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Carter conservatism?

Posted by Christopher Shea  April 13, 2009 10:48 AM

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A neglected conservative icon?

In the American Conservative, the writer Sean Scallon offers a revisionist take on one of the most widely panned speeches in modern political history: Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" address of 1979. Remembered as a low point in Democratic defeatism, the speech was, in truth, a bold statement of conservative ideals, Scallon argues. Had the nation listened to Carter, we might not be in the financial mess that we are now, or be so entangled in the Middle East.

Carter never used the word "malaise" in his speech, but he did confront what he saw as a sense of public alienation, spawned by inflation, oil crises, withdrawal from Vietnam, and the Iranian revolution. The way forward, as he saw it, lay in conservation, energy independence, and acceptance of the fact that the United States could no longer bend the world to its will.

Carter warned against the temptations of "the 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." On the contrary, he said, "All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values."

Scallon responds: "Could Russell Kirk or Richard Weaver have said it any better if they were debating Ayn Rand?" Discipline, independence, the common weal over material wealth: The farmer and ex-Navy officer Carter was hoping, Scallon suggests, to synthesize traditional conservative values and the impersonal post-war liberal, imperial state.

But true conservatism is a hard sell, politically. And Ronald Reagan saw an opening for the argument that "an America with any kind of limits … could never be America in any meaningful sense." Once in office, the logic of Reagan's "you can have it all" message demanded that he junk his calls for smaller government, as Scallon sees it, and New Deal liberalism was crucially married to an aggressive foreign policy.

The rest is history. "After what happened to Carter," Scallon concludes, "no American politician today is brave enough to ask for limits."

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