Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Before Ronnie, There Was Jimmy

Mention former-President Jimmy Carter’s name among a group of American conservatives and you will invariably get a hostile response. To many conservatives, Jimmy Carter represented all of the worst aspects of American liberalism. Carter is seen as an incompetent do-gooder, a na├»ve man who could neither rescue the economy nor effectively fight the Soviets or the Iranians or other enemies of the United States. Carter’s defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election signaled the end of the dominance of New Deal liberalism and the rise of Reagan Conservatism. Where Carter failed, Reagan succeeded. Reagan rescued the faltering American economy by cutting taxes and freeing the markets from onerous regulations. Reagan also got tough with America’s enemies and was eventually responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and its puppet regimes in Eastern Europe.

However, as Michael Lind notes in an excellent article over at, Jimmy Carter was in many ways the first “Reagan Conservative.” To put it in broader terms, Carter was the inaugural president of the neoliberal consensus, with Republican President Gerald Ford being the real last of the New Deal consensus presidents.  Just to give a few examples from Lind’s article, Carter was the president who really started the deregulation ball rolling when we deregulated the various major transportation industries. Carter also had a hand in bringing supply-side economics to prominence.

While we could recite more facts about Carter’s presidency and how it helped set the stage for the dominance of neoliberalism, it is perhaps more important to ask ourselves why the New Deal consensus collapsed in the first place. First and foremost, as Lind notes in the article, many white Southerners and white Northern ethnics left the Democratic Party over racial and cultural/values issues. Continued urbanization and development in the post-war decades changed America and made her a less rural, less traditional country. This is a process that has played out in practically all of the modern industrialized countries, and I do not think social liberals can be “blamed” for these changes, at least not entirely. However, many Democrats did take more liberal positions on racial and social issues, partially for philosophical reasons, partially for political ones. The modern Democratic Part still reflects this shift, as two of the key constituencies for Democrats are racial/ethnic minorities and (often quite upscale) social liberals. On the other hand, white Southerners have largely embraced the GOP and many Northern white ethnics have also done the same.

The second issue was economic. In the 1970s, Keynesianism came under increased attack due to the impact of stagflation and the other economic problems of that decade. Much of the battle over the future of economic policy took place in academia and prominent policy-making circles. However, the hardship of average Americans, especially the inflation-induced pushing of more Americans into higher income tax brackets, despite being no wealthier in a real sense, helped to create a population ready for an anti-government, anti-tax message. Combined with anger over racial and cultural/values issues, the economic landscape of the 1970s created a perfect storm that finally destroyed the New Deal consensus.

Jimmy Carter rode into the White House on the backlash tide. Unfortunately for Carter, he was probably too honest. Carter’s calls for Americans to be less consumeristic were well-meaning and probably correct in the long term. However, politically speaking, they were ill-conceived. To working-class and middle-class Americans struggling with economic difficulties, Carter’s words seemed like an attempt to blame regular Americans and take pressure off of a failing administration. On the other hand, Carter’s opponent in the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan, promised a bright future for Americans, and the GOP has been running on a ticket of sunny, debt-fueled consumer optimism ever since.

Now that neoliberalism has met its own crisis, one would expect a major change in politics, another shift among the political elites and the great mass of citizens. Unfortunately, there seems to be little chance of this happening anytime soon, at least in the United States. The massive redistribution of wealth to America’s richest citizens and corporations has returned politics to the Gilded Age, where wealthy interests rule statehouses and Washington with little opposition. Indeed, with Americans increasingly alienated and alone, it seems less likely that we will see the rise of major grassroots movements as we did with the original populist, labor and farmers’ movements. Fox News and other neoliberal media outlets have done an excellent job convincing regular Americans to fight and despise one another.  Today I was speaking with a retired police officer who is deathly afraid of his pension being cut or even demolished entirely, yet all of the rage he could muster was directed at lazy minorities who are supposedly getting rich off of government handouts.

Yet, despite all of the reasons to be gloomy today, there is a possibility that a strong alternative to rapacious neoliberalism can come into existence, and for all of his faults, Jimmy Carter can provide us with some lessons. Carter’s almost religious style of politics, (which, in my view, was much more honest than that of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, given that Carter has done much good work while out of office, both domestically and abroad) has a strong appeal to much of the American population that is upset about both cultural and economic decline. A social democrat with at least a partial commitment to social conservatism can make a stronger case against neoliberalism than your typical socially liberal progressive.

Indeed, I believe the time has come for a return of socially conservative forms of socialism/social democracy that can repair the seamless garment torn apart by right-liberals and left-liberals, to the detriment of common people all over the world.


  1. A good post. You are right about Carter.

    Another point is that it was Carter who appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve in 1979, and Carter who supported Volcker's quasi-monetarism at the Fed that caused the severe double dip recession in 1980-1982.

  2. Lord Keynes,

    Thank you for the comment. Great point about Paul Volcker. Also, I must say that you have a truly wonderful blog; I try to read it every day!