Jimmy Carter Was Right, But There is Malaise When Power Speaks the Truth

Photograph Source: Tuntematon, Valkoisen talon valokuvaajat – Public Domain

Speaking truth to power has been used by dissidents throughout history. But what about when power speaks the truth? As tributes pour in for Jimmy Carter and his many accomplishments, he should be remembered and venerated for giving a speech that was truthful but had negative consequences for his political career.

On July 15, 1979, President Carter spoke truth to the American people from the Oval Office.  He began his 33-minute speech in a most unusual fashion, a form of self-critique. Instead of making a traditional presidential declaration, he spoke in a reflective tone: “Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject – energy.” He then went on to describe why he changed the subject, why he wanted to share with the American people what he felt and what he thought they felt beyond immediate concerns: “It’s clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper – deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession.”

The President explained the deeper concerns he saw as “the erosion of our confidence in the future,” and how that erosion “is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.” As a result of “the erosion of our confidence,” Carter noted a “paralysis and stagnation and drift.” And, he highlighted; “You don’t like it, and neither do I.”

What to do about it? “First of all,” he said, “we must face the truth, and then we must change our course.” First of all, face the truth? Specifically, Carter was referring to America’s dependence on foreign energy. That was the superficial truth that had to be confronted.

More importantly, and in relation to the larger problems he saw of paralysis, stagnation, and drift, he said: “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path …that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.” He spoke not only as president but also as a Baptist Sunday-school teacher: “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.”

While Carter believed that the lack of confidence could be restored by developing energy independence – he thought through coal, shale, and solar energy – the larger question of the psychological situation of the country was primary.

To change the negative situation, the path that “leads to fragmentation and self-interest” had to be rejected. The other path the American people could follow to avoid “constant conflict…ending in chaos and immobility,” according to Carter, was the “path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.” To Carter, that path “leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.”

The speech, quickly labelled the “malaise” speech by its detractors, was given 42 years before the assault on the Capitol, well before Trumpism, well before talks of dramatic red/blue polarization and renewed threats of state secession.

“The speech was controversial at the time because it was seen as overly pessimistic and critical of the American people,” wrote Peter Van Buren recently in The American Conservative. Several commentators are now saying that the speech is a vindication for Carter years after his crushing electoral defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. In another recent example of praise from the Right, Peggy Noonan, the conservative journalist who was a speechwriter for Reagan in 1984, wrote on February 23, 2023, in The Wall Street Journal an essay entitled “Jimmy Carter’s ‘Malaise’ Speech Aged Well.”

What should not be ignored amidst all the praise is that Carter was severely defeated for re-election by Ronald Reagan. The presidential election of 1980 was about looming clouds seen by a realistic nuclear engineer versus a California governor’s eternal sunshine, critical realism vs. Hollywood optimism. Carter was certainly punished by the voters for his failure to solve the Iranian hostage crisis, but he was also defeated because he spoke the truth about the larger failures of the United States as a nation and the dangers ahead. Noonan argues that people lost confidence in him, that they shot the messenger who delivered a negative message. “It [the speech] failed because he was exactly the man who couldn’t give it, and he gave it at exactly the moment it couldn’t be heard,” she wrote.

The lesson to be learned from Carter’s speech is that speaking truth to power may be a successful non-violent tool for dissidents, but for those in power to speak the truth risks professional suicide. Carter promised the American people, “I will never lie to you.” He didn’t, and he was punished for telling the truth. As Noonan wrote: “The speech would have made a good farewell address.”

Voters seem to prefer the fairy tales of Reagan’s “Morning Again in America,” or Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” to prescient warnings about following a wrong path that “leads to fragmentation and self-interest.” Despite Carter’s warnings, despite his having spoken truth from power, the United States took the wrong path. And in Robert Frost’s words, “that has made all the difference.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.