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Austerian School

Is Jimmy Carter Where Environmentalism Went Wrong?

Carter’s austerity was part of a bigger project. It didn’t really have much to do with environmentalism.

Jimmy Carter stands at a podium in front of an American flag.
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images
President Jimmy Carter addresses a town meeting in 1979.

Jimmy Carter may be the most beloved ex-president in recent history, at least among environmentalists. Climate hawks and conservationists often credit him with trying and tragically failing to save the planet. Carter’s 1979 installation of solar panels on the White House roof is remembered as a symbol of his administration’s prescient attempts to tackle emissions and conserve nature; one presidential historian recently ranked him among “the greatest conservation presidents or environmental presidents of all time.” As the story goes, that legacy was snuffed out by his successor, Ronald Reagan, whose administration took down the panels and got to work trying to dismantle his good deeds in the name of neoliberalism.

How accurate is this tale? Carter certainly deserves credit for taking climate change seriously, signing significant pieces of environmental legislation, commissioning a landmark report on the then little-known subject, and protecting more than 100 million acres of land in Alaska. In other ways, the sweater-wearing former nuclear engineer is remembered as a suboptimal messenger for environmentalism. The Carter administration’s greatest flaw, though—arguably the one most damaging to the planet—was its steadfast commitment to austerity. Unlike the White House solar panels, that legacy persisted—and continues to haunt the climate movement to this day.

To many Democrats today, Carter’s so-called “malaise speech” remains a cautionary tale. (Although this is how the address is widely known, the actual word “malaise” didn’t appear in the original text.) To an audience of an estimated 100 million people in July 1979, Carter warned that the “erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.” He cited polls showing that a majority of Americans thought the next five years would be worse than the last, along with growing distrust in society’s major institutions.

Carter had initially set out to give a more bounded speech about energy (“the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation”) and assuage concerns about rising gas prices as drivers queued at filling stations for rationed fuel. He announced plans for a sprawling mobilization to set import quotas; fund energy conservation efforts; and boost domestic production of coal, oil, and solar as a means to reduce the country’s reliance on OPEC. Toward the end of the speech Carter also implored Americans to chip in: carpooling more, avoiding unnecessary trips, and setting thermostats higher in the summer and lower in the winter. “There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice,” he said.

The speech was well received at the time. Carter’s approval rating jumped by 11 percent afterward. Subsequent polling found that approval ratings for his handling of energy matters, in particular, more than doubled. Yet concerns about fuel prices lingered. “Carter, Kiss My Gas” bumper stickers proliferated, and Reagan campaigned on promises to unleash barriers to American energy production. “First we must decide that ‘less’ is not enough,” Reagan stumped, “It is no program simply to say ‘use less energy.’” Carter also fired most of his Cabinet a few days after the speech, reflecting what his vice president, Walter Mondale, called “a new direction.”

Commentators later blamed Carter’s modest call to reduce energy demand for Reagan’s decisive victory, arguing that Carter had unwittingly ushered in the neoliberal era by kicking off a culture war over energy production.

Fifty years on, the Biden administration has largely stuck with Carter’s “all of the above” approach to energy, spurring on renewables and fossil fuel development simultaneously. Apparently wary of Carter comparisons, however, it avoids any explicit talk about reducing energy demand—even as government-funded investments in public transit and building electrification (for instance) promise to create millions of jobs while cutting electricity costs and use. Top Democrats’ compulsion to continually prove that they’re not out to reduce consumption is a core piece of Carter’s environmental legacy too, and one Republicans still tap into frequently. It didn’t take long for the likes of the American Enterprise Institute to start comparing Joe Biden to Carter, citing geopolitical worries and nonexistent plans to “tax and regulate the fossil fuel industry out of existence.”

