Rod Dreher

Mike Sirota notes that if the president gave a speech asking Americans to cut back on our use of oil as a response to the Gulf oil environmental, cultural and economic catastrophe, he would be derided just like Jimmy Carter was for his so-called “malaise speech.” This is not because the current president, like the president he replaced, is a bad man. Rather, it’s that they are savvy politicians. Sirota:

Thus, easy as it is to blame two flawed presidents for eschewing FDR-style leadership, we haven’t seen that leadership, in part, because we don’t seem to want it. And we don’t want it because we’ve stopped valuing the concept of shared sacrifice.

He’s right about that, though Russell Arben Fox says that Americans did respond favorably to Carter’s call for shared sacrifice in the face of the energy crisis, but that Carter’s subsequent poor leadership tainted everything he ever said or did. Still, as I wrote in “Crunchy Cons,” and as Sean Scallon later would write in The American Conservative magazine, Carter’s hated “malaise speech” (watch the video of the five-minute 1979 address here) was actually a profoundly conservative address, in the moral sense. Scallon wrote, “Carter did not try to tear down the country, he simply wanted it to come together and direct itself toward a goal other than unlimited growth or unending progress.”
Andrew Bacevich, the retired Army colonel and leading military strategist, identified the rejection of Carter’s message of shared sacrifice as a moral turning point in American life, one that would later have tremendous consequences for our foreign policy. In an interview a couple of years ago with Bill Moyers, Bacevich explained what he meant:

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, yes, “Physician, heal thyself,” and you begin healing yourself by looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself as you really are.
BILL MOYERS: Here is one of those neon sentences. Quote, “The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people,” you write, “is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.” In other words, you’re saying that our foreign policy is the result of a dependence on consumer goods and credit.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Our foreign policy is not something simply concocted by people in Washington D.C. and imposed on us. Our foreign policy is something that is concocted in Washington D.C., but it reflects the perceptions of our political elite about what we want, we the people want. And what we want, by and large – I mean, one could point to many individual exceptions – but, what we want, by and large is, we want this continuing flow of very cheap consumer goods.
We want to be able to pump gas into our cars regardless of how big they may happen to be, in order to be able to drive wherever we want to be able to drive. And we want to be able to do these things without having to think about whether or not the book’s balanced at the end of the month, or the end of the fiscal year. And therefore, we want this unending line of credit.
BILL MOYERS: You intrigued me when you wrote that “The fundamental problem facing the country will remain stubbornly in place no matter who is elected in November.” What’s the fundamental problem you say is not going away no matter whether it’s McCain or Obama?
ANDREW BACEVICH: What neither of these candidates will be able to, I think, accomplish is to persuade us to look ourselves in the mirror, to see the direction in which we are headed. And from my point of view, it’s a direction towards ever greater debt and dependency.

As Bacevich (who is a conservative, I should point out) wrote in his book “The New American Militarism,” subsequent presidents and presidential politicians took a lesson from Carter, and would never risk their own political capital by telling the American people they would have to sacrifice something, and wouldn’t be able to live as they wanted.
I bring all this up not to have a political argument — that’s not what this blog is for — but to raise a moral question with all sorts of implications for our society: political, economic, environmental, military, etc. As David Brooks recently wrote, we are a nation that wants contradictory things, and rage at our leaders for not giving them both to us. It is a sign of decadence that a politician who proposes sharing sacrifice for the greater good of all, and austerity as the price of living in a morally responsible way, is almost certainly writing his professional obituary.

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