Jimmy Carter’s speech from 40 years ago has par­al­lels in the US and Europe to­day

The National - News - - OPINION - NICK MARCH Nick March is an as­sis­tant edi­tor-in-chief for The Na­tional

It is now 40 years since US pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter made his “cri­sis of con­fi­dence” speech to the Amer­i­can peo­ple, at a time when the US of 1979 was facing mul­ti­ple threats.

The 20-year Viet­nam War had ended in Amer­i­can hu­mil­i­a­tion in the mid-1970s and the Water­gate scan­dal had both pro­pelled Mr Carter to power in 1976 and sig­nif­i­cantly weak­ened the Amer­i­can peo­ple’s trust in its politi­cians.

It was against this back­drop and the col­lec­tive chal­lenges of an en­ergy cri­sis, rising in­fla­tion and shrink­ing op­por­tu­nity that Mr Carter ad­dressed the na­tion in 1979.

While much of the speech was given over to the specifics of his pro­posed en­ergy plan, its pre­am­ble has an in­ter­est­ing res­o­nance in both the US and Europe to­day.

He de­scribed Amer­ica as hav­ing been struck by a “cri­sis of con­fi­dence” that threat­ened to de­stroy the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal fab­ric of the coun­try. For those un­fa­mil­iar with his words, the high­lights are worth re­play­ing.

“We can see this cri­sis in the grow­ing doubt about the mean­ing of our own lives,” he said.

“The gap be­tween our cit­i­zens and our gov­ern­ment has never been so wide. The peo­ple are look­ing for hon­est an­swers … clear lead­er­ship, not false claims and eva­sive­ness.

“What you see too of­ten in Washington ... is a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that seems in­ca­pable of ac­tion.

“You see a Congress twisted and pulled in ev­ery di­rec­tion by hun­dreds of well-fi­nanced and pow­er­ful spe­cial in­ter­ests. You see ev­ery ex­treme po­si­tion de­fended to the last vote, al­most to the last breath by one un­yield­ing group or another.”

It’s not hard to imag­ine those same sen­tences be­ing used to­day. The cri­sis of con­fi­dence in US pol­i­tics and, in­deed, in west­ern democ­ra­cies in gen­eral is writ large.

The drift that Mr Carter iden­ti­fied in the 1970s is all too ev­i­dent in Amer­ica and, in­deed, the broader West to­day. Trib­al­ism and ex­trem­ism have too of­ten re­placed con­sen­sus and cal­cu­lus.

Some of this has been driven by the harum-scarum na­ture of the Don­ald Trump years in the White House, some of it by the mod­ern-day pref­er­ence among al­most all of us to only lis­ten to the voice in­side an echo chamber.

But this is not a cri­tique of the Trump years, more an ob­ser­vance of the his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels be­tween the US of 40 years ago and the one of to­day.

Just as in the early 1970s, the talk of im­peach­ment has hit fever pitch. Just as then, Amer­ica finds it­self ques­tion­ing its place in the world. The paral­y­sis of pol­i­tics that was ev­i­dent then is clear to­day. Sup­port for main­stream po­lit­i­cal par­ties is de­clin­ing, with mil­len­ni­als al­most as likely to iden­tify them­selves as in­de­pen­dents as they are to reg­is­ter as Democrats or Re­pub­li­cans.

A sim­i­lar shift in trust and sup­port for tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal par­ties and even process it­self is ev­i­dent in Europe. Few ex­pect the UK elec­tion next month to be fought along con­ven­tional party lines. But the prob­lem is much deeper and wider than po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions, prompt­ing French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron to tell The Econ­o­mist this month that “strate­gi­cally and po­lit­i­cally we need to recog­nise we have a prob­lem”.

While de­scrib­ing post-Sec­ond World War Europe as a peace­ful “miracle”, Mr Macron also main­tains that the con­ti­nent has lost its bear­ings, a sit­u­a­tion that is com­pounded by Mr Trump’s Amer­ica, while still a “ma­jor ally”, not shar­ing “our idea of the Euro­pean pro­ject”. A fur­ther com­pli­ca­tion, he says, is that Europe it­self is suf­fer­ing from an “eco­nomic, so­cial, moral and po­lit­i­cal cri­sis” spurred by “self­ish na­tion­al­ism”.

Europe, he con­cludes, needs to “wake up, face up to this sit­u­a­tion and de­cide to do some­thing about it.”

Mr Macron’s com­ments have been de­scribed by Fran­cois Heis­bourg as those of a “pol­icy de­tached think tanker”. The for­mer French of­fi­cial also called Mr Macron’s views “bizarre and dan­ger­ous”. But to some de­gree this is his “cri­sis of con­fi­dence” mo­ment. A recog­ni­tion, like Mr Carter four decades ago, of a cross­roads be­ing reached and of the need for a change of course.

Mr Macron sees Europe on “the edge of a precipice” to­day, which is a de­scrip­tion that would not have looked out of place in Mr Carter’s speech about the US 40 years ago.

The his­tory of the Carter years pro­vides no guide as to what is likely to hap­pen next.

Within days of that 1979 speech the US pres­i­dent had purged his Cab­i­net, an act that was seen as a sign of a gov­ern­ment in tur­moil rather than as an in­di­ca­tion of a new be­gin­ning.

Within 18 months he was out of of­fice, beaten by the re­lent­less “Let’s Make Amer­ica Great Again” cam­paign waged by Ron­ald Rea­gan and by an en­ergy prob­lem at home and the Iran hostage cri­sis abroad.

Mr Carter, who was ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal ear­lier this week in Atlanta for a pro­ce­dure to re­lieve pres­sure from his brain, has spent his post-White House years “wag­ing peace, fight­ing dis­ease and build­ing hope” and won the No­bel Peace Prize in 2002. I sus­pect he would tell any of to­day’s states­men and women that iden­ti­fy­ing a prob­lem is one thing, but find­ing the right so­lu­tion is quite another.

‘Cri­sis of con­fi­dence’ is how Jimmy Carter de­scribed the fray­ing so­cial and po­lit­i­cal fab­ric of the United States

AP

For­mer US pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter in the White House in April 1980

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