Remembering the Real Jimmy Carter

ByBrian Platt

Now that Jimmy Carter has been placed in hospice care the countdown has begun. A countdown not only to his imminent demise, but also to the flood of hagiographic articles portraying the former president as the nation’s kindly grandfather. A modern saint who found his way through the corrupt world of American politics without losing his moral compass, only to go on after his one term in office to build homes for Habitat for Humanity rather than cash-in on expensive public speaking appearances or book deals like some other presidents – though Carter quietly did that as well.

For most Americans, that will be Jimmy Carter’s legacy – our last principled, moral president standing before the all-consuming void that would be the great American culture wars. Like all hagiographies, this is history written backwards. Any eulogy of the man should instead begin with the appraisal of his presidency given by Manning Marable in his 1984 history of black America, Race, Reform and Rebellion:

Since blacks were chiefly responsible for electing Carter, there was the clear expectation that the new president would embrace a programme of progressive racial reforms and social democracy. This did not occur. If anything, blacks were dismayed to learn, as the administration developed its agenda, that Carter was probably the most conservative Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson, the arch-segregationist of 1913-1921. After a short time in office, corporate leaders drew pleasant parallels between Carter and Roosevelt’s immediate conservative predecessor in the White House, Herbert Hoover. One aide to Eisenhower suggested that Carter ‘ventured no notions in economic philosophy to which Hoover could have taken serious exception’. Patrick Caddell, a Carter pollster and assistant, urged the new president ‘to co-opt many of the Republican’s issue positions and to take away large chunks of their presidential coalition by the right actions in government’. A move to the political right would ‘cause rumblings from the left of the Democratic Party’, but these could be safely ignored. Thus, blacks and the broader American democratic left had helped to elect a president who had absolutely no intention of carrying out key elements of their programme.

Viewed in the context of its immediate aftermath, Carter’s presidency looked less like the brief respite before Reaganism and more like its logical prelude. Carter ushered in a series of legislation, reforms, and a reconfiguring of national priorities that was absolutely crucial to the success of the neoliberal project that both Carter and Reagan served. Frequently posed as political and moral opposites, a closer examination of Carter’s actual record shows him to be a mirror image.

Reagan is rightfully criticized today for starting his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Standing in the town where one of the most infamous tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement took place – the murder of civil rights organizers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by a local sheriff and other Klan members – Reagan called out his support for “state’s rights,” a clarion call to racists everywhere that the age of civil rights was over.

Few seem to remember that during his 1976 presidential campaign Jimmy Carter similarly waded into the civil rights struggle. At the height of the Boston busing crisis – the point at which the boogeyman of school desegregation finally came for Northern states too – Democrats running in the primaries rushed to establish their anti-integration bona-fides. Carter, already suspect being a governor of a Southern state, told the press that he did not believe that it was the federal government’s job to alter the “ethnic purity” of neighborhoods or the “economic homogeneity” of the suburbs.

Carter’s comments served the same function as Reagan’s appearance in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They were meant to put black voters, social democrats, unionists, and anyone else that had any intention of expanding the New Deal on notice: the politics of the Democratic Party were fundamentally changing. While the old coalition’s votes were still expected by Democrats, they would no longer be receiving anything in return – in fact, the most vulnerable elements of the old coalition were slated to be the first on the chopping block of neoliberal reform.

Throughout 1976, officials for the Carter campaign repeatedly told voters that no new social welfare, healthcare, or educational programs would be initiated. Once in office, Carter delivered on that promise. In his first year, Carter and the Democrat-led House and Senate passed the Hyde Amendment. The first major victory for the anti-abortion movement, the amendment banned the use of Medicaid funds for abortion procedures. When a reporter pointed out that this policy was designed to specifically punish poor women, Carter responded, “There are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people cannot.” He went on to add that it was not the job of the federal government to provide equality of opportunity, particularly when there is a “moral component” involved. For Carter, as it turns out, moral components would continue to provide a convenient impediment to addressing social inequality.

The fact that Carter came from Georgia is more than simple trivia. Since the onset of the Cold War, the Southern intelligentsia worked to seamlessly fuse Christianity, libertarian economics, anticommunism, and regressive social policies like racial segregation and misogyny. Austerity politics in things like public schools became a way to maintain the inequality of segregation while white parents removed their kids to private Christian “segregation academies.” Turning segregation into a public-private venture maintained through a mixture of austerity and privatization was then valorized via libertarian schemes like “public choice theory” – an extremist idea that had been laundered through the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech economics departments. Who better than a kindly Southern governor to take this proto-neoliberal project that had been road-tested in the segregationist South nationwide? – a trick that Democrats would repeat in 1992.

