There is a perpetual dance. A dance that is as choreographed and engineered as any ballet that you have witnessed. However, this dance does not possess the beguiling beauty of Swan Lake or the wondrous charms of Giselle; instead it is the well rehearsed, yet utterly impotent, dance of modern political discourse. Under the guise of seeking the truth we, as a disenfranchised electorate, watch a series of banal politicians pandering to the whims of the general public. These politicians continually endeavour to capture the imagination of a bored populous by disclosing empty rhetoric and vague half-truths in the attempt to curry our favour once every election cycle; engaging the public just long enough to keep their jobs for another term in office. The popular misconception is that these politicians are the gatekeepers to an undeniable truth that if fully revealed would extinguish their precious careers, whilst enlightening an entire nation. However, we are consoled by the thought that there are many others in our society, such as the Fourth Estate that will continually engage and scrutinize the political caste on our behalf; this delegation of responsibility allows us the freedom not to be constantly conscious of current political discourse. Yet the malaise that engulfs us endures.
The Fourth Estate has always been a powerful force in British politics; the concept that the free press will serve as a watchman against the hubris of the political cabal is as comforting as it is essential for democracy to thrive. Witness the checks and balances offered by the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to the downfall of the Nixon Administration or the exposition of MP’s expenses by the Daily Telegraph and Heather Brooke. Political journalists can, and often do, offer a vital service to the public who rely upon their investigative abilities.
However, for every Heather Brooke or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, there are many more political journalists that believe the only way to expose the truth from a politician is by claiming it from their cold, dead hands after besting them in an interview. The rules of these dances are unspoken; the politician is unable to tell the whole truth, so will attempt to avoid disclosing too much information for fear of straying ‘off message’, instead they deal in platitudes and generalisation. In understanding this internal dilemma, the interviewer will feign anger and aggression, constantly appearing to be dismayed at the politician’s lack of integrity and honesty. If the politicians in this dance of discourse are the Prima Ballerinas, then the journalists are unquestionably the Premier Danseur Nobles, with the public watching on in the stalls; marvelling at its effortless posturing and captivated by its utter futility.
The final act of this dance of the politicians reveals a disturbing and uncomfortable scenario: the reason why our elected figures do not (and possibly cannot) burden us with the pure, unadulterated truth is because we castigate the politicians who do. Unlike Peter Finch’s Howard Beale, in the poignant Network, we are not shouting out of the windows ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”‘ Instead we acquiesce and accept the malaise. The distressing truth is we, as a society, are responsible for the politicians we acquire – we choose politicians who massage our collective egos, who proclaim the tired adages of openness, equality and community; only to observe their continual efforts to pursue of special interest and personal reward. If the history of democracy teaches us anything it is that politicians who challenge our collective cognitive dissonance are severely punished. Jimmy Carter’s infamous ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech bears testimony to this cruel irony.
The America of the 1970s was a wounded beast; it was nation still suffering from the collective traumas of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the assassinations of Martin Luther King jnr, and of John and Robert Kennedy. The faith of the American people, in the institutions of government, was shaken to its very foundations. The electorate demanded a President to purify Washington of the stench of these scandals and would welcome any candidate who promised a return to the politics of a more innocent day when special interest groups did not govern the country. Enter a peanut farmer from America’s Deep South; a man so unrecognised that the media bequeathed him the insulting moniker of ‘Jimmy Who?’ during his successful presidential campaign in 1976. From the very beginning of his political career as a State Senator for Georgia, Jimmy Carter was never an obvious choice to be President of the United States, but his quiet and humble demeanour belied a self confidence and arrogance that has rarely been witnessed in Washington DC, the spiritual heart of paranoia and avarice. During the first few months of his presidency, Carter was determined to re-establish faith in the federal government, both actual and metaphysical, by confirming to the public that he was everything his predecessors had not been. He was not the paranoid crook Richard Nixon had been nor was he a warmonger like Lyndon B. Johnson; instead he focused on placing God and human rights at the centre of his decision-making process.
It soon became evident that despite his powerful position, the House of Representatives and the Senate were both overwhelmingly under Democratic control; Carter was struggling to have any significant impact upon the political landscape. A combination of global crises, his lack of any tangible experience and his naïve arrogance, meant that his presidency began to lose direction. Events began to dominate his time as president, instead of instigating policies and driving the political debate forward, it seemed that Jimmy Carter had been demoted to the level of manager and not the Leader of the Free World that his electorate had hoped for. It was becoming conspicuously apparent that Jimmy Carter had little aptitude for the role of Prima Ballerina.
