Peggy Noonan’s weekend Wall Street Journal column this week defends Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech (though correctly noting that Carter never used the word “malaise”). Noonan typically files her long Saturday column mid-week, and so this week I have no doubt that, with news that Carter is in extremis, she wanted to say something nice about the man near the hour of his passing, which is perfectly reasonable. I’ll have my own take in due course. But in rehabilitating Carter’s speech, she missed a real scoop.
First, back to the speech itself. I won’t review the speech in detail here, or Noonan’s defense of it, but mention just two points before going on to the thoughtful angle she missed. First, Vice President Walter Mondale hated the speech, and the protracted process that generated it, so much that he nearly resigned as Vice President. Let that sink in for a moment. When you’ve lost Walter Mondale. . .
Second, I have screened large portions of the speech to students at Berkeley and elsewhere when I’ve taught the presidency. Carter might as well be Ulysses S. Grant for today’s students of course, but they mostly find Carter’s speech. . . bizarre. Even my progressive students. Noonan is attempting a heavy lift here.
Noonan thinks the “malaise” speech prophesied our conditions today: “As I watched again this week I thought: That was prescient. Our worry is about hatred and polarization; he was describing the demoralization that preceded it.”
Prescient? Ironically she’s generally right, but specifically wrong. Noonan missed a yuuuge story. The amanuensis for that speech was the late Pat Caddell. Caddell was Carter’s pollster for the 1976 campaign, and had been McGovern’s pollster in 1972, so his left credentials are pretty solid. In later years, starting during the bitter aftermath of the 2000 election, Caddell was quite concerned with the growing polarization of American politics, but placed the bulk of the blame on the left and the Democratic Party. I recall being startled at him saying on TV during the Florida recount, “I don’t recognize my party any more.”
Noonan leaves out that in the run-up to the “malaise” speech Caddell had recommended Carter read Christopher Lasch’s 1978 book The Culture of Narcissism (which he dutifully did) and you can see many direct themes from Lasch’s book in Carter’s speech. In later years Lasch, who died in the 1990s, came to diagnose, and approve of, the rise of what we recognize today as Trumpist populism—as did Caddell, who greatly lamented that Democrats were abandoning the working class. See especially Lasch’s last book, The Revolt of the Elites. I reviewed it when it came out, noting that its real message was “Our Revolting Elites,” who deserved what he saw was coming for them. (Ditto another prominent leftist thinker of the time, Richard Rorty.) Nothing has changed since then; in fact our ruling elites have only gotten more revolting.
In other words, Noonan missed the most interesting legacy of that speech. The left’s answer to the problem of “malaise” is today’s malice of identity politics and an open hatred of the white working class, which made Caddell, who never shed his core social democratic sympathies, recoil in horror. In other words, at the time Carter spoke in 1979, who was it that had worked assiduously to demoralize America? The new left, to which the Democratic Party wholly surrendered in the 1970s, Carter notwithstanding. Noonan in 2016 seemed to get some of what Caddell was seeing, when she wrote several excellent Saturday columns on why Trump was deservedly getting traction, and specifically praising some of the then-pseudonymous work of Michael Anton. (I’ll bet she’d like to memory-hole some of those columns today.)
There are other ways of offering Carter some appreciation; as I say, I will have my own in due course. Rehabilitating the “malaise” speech is not one of them.