Carter is frequently misremembered as being outside of the current of Southern reactionary politics, when in actuality, by 1976 he found himself right at the center of the neoliberal reactionary project. He became the first Democrat of the New Deal era to declare that inflation was a more important economic indicator than unemployment, shifting the focus of Fed policy from jobs to capping wages. It is perhaps telling that Carter assumed office in the same year that Milton Friedman received the Nobel Prize in economics. Libertarian economists like Friedman, James Buchanan, and Alan Greenspan had spent decades trying to construct a moral argument for the increasing income and wealth inequality of capitalism. Inflation, with its requisite loss to lenders in the financial sector, became the great moral crime. As Buchanan would write in 1977, “A generalized erosion in public and private manners, increasingly liberalized attitudes toward sexual activities, a declining vitality of the Puritan work ethic… explosion of the welfare rolls, widespread corruption. Who can deny that inflation plays some role?” Showing the degree to which neoliberal economics had fused with evangelical Christianity, Jerry Falwell’s Journal-Champion was even more dire in its pronouncement that “God is bringing the entire nation to its financial knees. If we want to control inflation, we should set our spiritual house in order.”

The only way to bring America’s spiritual house in order, according to the newly developed neoliberal orthodoxy, was to switch from demand side solutions to economic crisis to a focus on supply side investment. Or in plain terms, to reduce the share of the national economy that goes to labor in the form of wages by increasing the share that goes to capital in the form of profits. This new morality would become the central backbone of Carter’s social and economic program. “His response to inflation and to lines at gas stations,” writes historian Kim Phillips-Fein, “was to suggest that Americans look inward and free themselves from their desperate dependency on consumption.” Through the alchemy of neoliberal morality, the economic and social problems caused by American capitalism were transformed into the personal problems of individual Americans. And once the magic trick was complete, comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted became a tough moral choice only a principled man like Carter could make.

In office, Carter turned his back on his own party’s full employment policies and cut funding to employment programs for those in public housing. For those that sought to find work through education, Carter cut federal funding to historically black colleges to the bone. These colleges received 75% of their funding from the federal government when Carter took office. That funding had been cut to 18% by the time he left office in 1980. Carter’s policies targeting the black community for economic punishment took an immediate toll with 131,000 black families falling beneath the poverty line during his first year in office. Even mainstream liberal leaders from groups like the Urban League accused Carter of “callous neglect” toward the black community.

The labor unions that had supported Carter’s 1976 run against Gerald Ford did not fare any better. One of the largest contingents within the AFL-CIO, The Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) had been trying to push through a labor reform package since 1975 that would grant building trades expanded rights to shutdown construction sites. The BCTD was one of the most conservative factions within the AFL-CIO and its labor reform proposal could hardly be seen as radical as it included considerable concessions to real estate developers, but it was vehemently opposed by the Business Roundtable – the newest and most important corporate lobby in Washington.

Once Carter was in office, the BCTD tried to take advantage of the Democrats’ total control of the government to get the reform pushed through. The AFL-CIO devoted considerable resources to trying to get this early legislative win after dealing with eight years of hostility from the Nixon and Ford Administrations. It was not to be, however, Carter let Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce lackeys kill the bill in the Senate, never throwing his weight behind it or demanding party unity. Labeled by Mike Davis as “the biggest debacle in AFL-CIO history,” the defeat of the BCTD labor reform package was a public embarrassment for labor and a sign of things to come.

In early 1978, Carter again publicly struck out against the Democrats putative allies in the labor movement. In March, he invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to crush a nationwide coal strike that sought to create a uniform system of wages in the coal industry. When explaining his reasons for breaking the strike, Carter cited his opposition to a “more liberal and inflationary wage settlement” for coal workers – neoliberalism’s new morality again ruled Carter’s actions. Carter went on to threaten the use of state and federal troops should mineworkers not accept his terms for ending the strike.

It was PATCO before PATCO, a grotesque use of federal force to break a labor strike, serving notice to unions that the terms of its postwar compact with capital – and by extension with the Democratic Party – had changed. Of course, while Carter took from labor with one hand, he gave to business with the other. He bailed out Chrysler to the tune of $1.5 billion in 1979 (about $6.6 billion today) under the condition that the United Auto Workers make significant “sacrifices” for the Chrysler corporation. Carter reduced the capital gains tax while increasing the Social Security tax – a direct transfer of wealth upward from the working class to the capitalist class. It was in this context that a reporter asked the head of the International Association of Machinists in 1979, “Is there any way the President can redeem himself in your eyes?” He responded, “Yes there is one way he can do it. Die.”

While in office, Carter pursued a libertarian deregulation agenda that was right out of the Friedman playbook. In 1978, the Revenue Act created the 401k as a new financial instrument banks could use to extract wealth directly out of workers’ paychecks. During Congressional testimony, representatives of the finance sector promised that it would not take the place of much more stable and reliable defined benefit retirement plans, with predictable results. Carter then deregulated the airline industry, dismantling the Civil Aeronautics Board. The following year, Texas International Airlines created the first frequent flyer miles program beginning the long transition of the airline industry from transportation to banking.

In 1980, Carter fought off the Teamsters on his way to deregulating the trucking industry with the Motor Carrier Act, allowing corporations to redefine truck drivers as “independent contractors.” This change in definition allowed capital to break the union’s hold over trucking and lower truckers’ overall wages. President Bill Clinton would later complete the coup with his own deregulation act in 1994. In his final year in office, Carter deregulated the railroad and financial industries as well, all with predictable results. Triumphantly, Carter would declare, “We deregulated the airlines, we deregulated the trucking industry, we deregulated financial institutions, we decontrolled oil and natural gas prices, and we negotiated lower trade barriers throughout the world for our exports.” Truly, a record that any neoliberal economist would be proud of!

