And Carter Thought He Faced National Malaise

jimmy carter

Jimmy Carter, by Andy Warhol

The spectacle of British Petroleum literally killing off the Gulf of Mexico before our eyes while the Obama Administration apparently believes that BP is honorable enough to be trusted to dutifully clean it up is depressing beyond belief. Hearing Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal complain about the lagging federal response after he built his political career trashing the federal government is just too pathetic and stupid to even bother to ridicule.

Despite the seriousness of our current economic and ecological crises, the views of people like Rand Paul and Rush Limbaugh still dominate the discourse. Their ideas frame the debate about current events and political issues, and set up narratives that are impervious to logical argument or even common sense. They idealize Capitalism with the same level of ideological rigidity and devotion as the Khmer Rouge idealized Maoism. Fuse their extremist laissez-faire ideology with a retrograde and downright mean version of right-wing Christianity, and what you get is a toxic stew of superstition and disastrous real-world public policy prescriptions. Like the Texas State Board of Education purging textbooks for children of any ideological impurities, we’re surrounded (it seems) with stupid people screaming loudly for stupid policies that are designed in one way or another to produce a generation of stupid people.

What is one to make of Rand Paul saying that President Obama’s mild criticisms of BP are “un-American?” Or Limbaugh’s claim that the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is the Sierra Club’s fault? A “family values” Christian conservative congressman films an “abstinence only” video with his married mistress; an anti-gay co-founder of the Family Research Council orders a young male prostitute with the click of a mouse. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

“Libertarians” should at least be for relaxed drug laws, checks on the government’s “anti-terrorism” powers, and in favor of a woman’s right to choose. But we don’t even get this. Instead, we get runaway corporate power and a government that is weak where it should be strong (regulating corporations) and strong where it should be weak (crimping civil liberties).

The United States seems to have already begun its own “lost decade.” But unlike Japan, the U.S. is expending its precious resources on fighting two debilitating wars and maintaining a declining empire. If we’re lucky we will be “lost” only for a decade.

In California, the “moderate” Republican governor just proposed eliminating the entire welfare program, which is a move that no politician from either party would attempt except during an extreme economic and fiscal crisis. It’s the “shock doctrine” on steroids here in Sacramento.

The country is still reeling from what the Wall Street banks put it through and now a criminally reckless oil company creates a major ecological disaster that will take decades to clean up — if it ever can be cleaned up. Trust me: In the end, BP is not going to pay for the costs of this spill.

When President Jimmy Carter’s approval rating plummeted he decided to speak to the nation in a primetime television address where he attempted to explain the economic insecurity that was increasingly gripping American society. “It is a crisis of confidence,” he said. “It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

The press dubbed it Carter’s “malaise” speech (though he never used the word), and it was an unmitigated political disaster. In 1976, Carter, the nuclear engineer and Georgia peanut farmer, had come to Washington as a fresh face promising to lead the country out of the depressing era of Vietnam and Watergate. Three years later, he had become heavily identified with a dreary status quo that nobody seemed to like, least of all Carter himself.

By 2012, President Obama could very well find himself in Carter’s predicament. A nation traumatized by this kind of prolonged and serious economic uncertainty, along with a political class incapable of doing much about it, has already spawned a wave of irrational politics. A new generation of politicians could emerge who compound the crisis by pushing a new set of misguided public policies such as destroying Social Security, which, like eliminating welfare, has been a dream of some ideologues for decades.

Joseph Palermo

Crossposted with Joseph A Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on May 24, 2010
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).