps us from coming together to see the bigger problems of the world and facing them because we’re forced to slave away and make ends meet, often for the very same companies that are exacerbating those problems. One can argue it’s been a necessary evil to reach this point in our development and perhaps that’s true. But Capitalism-Consumerism is not the perfect system, I believe we’re at a point where it’s time to move past it, and ultimately it isn’t how humans were meant to live.

ASIDE: I did not realize at the time I wrote this that I was describing the ideology of the Situationist International. I know many people are going to read that earlier paragraph and cringe at the edgy Socialist youngin’. But I honestly do feel that once Capitalism becomes Advanced/Late Capitalism it does in fact permeate all of society to a point where it dominates every aspect of our lives. At the time I wrote this analysis of Carter’s speech, I hadn’t studied Political Science to a point where I understood such a concept, and my inspiration for feeling this way was actually Ian Malcolm’s morphine induced rants on human nature in the novel, Jurassic Park.

Hearing Carter say all this, in his own way, is another huge breath of fresh air in this decidedly unconventional (for a President) speech. Typically politicians are all about keeping the status quo, promoting policy and ideology which supports “whats good for the economy” and nothing more. Corporate interests have overtaken human interests, and I don’t see how any rational intelligent person looking at the state of things could ever argue differently. The tragedy is the very next President would be as pro-business at the expense of the underprivileged as it gets, and would redefine the spectrum so all others after him would follow. The 80’s have been called the Me generation for a reason.

It’s great to see a leader be able to talk about the 60’s assassinations, loss in Vietnam and shock of Watergate and how they’ve never been addressed, never healed, and how this led to the 70’s being such a dreary decade as a result. I do think this is somewhat hypocritical coming from Carter though, considering that he helped lead the Anybody But McGovern coalition at the ’72 DNC. Say what you will about my man George McG, but his campaign was instrumental to ending Vietnam even though he lost, and as an inspiring grass roots underdog he had the potential to raise peoples spirits and keep the youth involved in politics. I’d say McGovern’s unfairly lopsided loss was also part of why people were so apathetic in the 70’s and as the head of the Anybody But McGovern coalition of Democrats, Carter is partially responsible for that. Still, I don’t want to take away from the significance of this moment just because of that personal sticking point. Carter is being very honest and thoughtful here, which we need more of in government. He’s right that people are sick of the bullshit easy answers and prepared talking points. Unfortunately this speech did little to end that trend or restore people’s faith in government.

After these very reflective moments, Carter sadly starts to lose the plot. Rather than delve deeper into why Consumerism, ego and stewing in depressive thoughts are bad, or what specifically we must do as a society to fix it, he starts devolving into cliches again. The typical political line about “we have a choice to make, one path leads to…” yadda yadda yadda. He still makes some cogent points but I think relying on old stock phrases to do so undermines the impact of what he was saying before. Even as someone who agrees with his thesis, I’m listening to this thinking “Oh…so this is just another typical political speech? Whatever.” I think if Carter played his cards right he might have had people gripped until the end, thinking “Wow…I never knew our President was so…real.” Or “I’ve always felt empty inside buying all this shit, but I always felt like that’s what I was supposed to do since it’s what everyone else does. If the President of the US says it isn’t, maybe I’m not crazy for wanting something more…” Y’know what I mean? I think with this speech Carter should have dropped the typical Presidential lingo and demeanor completely for once, stuck to the frank, almost philosophical air he had going, and spoke purely as Carter the Man.

Going off that, I still don’t even know what Carter means by “typical American values.” He never really defined that except the typical bullshit platitudes like “family values, belief in God, etc” This is what I mean, the speech has a good point and had the potential to be a deep, no holding back investigation into the American Way of Life, pointing out why we’re fundamentally miserable and what we as humans really crave to be happy. Instead, it just winds up being a lot of hot air due to a poorly conceived conclusion. I also feel like falling back onto the energy crisis again at the end further undermines the more fundamental questions being addressed earlier. I realize it was the single biggest issue going on at the time, but it dates the speech which, again, could have been a timeless philosophical awakening. Also the two subjects don’t feel particularly related. Carter should have spoken of both issues in separate speeches, or kept the energy stuff in the beginning and then moved on to “but I believe it’s not just the gas lines that are why we’ve lost confidence…” and then moved on to discussing Consumerism.

Overall, this is a flawed but valiant effort of a speech. Carter comes off a lot better here than he did in the debates or his DNC speeches. (We’ll get to those later.) He’s less stiff and monotone, he comes off as very human, unpretentious and vulnerable in the beginning. He makes some very interesting points about human nature which is shocking to hear from a President, who tend to be bland enough so as to try to appeal to as many people at once as possible. We need to see this more from our elected officials; stop putting on an act, stop saying what you think we want to hear and just say what you really believe, and finally don’t be afraid to call out problems making us as a society worse off even if the solutions aren’t easy or “good for business.” This is part of why I can’t stand people like Hillary, and why politicians like Bernie or McGovern (who come off as genuine and unassuming) are far more appealing to me. It’s a shame this address didn’t have the impact it ought to. I think if it were someone other than Carter delivering it, it might have. He’s basically like the polar opposite of Reagan: a mediocre at best public speaker, but someone with his heart in the right place. I don’t like him as a President and feel his legacy on politics is more negative than positive, but Carter was a good man.

1 Comment

  1. While I lived through this era, I was not that interested in politics at the time, and not a fan of Jimmy Carter. From the perspective of 2020 I new see Carter as a much better president than I did at that time. As usual your commentary creates a lot of food for thought. This is probably the first time I ever heard Carters Speech. Well done as usual! I will reblog these on my Tumbler. They deserve as wind an audience as possible!

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