Carter will likely be most remembered by those on the left for his appointment of Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve. Volcker had been recommended by David Rockefeller and Walt Wriston of Citibank – two of the architects of the reorganization of New York City in the wake of its 1975 debt crisis – for his political reliability. His job, once appointed, was to hike interest rates at the Fed window in order to induce a recession and break the back of American workers, all in the service of the new neoliberal morality. In 1974, Business Week expressed the new morality, “Some people will obviously have to do with less. Yet it will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow – the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.” In 1979, this became official government policy when Volcker told Congress, “The standard of living of the average American has to decline.”

The declining standard of living would be a tough pill for Americans to swallow without a little racist scapegoating to help it go down. In the first year of his administration, Carter made controlling immigration across the US-Mexico border a top priority. Carter told the country that it was undocumented migrants “competing with American workers for scarce jobs” – not the neoliberal economic policies of his administration – that was causing the decline in the standard of living. Such scapegoating required action, so Carter significantly increased the budget of the Border Patrol and began militarizing the US-Mexico border with Vietnam surplus. In 1978, he began construction of his crowning achievement, the “Carter Curtain” – a sixteen-foot tall steel fence separating San Ysidro from Tijuana and El Paso from Ciudad Juarez.

Now, some will concede that Carter’s economic policies presaged those of Reagan, or to quote Mike Davis, “1978 was the first year of Reaganomics,” but that Carter should still be given some sort of consideration for his dovish foreign policy. Yet, Carter was anything but a dove as president. Carter announced his embrace of American imperialism early in his presidency. When asked by a reporter why Carter was breaking the Paris Peace Accords by refusing to pay Vietnam reparations, Carter responded, “The destruction was mutual. We went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or to impose American will on other people… And I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability.” The statement was brazen in its callousness and dishonesty. And it was music to the defense industry’s ears – the time for feeling bad about American imperialism was over. Despite promises not to increase military spending, Carter increased the defense budget every year that he was in office. While Carter is praised for pardoning those that had fled the country to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, one of his last acts in office was to reinstitute draft registration – a necessary precursor to re-opening a military draft in the future. Another victory against the “Vietnam syndrome”!

In office, Carter pursued an aggressive foreign policy: funneling weapons to right-wing death squads in El Salvador & Indonesia, moving new medium range nuclear missiles into Western Europe to intimidate the Soviet Union, providing covert military aid to President Mobuto of Zaire in his war against MPLA rebels, and giving more than $200 million in weapons to Somalia to fight a war against Soviet-backed Ethiopia.

Carter’s most enduring contribution to America’s imperial forever wars came toward the end of his presidency, however. During his 1980 State of the Union address, he announced the Carter Doctrine, a unilaterally declared American commitment to use military force to “protect” the critical energy reserves located in the Middle East. The doctrine became the centerpiece justification for two separate disastrous invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, but in 1980 it was focused on the newly formed government in Iran and a little known – at the time – conflict that Carter had created in Central Asia. In 1979, having sprung the “Afghan trap,” to use the words of Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, on the Soviet Union, Carter signed off on the CIA’s holy war in Afghanistan, flooding the country with weapons and foreign fighters.

The limited nature of military operations under Carter was always more the product of the military’s collapse in the early 1970s than it was of any impulse toward peace on the part of Carter himself. This collapse was aptly demonstrated during the bungled Mayaguez incident under Ford in 1975 and Carter’s own farce in the Iranian desert, Operation Eagle Claw, in 1980. Still, Carter’s covert operations in Central America, Afghanistan, and Africa have continued to reverberate around the world for decades, causing incalculable damage and loss of life.

In every way, Carter’s presidency presaged the Reagan years that followed. With Reagan’s Administration representing, not a revolution as is popularly remembered, but a continuation and acceleration of the Carter years. With the revolutionary elements of the American left successfully repressed in the early 1970s, there was no countervailing force to prevent the Democratic Party from moving quickly and forcefully to the political right under Carter. The moderate centrists left in charge of groups like the Urban League, the NAACP, and the country’s unions were uniquely ill-equipped to deal with a situation where the Democratic Party told them to show up to the polls to vote and then get lost. In this sense, Carter does not represent some respite before the neoliberal storm of the last forty years, but rather the beginning – only obscured now by how much progress capital has made in terraforming the social, economic, and political institutions of the country in its own image.

It might feel good to joke, “I have come here today, not to praise Jimmy Carter, but to bury him.” But the joke is on us. Carter and his successors have won. They sought to remake the national landscape and they succeeded beyond their own wildest imaginations. William Winspringer, the head of the IAM who wished to see Carter die in 1979, would never get his wish, having died at the age of 73 in 1997. Even the venerable Mike Davis, a harsh critic of Carter’s labor policies, passed away this year at the age of 76. Like many villains, Carter has lived to a ripe-old age. A reminder that there is no cosmic justice to save us. In the end, all we have is each other, and only together can we unmake the world that Carter created.