Speaking of Malaise

In early July, 1979, Jimmy Carter canceled a planned televised speech that had already been written and scheduled for broadcast. He reportedly told a nervous aide, “I just don’t want to bullshit the American people.” Carter went into retreat, surrounded himself with advisors, read Christopher Lasch and other intellectuals and diagnosticians of the era, and emerged with this speech instead.

Named the “Crisis of Confidence” speech and sometimes called the “malaise” speech, it spoke with unusual forthrightness, for a presidential address, about a problem that came into clear focus for Carter amid the economic crises of the 1970s. He described a national problem of blighted lives, lives lacking in purpose and meaning and belief. The causes — or merely the signs — were manifold. There was the hollowness of materialism and endless self-gratification; there was growing social fragmentation, and the reduction of the field of the political to the activities of special interests; there was, perhaps above all, the sense of economic decline. Carter then spoke of the paths that are available to us going forward.

It was a great, truth-bearing speech, like Eisenhower’s on the military-industrial complex. It was received that way, too — as a surprisingly, bracingly honest speech. At least at first. It soon came to be derided as a failure. The following year, Reagan won the presidency by bullshitting the American people with a compensatory fantasy about American greatness: morning in America. Shallow optimism wins votes, not frank speech.

Today, Carter’s most famous speech appears eerily prophetic, and when Hillary Clinton and the Democrats counter Trump with good-feels about America never being not great, the echoes of Ronald Reagan are hard to ignore. Unfortunately, most of the commentary in the outlets of Democratic opinion has been more than content with this canned “message” of optimism: it’s been positively smug.

“I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy,” Carter said. With hindsight, doesn’t it seem remarkable that we managed to kick the can down the road for so long before a Donald Trump appeared?

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