President Jimmy Carter’s televised speech on July 15, 1979, has been one of the most maligned Presidential speeches in American history. However, over time, the speech will gain recognition in American history for its subtle relevance to contemporary issues, like President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Carter was no Lincoln, but still, he has been one of the most providential American presidents in history. While most ex-presidents sharpen their teeth on world events, Carter has sought to influence world events through mediation.
Carter’s speech was his honest assessment of the direction America was heading and provided remedies reverse what he saw as impending American decline. Just as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, his primary treatment was working to reverse animosities and set the nation on a course of reconciliation and healing. His speech was an appeal to each of us to take the moral high ground. It was almost Christian in its attitude on materialism. “[F]or one’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15).
Carter asked us to exercise old-fashioned stewardship over our financial and natural resources just as Lincoln appealed to the propositions by which our nation was founded. Like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Carter’s speech called on us to have a new birth of freedom, a right from materialism and self-indulgence. According to Carter:
[W]e are also beginning to close the door on our past… 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 that have no confidence or purpose.
Initially, the American people liked the message and were ready to rally around Carter. Well, at least for a couple of days. Television had shortened our attention spans but not quite as much as today’s cell phones and iPods. Once the special interest groups circled their wagons and Carter’s political adversaries put their spin on the speech, it was tarred as a defamation of the American spirit.
At the time, our nation was vulnerable to political diatribes. We needed someone to uplift our spirits and tell us it was okay to take that extra cookie from the cookie jar because we deserved it. Vietnam, Watergate, and assassinations had taken their toll on our collective consciousness, and we were in no mood to downsize our appetites. We needed the cavalry to come to our rescue. Instead, we got Ronald Reagan.
The Reagan Revolutionaries ran against Carter’s message of austerity and sacrifice. They told us that everything was fine as long as we waved the flag, chanted patriotic slogans, and bought on credit. With the help of the Ayatollah, the era of profligacy began. Carter was no competition for the great communicator Ronald Reagan who tapped into the yet unexploited aspect of the Boomer Generation’s culture of fortune-building and materialism. After all, Nixon had freed the children of the Boomers from the draft. There would be no interruption of service to the self.
Tired of their introspective soul searching, Boomers rediscovered what their parents – who were children of the Great Depression – had always been skeptical of: the wide-open, objective horizon of laissez-faire capitalism. The same capitalism that had forced them to eat bread and lard during the 30s. From kindergarten to the workforce, there was a beeline to prosperity. The same teachers who were viewed as “nation builders” in Asia were considered obstacles to children if they awarded low grades, gave too much homework, or challenged students with rigorous lessons.
As test scores dropped along with student competence, Reagan proclaimed we could have it all, and we could have it now. Education became even more suspect than before as Americans looked to college dropouts and basketball players like Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Donald Trump, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Sam Walton, and Steve Jobs as icons of achievement.
Reagan’s message was that we could extol ourselves into greatness if we only believed. It was our perceptions that were holding us back, not the truth. We could spend ourselves to the American Dream. Our rugged individualism – along with Friedrich Hayek‘s deregulated marketplace – was enough to fulfill our manifest destiny to be a beacon to the world by exporting our culture and democratic values. We would dominate the world with our technological innovation, financial services, and voluntary professional armed forces that would police the world to guarantee our national security and oil at an affordable price.
The “fundamental threat to American democracy” that Carter spoke of in 1979 is our tendency “to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” Our “identity” is no longer defined by what [we do], but by what [we own]. We can hear today’s social critics and free-market economists proclaim the business model as the key to all our woes. Hospitals, schools, museums, public libraries, and government agencies should heed the tremendous entrepreneurial spirit, privatize when possible, and restate their missions to be more pragmatic and tacitly useful to the masses. If institutions do not contribute to the economy, the bottom line is that their purpose is suspect and not worth our attention if they can’t pay for themselves.
The Reagan and his predecessors, including Clinton Democrats, did not mention that part of their contract with America was the mass exporting of jobs and our manufacturing base overseas. Those of us not fortunate enough by birth, pedigree, or disposition were left behind or placed on the margins of society. There would be no trickle-down of wealth to them.
Well, they could always assemble TV sets. However, the problem today is that not one single TV is manufactured in the United States. This increased the bifurcation between the great American middle class and the rich and increased the divide between the poor and the middle class. Today, we can see how both the middle class and the poor are pinned against each other – one side wants a more significant share of the pie, and the other side struggling to keep what pie they have left.
Today, in my opinion, we have muted our voices by so much political correctness that we can’t even speak the language of solutions. I doubt we will ever be able to return to the time when we could honestly appraise our situation and act to remedy it. The rugged individualist has been replaced by the pulp individualist fossilized in adolescence, viewing themselves as the hub from which the whole world revolves. Senior citizens no longer want to invest in the future of their grandchildren. Minorities hold white people in a perpetual state of guilt that impedes constructive discussion on the real problems in minority communities. And on the other side, white people form radical political parties and dubious militias to protect what they thought belonged to them but never did. They blame everybody but themselves for their inertia.
We are not yet fractured geographically, but we have long passed the point of cultural fracture.
Many of us who are isolated in a geopolitical box believe that our political system is too strong to collapse and that our nation is still young and filled with great promise. That may be true, but we have to make it to adulthood.
That is what Carter’s speech forty years ago asked us to do. Carter asked us as a people to become adults again. He reminded us to look to the past to inform our future. We need to remember the courage of those involved in the early Civil Rights Movement, who understood that freedom had to be earned and not bought. We need to remember those sacrifices of the GI Generation that helped save the world from fascism. We also need to remember the resiliency of those who lived through the Great Depression.
Carter’s speech is a prescient warning of our decline. This decline feels inevitable and closer than ever. No amount of staged patriotism is going to change the direction we have set for ourselves. They will write about how the most powerful and prosperous nation in the history of the world destroyed itself in such a short period.
Our history from 1945 until today is filled with mistakes and misjudgments. Historians will blame the American people for our lack of vigilance, our naiveté, and our arrogance. I hope they will note that we were brainwashed – set against one another by a profit-driven media and political apparatus not designed in our best interests. There will be more battles to fight, but a tide has turned. The moral fabric of America has torn asunder.
Perhaps the second American Civil War has been occurring ever since 1980. This time around, there are no battlefields to gauge wins and losses. We do not tally the dead, the wounded, or those missing in action in military terms, but we can tally them in cultural, spiritual, and economic terms. It has been a civil war between those who had faith in our country and those who sought to milk it for their own self-interest. It was treason by misinformation, subversion, sedition, and sabotage. Their guiding motivation was profit.
Historians will write the epitaph of our nation in such terms; how a noble and generous people lined up row by row to be nothing more than cannon fodder for the rich, powerful, and maniacal. In his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln asked us: “When will we have a new birth of freedom?”