By the summer of 1979 the Carter administration realised that the general public was losing confidence in their president; there was spiralling inflation, fuel prices were escalating and petrol stations were running dry. However, Jimmy Carter perceived a much greater issue that was affecting the United States, a crisis of confidence, not just concerning himself but in the nature of American democracy as well. On July 15 1979, the President gave potentially one of the boldest speeches of any politician in living memory, in which he identifies the issues that have beset the nation and attempts to outline a solution that he hopes may rekindle the lost fire of brash American confidence. Knowing that the nation had not recovering from government lies, cover-ups and political scandal over the previous decade, Carter attempted to hide nothing in his brutally honest description of the malaise that struck at the very heart and soul of the national will. In his uniquely, staccatissimo Southern drawl, Jimmy Carter addressed a curious and concerned nation –
‘We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.
[…] In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.’
The themes of Jimmy Carter’s ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech were obvious, a collective political apathy and a crippling energy crisis, but there was also an underlying anxiety from the President which was palpable. Perhaps Carter’s great strength, his single-minded honesty, was also his greatest frailty. In troubling times, presidents, prime ministers and monarchs have always appeared publicly resolute, attempting never to reveal their personal doubts and insecurities, rather always stubbornly adhering to their policies regardless of apparent consequences. For instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt never publicly allowed a moment’s doubt that his federal stimulus would lead the United States through their darkest hours; the fear was that uncertainty could derail his fragile economic experiment. However, Jimmy Carter’s approach has a level of vulnerability and perplexity that is rarely witnessed in a role that manifestly demands foresight and absolute conviction. A testament to this perspective is how he openly offers a critique of his presidency, using third party testimonies to highlight his potential shortcomings, before asking rhetorical questions, in which the only conclusions that can be drawn magnify his deficiencies. Then, in a truly unorthodox departure from the theories of modern political discourse, Jimmy Carter warns that the current malaise affecting the American people is not a problem that can be solved with government legislation or executive action. Instead Carter admonishes the American people; stating that ‘…there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.’
However, it would be misleading to present this speech as an entirely revolutionary departure from the normal conventions of political dialogue, akin to Dudley Moore’s portrayal of an honest advertising executive on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Crazy People. There are many instances when Jimmy Carter returns to the stereotypical rhetoric expected by the public; there are platitudes concerning ‘…the decency and the strength and the wisdom of the American people’, and the outlining of a common enemy to which the public can gather around Old Glory and regain their spiritual purpose. There are numerous examples of this. Yet, even with consideration to these truisms, the essence of the speech is startling, being more comparable to a sermon than a political articulation. The themes of confession, redemption and sacrifice are not just alluded to, but are explicitly expressed. Jimmy Carter was attempting to guide the American people into the spiritual process that he had endured, like Moses leading the Children of Israel out of the desert; Carter hoped to escort his people to a promised land and the opportunity of redemption. Whether it was political expediency or the pursuit of a higher moral calling that led Carter to pronounce a recalibration of what it was to be an American, the fact remains that this speech is a high water mark for honesty in Western political discourse.
Jimmy Carter is possibly the greatest testament to the duplicity of the public in their political choices. According to Hendrik Hertzberg, author of the ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech, ‘Carter was exactly what the American people say they want [in a politician] – above politics, determined to do the right thing regardless of political consequences, a simple person who does not lie, a modest man, not somebody with a lot of imperial pretences. That’s what people say they want and that’s what they got with Jimmy Carter.’ However, in the Darwinian world of politics, survival is determined by public opinion and Jimmy Carter became a byword for presidential failure, a one term president who lacked the skills required for global leadership. Instead the electorate fittingly chose an actor, who talked in simple terms of a better future. A President who would not challenge the public to think too deeply on complex issues; where perspective and truth became highly subjective, and honesty just a thin veneer. The American people got the leader that they really wanted, not just a leader that they said they wanted.
This apparent dichotomy arises from our collective insecurities; we find it reassuring when politicians massage our egos with meretricious phrases which they cravenly use as a cudgel to project whatever provincial concerns they, or their political party, may wish to advance. Monolithic utterances, such as ‘the Founders intend…’, ‘our children deserve…’ and ‘we are all in this together…’ are meaningless – designed specifically to resonate with a disengaged populous. In this era of post-truth politics some politicians, with their Newspeak sleight-of-tongue, can rewrite history and reincarnate themselves as a person of integrity. Now we are merely just consumers making political brand choices, as opposed to Aristotle’s proposition that ‘man is by nature a political animal’ in which the electorate is constantly engaged and challenging the conventions of society. This disconnection, between reality and the public chimera, allows politicians to re-brand themselves, and their policies, with all the advantages of hindsight and neologisms. However, the issue is far deeper than a veneer of marketing, our apathy and compliance in this dance, has allowed an Orwellian industry to be created – witness the Mitt Romney campaign’s view on the purpose of political advertising quoted in the New York Times:
‘First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business… Ads are agitprop… Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context… All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.’
Jimmy Carter might not have been the first President to challenge his electorate by asking them to re-evaluate their own expectation and beliefs with brutal honesty, but he may be the last for a few generations. We get the politicians we deserve – enjoy the dance.