Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech shows the disconnecting effect of naked facts

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Thirty-six years ago, President Carter made a televised speech during prime time. It was a political disaster, and has since been called derisively the “Malaise Speech.” It’s available on YouTube, but I ran across it watching Michael Moore’s 2009 film, “Capitalism: a Love Story.” The speech is fascinating, in an anthropological kind of way. Carter looks so wooden and sincere up there, shaking his fist to occasionally animate his otherwise stiff body.

After telling his fellow Americans how upset he is about the low ebb of our national self-confidence, he launches into his advice. From the perspective of over twenty years in the green movement, his words are eerily familiar. He proposes using energy as a rallying point to renew America’s confidence and spirit, along with our economy. What was it about this bald truth-telling that equated to political suicide? He clearly did not display the gift of rhetoric that several of his successors did, but I think it was a deadly mixture of message and delivery that doomed him.

Remember, this was in 1979! Not long before had been an era of energy so cheap we could build all-glass houses in the desert and air condition the heck out of them so they were livable. Our cars got about 12 miles to the gallon. A gallon of gas cost one-third of a gallon of milk, and you could fill up a Lincoln Continental for $12.00. The idea of energy efficiency was no less than radical.

The fascinating thing here is that Carter lays out the exact same ideas we are STILL talking about and only now getting around to doing. And still industry trade groups mobilize to lobby against regulations and efficiency standards. President Carter even mentions the goal of getting 20% of our energy from solar by 2000. This must have seemed kooky to the point of science fiction in 1979. The other specific technology he mentions is helping people build energy efficiency into their homes and lives. Even today, when we have all the technology and know-how we need to make our buildings 75% more energy efficient, this is still pushed to the margins.

Our conversations today about energy efficiency and renewables tend to include the specter of climate change, but back then only a handful of scientists were starting to get hints of greenhouse gases and warming. Carter’s argument was purely patriotic. He reminded Americans that not long before, the country had been “energy independent,” and now (1979) we relied on foreign oil imports for more than half our energy needs. Remember gas lines and odd-even license plate days? The patriotism card is being played again now to justify fracking—disingenuous at best, since the energy market is global and price, not patriotism, determines where oil and gas are sold.

What of the way Carter delivered his message? Subsequent presidents (Reagan, Clinton, and Obama) were far more gifted communicators. And even Obama is having a rough time of late dressing these points up in a more appealing package. Especially when he speaks of the impacts of climate change on the glaciers and permafrost in Alaska in the same week that his administration issues permits for oil drilling in the Arctic. I put the question to my niece, who teaches rhetoric: How could Carter’s speech have been delivered more effectively? Her response:

“The packaging of environmental issues is a tricky business, as I’m sure you’re more aware of than I am. Based off of this speech and countless other efforts I’ve seen, read and/or heard, I think the difficulty in persuasiveness rests within the fact that to say that something is for the benefit of the future—future generations, the future of our nation—is a hard sell. The Nation of We embraces the mentality of Me at all times. How will this affect Me? A Me Mentality demands that you to live in the present, which means We wait —we wait until we pay a hefty price, but we don’t really comprehend that we’re paying anything at all (or we just ignore it, as it conflicts with the notion that We’re #1 and never wrong). And we’re pretty consistent on that (from environment, to education, to civil rights—we just wait). So from a rhetorical standpoint, while you can make all the logical moves that this energy crisis is real, that you can spend money to save money, that being environmentally safe is a patriotic act, etc.—none of this works if you don’t truly cater to your audience. You have to tailor a message to a group of people concerned with themselves and the present—the immediate future. There’s that saying: you can’t argue reason with an unreasonable person. I think the same applies here.”

I’ve studied the Integral philosophy of Ken Wilber, which incorporates various human development models. Similar to this observation about the rhetorical landscape, Integral teaches that our culture is a mix of stages of emotional/psychological development, from self-absorbed, to concerned only for family or close affiliates, to dedicated nationalists and rule-followers. A small percentage of people have a broader perspective, say, globally, ecologically or future generations. The bulk of American culture is arguably at a self-centered stage. Think: teenagers. Carter comes off in his speech as a well-meaning parent, who apparently thinks he can feed us facts and truth, and we will be motivated the same way he is.

Watching Carter’s speech, I kept replaying my teenage son’s stock response to me of late (delivered with sarcasm): “Thanks for the lecture.” It hardly matters what I am saying to him. He knows what he knows and don’t tell him any different. One of the only ways to break through that armor is to ask questions. Curiosity can go a long way to discovering what another person cares about.

Effective communication (as I’m learning) meets people where they are, touching their emotions and appealing to what they care most about, which is likely to be themselves and maybe their families. With the best intentions, it doesn’t cater to fear or seek to manipulate, although in our public discourse there is plenty of both. When done with compassion and a sincere desire to connect, the results can be transformative for all concerned. Even someone with an expert level of knowledge on a subject—as Carter clearly was—would do well to accept that facts alone do not motivate people.

2 thoughts on “Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech shows the disconnecting effect of naked facts

  1. And Carter turned out to be one of the few (only) presidents to go forth and put his money (time and energy) where his mouth was, living his words, focusing on all you can hope to change, sadly, sometimes in the world: your Self. Thanks for prompting the discourse with your own powerful rhetoric, Juile.

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