“I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence.” —President James Earl Carter, “Malaise speech,” July 15, 1979
Forty years ago this summer, James Earl Carter accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United States. Three years into his presidency, as the nation reeled under the post-Nixon energy crisis, President Carter delivered a speech to address what he identified as “a crisis of confidence”—a nationwide malaise (a term Carter did not use in the speech) resulting from the aftershock of the murders of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., and the experiences of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
Though his speech was primarily directed at concerns about energy conservation, the malaise that Carter described afflicting the American people has deepened over the last four decades into a great and grim shadow. With this summer’s political conventions, what Jimmy Carter said on national television thirty-seven years ago echoes prophetically, as the United States endures what has become not just a crisis, but indeed a collapse, of confidence.
“The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America,” spoke President Carter in 1979. “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 crisis of erosion has not ceased in 2016. Consider the following words from President Carter’s speech arranged as a list of what Americans are experiencing today:
The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us:
- For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years.
- Two-thirds of our people do not even vote.
- The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.
- There is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions.
As Carter concluded, “This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.” We should take heed of the warning and the truth. Any lack of confidence finds its source in a lack of competence. With all the agents of incompetence that have gained influence and power in the echelons of society, it is little wonder that the crisis of confidence identified by Carter has endured through good presidents and bad, only to secure renewed prominence.
President Carter’s response to the unrest in America caused by assassination, war, political scandal, economic turbulence, gas shortages, and a swelling national debt were to promote austerity measures among the citizenry, cut government budgets (though he actually increased the defense budget after his second year in office), bargain with enemies, and make humility the new American brand. These policies largely resulted in a weakening of optimism among Americans and the renewed boldness of America’s enemies across the globe—most notably in Iran.
It is all eerily familiar under Barack Obama, whose administration is, in certain respects, a repetition of the Carter Administration. Once again, there is a great emphasis on international treaties and foreign deals, a perceived weakening of the American national defense posture, and an American brand that has gone from retiring to repentant. Again, there is political upheaval, war, economic and social havoc, an incomprehensible national debt, and an American people that are anything but confident. Unlike Carter, though, Obama has glossed over the insecurities he has fostered with a bizarre bravado, as he conjures up the ghosts of fear and turns the nation’s meekness into weakness. The foes of America preen, while Americans cower, bereft of confidence due to an incompetent president, an inept Congress, and an insurgent culture, leaving the nation with no foundation on which to withstand the tremors of terrorism and turmoil.
So much for Hope and Change.
At the Republican and Democratic conventions, two of the most unsavory candidates in American political history—Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—accepted their party’s presidential nominations. The overwhelming and outspoken distaste and distress over these nominees alone signals a national vote of no-confidence. These two candidates are the Scylla and Charybdis of the American voyage and, to many Americans, there is no alternative but shipwreck. Without confidence, there is no shortage of confusion nowadays. The chaos, raging and ranging from gay “marriage” to transgender bathroom bills to racial tensions in law enforcement to fortified abortion laws, is a force that has rendered unity of purpose a thing long lost. There is little confidence in the qualifications of billionaire mogul Donald Trump to calm a troubled nation. There is little confidence in the trustworthiness of short-circuiting Hillary Clinton to free the country from corruption, as she plots President Obama’s third term.
The crisis of confidence is past. The collapse is come. Confidence in the future of the country is clearly plummeting, and without confidence there can be no real progress in “making America great again.” As French philosopher Joseph de Maistre said, “Every country has the government it deserves.”
In the all-too-applicable words of Carter:
Confidence in the future has supported everything else—public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own. Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.
That faith is lost. It will take more than building a wall to rebuild a fallen nation. It will take more than a ban on Muslims entering the United States to restore the confidence of a crestfallen country. There can be no confidence in comatose lethargy, contentious communities, concentrated materialism, or collective atheism. In days like these when Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick has been whittled down to a cheerleader baton, the only real confidence arises from clinging to the bulwark that will never fail. The destiny of America, like any great civilization, is collapse—and its rumblings are in the air—but there is one institution on earth whose destiny is eternity because it is not earthly: the Christian Church (and in this writer’s view, the Catholic Church). In Her is the first and last source of confidence. Faith has the greatest potential to thrive when there is little else in which to believe. Hope can never be as strong as in a hopeless situation.
The warning still sounds. The truth still awaits. The challenge still exists—even though it is a greater challenge. Faith in the Church and the country must re-enkindle and gain strength if confidence is to return. In the meantime, cultural devastation and demoralization looms. Political skepticism is rampant. Trial is the challenge of this American generation—even if it means resurrecting it from collapse. In God we trust.
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