… What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends….
President Jimmy Carter
“Crisis of Confidence” Speech (July 15, 1979)
As we stumble and bumble (Taxes! Email! Benghazi! Porn!) toward electing our next President, I’ve been thinking about our country’s college students, most of whom are voting for President for the first time—poor kids.
I’ve also been thinking about my first vote for President, way back when tie-dyed t-shirts and Radio Shack were still cool, no one had ever heard of a cell phone, and I was embarking on my first hopeful, confusing, and exhausting semester of college, one where I was still locating physical books by looking through typed index cards in massive oak card catalogues. Even worse, I had to trudge up to the stacks, find the book, check it out, bring it back to my dorm room, and (gasp!) read it before completing my class assignments on a (double gasp!) typewriter.
Did I mention that I often had brontosaurus for lunch?
What has not, however, changed all these many years later is that government seems the very last—and often very worst—option for solving our many problems. I cast my ballot for Jimmy Carter in 1976 because, like many Americans, I could not forgive President Ford for granting a full pardon to disgraced former President Nixon. Moreover, Carter’s military experience, Governorship of Georgia, and business background seemed a good mix to restore our trust in the Executive branch after the trauma of Watergate. I thrilled to his stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, and his easy informality touched a spot in my informal eighteen year old soul.
His Presidency was, however, fraught with international difficulties, a crushing oil crisis, and a tone deaf manner of lecturing rather than speaking—all of which were capped off by the failed hostage rescue mission six months before Election Day.
Enter Ronald Reagan, “Morning in America”, Iran-Contra—and the start of our great national adventure in borrowing and spending that has driven the Federal debt from under $1 trillion to nearly $20 trillion in just over 35 years. Maybe Disco wasn’t so bad after all.
Jimmy Carter certainly had his faults as President, but he clearly saw that the polarization of our political process—driven to extremes by campaign cash and myopic interest groups—was more of a threat to our nation’s future than every missile in the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal combined. Of course, the political polarization of his day seems almost quaint compared to the Twitter-fueled, 24-hour screamfest that masquerades as governance today.
The bizarre candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are not the problem: They are the symptom. The iron triangle of craven office holders, news media that have abandoned all pretense of objectivity, and a collapse of basic civic awareness have put us just where we are today: a “Kulture” that puts a Kardashian on the cover of every magazine and ignores the kakistocracy killing our nation.
The cure will not be without pain, sacrifice, and the howls of those asked to surrender their overly large piece of the pie for the common good. We will, in addition, need to use our votes to elect leaders who understand arithmetic, treat us as adults rather than children, and insist on results when our tax dollars are spent.
I suspect that we are nearer to the breaking point than many might realize. I could, of course, be wrong; however, I don’t think we have a great deal of time to engineer a turnaround before the wheels fall off altogether. If we go through another four years of business as usual, we might very well be looking wistfully back at the “good old days” of 2016—a truly frightening idea that causes my own “crisis of confidence” as I mull over the possibility of government debts even larger, a nation more fragmented, and politicians less competent than we have today.
By the way, I suddenly really, really miss The Bee Gees.