9/19/12 - jimmy carter's "malaise speech"

In today's excerpt - in the 1970s, a period in which the nation was pummeled by not one but two massive increases in the price of oil and the accompanying economic shocks, Jimmy Carter made a speech intended to re-direct Americans away from their focus on the material -- now known as the "malaise speech". Against this backdrop, in his presidential campaign against Carter, Ronald Reagan asked the simpler, now-famous question -- "Are you better off than you were four years ago?":

"As the eighties dawned, the nation was experiencing a profound transition. The seventies—an era of questioning, of self-doubt, of rethinking old beliefs in the face of social breakdown—were about to give way to the eight­ies, an era of retrenchment, of turning away from what was wrong with society and refocusing on what was right. Some historians even put an exact date on this transition: July 15, 1979, the night President Jimmy Carter gave what came to be known as his 'malaise speech.'

"Meant to reinvigorate a nation demoralized by unemployment, economic stagnation, infla­tion, and a second energy crisis -- all following hard on the heels of Watergate and the ignominious conclusion to the war in Vietnam -- Carter's speech was a bold call to conscience. At its heart was a startling claim: the nation, he said, was facing a crisis of confidence, in part because it had lost its way. It was time to deal with the fact that America had chosen the wrong path: consumerism. 'In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,' President Carter declared, '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.' To take 'the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values,' he proposed a slew of fundamental changes to the American way of life: oil-import quotas, bonds for alternative energy devel­opment, legislated reductions in oil use, and reinvestment in public transportation.

"At first, the nation was wowed. But then, what he said began to sink in. The president of the United States had declared that the nation shouldn't endlessly consume -- that in fact consumption might not equal happiness. Meaning might be found in making and buying less. Conservatives began calling it Carter's 'malaise' speech, though he hadn't used that word. Arguments flared up about whether the nation really had lost its confidence, as if the president had been diagnosing a per­sonality disorder and not a structural flaw in society. His self-questioning was dismissed as 'navel-gazing.'

"Carter had done something truly shocking. He had expressed skepticism about what had been American economic dogma since the Second World War: the doctrine of growth. His basic premise -- that there might be limits to expanding the economy, to resource use, to consumption -- became, as he later wrote in his memoirs, 'the subliminal theme' of his entire presidency. It wasn't always subliminal. Dedicating the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Carter declared, 'We can no longer rely on a rising economic tide to lift the boats of the poorest in our society.... We have a keener appreciation of limits now -- the limits of government, limits on the use of military power abroad; the limits on manipulating, without harm to ourselves, a delicate and a balanced natural environment.' ...

"The nation, as sociologist Amitai Etzioni reported to the 1979 Pres­ident's Commission on an Agenda for the Eighties, was actu­ally divided against itself, torn between its own commitment to endless growth and its desire to return to the antimaterialist values Carter had described in his speech. It was a state of ambivalence that couldn't last, Etzioni predicted: the nation would have to undergo either 'rededication to the industrial, mass-consumption society' or a 'clearer commitment to a slow-growth, quality-of-life society.'

"The choice was made in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, articulating boundless faith in the American way, touched a chord in a nation weary of self-doubt and cog­nitive dissonance. In the campaign's one televised debate, Rea­gan offered a few simple questions for people to ask themselves in deciding how to vote: 'Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go buy things in stores than it was four years ago?' he began. In stark contrast to Carter's critique of materialism, Reagan's redefinition of the national mission was offered in the simplest terms possible: America is succeeding if its citizens can go buy things. His subsequent landslide victory suggested the message had found an enthusi­astic audience: the rededication to mass consumption was on.

"The return to a vision of an America without limits was a deep and profound shift in the national sensibility, a turn away from self-doubt and back toward the American dream -- defined as unfettered free enterprise, unabashed consumer­ism, and unflinching military prowess."


Ginger Strand


Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate


University of Texas Press


Copyright 2012 by Ginger Strand


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