But both sides here are wrong: Carter’s environmental policy didn’t trip up his broader platform. It was his broader platform that sabotaged his environmental policy. Whatever else he was, Carter was an austerian through and through. Core to his governing philosophy was a firm belief in the virtues of fiscal conservatism and deep skepticism about state meddling. Rick Perlstein—author of an exhaustive account of the Carter years, Reaganlandcalculated that Carter used the word “sacrifice” 479 times in speeches and statements over his four-year term. That stance, reflected in his environmental politics, created many of the problems that plagued his administration—and that helped bring Reagan to power.

Carter’s early decision to let Nixon-era price controls expire, for instance—and refusal to return to that tool later—was remembered even by his advisers as one of the administration’s worst mistakes. Chief domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat said in 1981 that giving up those powers meant the administration was unable to prevent rising energy prices “from lapping over into the rest of the economy.” His inflation czar, Barry Bosworth, resigned as a result.

“One of my Administration’s major goals is to free the American people from the burden of over-regulation,” Carter said within six weeks of taking office. As inflation took hold, he took aim at supposed government excess. Carter’s administration accordingly led a charge to deregulate important sectors like airlines, banking, rail, trucking, and communications. He passed austerity budgets that cut social spending, and he helped defang proposals for a federal job guarantee. On the same morning that Carter signed a bill establishing a Superfund to clean up toxic waste, he also signed the Paperwork Reduction Act to “eliminate unnecessary federal regulations,” kvelling that it would “regulate the regulators.” The act spawned the Office of Management and Budget, which the Reagan White House used to dismantle much of what remained of the New Deal and Great Society.

Years before Reagan quipped about “the nine scariest words in the English language” (“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”), Carter had said his own version of the same thing. “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision,” Carter preached in his 1978 State of the Union address. “Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy.”

Perhaps most damaging was Carter’s decision to appoint Paul Volcker as chair of the Federal Reserve. Carter knew full well that Volcker planned to induce a recession by tightening the money supply, experts argue. Volcker agreed to take the job, historian Samir Sonti writes, on one condition: “that politics wouldn’t get in the way of his ability to fight inflation by any means necessary.” By the time the 1980 election rolled around, the country had endured a six-month recession, lasting from January to July of that year. Inflation had declined only slightly, while unemployment was 27 percent higher than it had been the year before, on Election Day. Many were still unable to afford to buy homes and cars thanks to elevated interest rates. The White House was incredulous at the idea that Reagan might win. Yet Carter became the first elected president to lose a reelection bid since Herbert Hoover in 1932, in a similarly dramatic landslide.

A 1982 analysis of that election in American Politics Quarterly observed just how thoroughly Carter’s tenure had torched the party’s credibility on the economic issues that mattered most to voters in 1980s:

The 1976 SRC National Election Study, for example, showed that among voters who saw a difference in the parties’ effectiveness managing the economy (not quite half the electorate), Democrats were considered better able to handle the unemployment problem by a factor of nearly 4 to I (36.4% to 9.5%). The Democrats even led the Republicans as the party seen as more likely to better handle inflation by 28% to 19%. Four years and one Carter induced recession later, these Democratic advantages were gone. In the 1980 preelection SRC survey the Republicans enjoyed a 2 to I advantage over the Democrats as the party seen as likely to better handle inflation (31% to 15%), and led the Democrats as well in response to the question about which party would better handle unemployment (23% to 19%).

The “malaise speech,” by this analysis, seems to be a red herring: It may well be true that voters didn’t like being told to turn down the thermostat or put on a sweater. But they certainly didn’t like being thrown out of a job and into a recession, either.

Whatever culture war Republicans have tried to stoke around Carter’s energy policies, that is, should be understood against the backdrop of an induced recession, deregulation, and dramatic cuts to social programs. Carter’s often admirable attention to environmental issues was certainly inflected with the ethic of sacrifice that became his administration’s calling card. Yet the main expression of that conviction was an economic agenda that did lasting damage and set the stage for the even more extreme measures to come. Carter’s attempts to reduce energy demand weren’t the problem with his presidency; austerity was.