Josh Kurtz: The COVID-19 Crisis and the Crisis of Confidence

Former President Jimmy Carter

I have stared COVID-19 right in the face.

I have seen the contagion pass from one person to the next.

That’s an apocalyptic way to open an essay that back in school would be titled, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”

My family and I are lucky. We’ve been spared the fury of the virus so far — even with a couple of frontline workers — and we were able to spend a few days near the beach in Delaware last week.

But make no mistake, COVID-19 is all around us and it’s spreading. And that was painfully obvious during our time away.

We tried hard to keep our distance from everybody. Other than one takeout dinner and two trips for ice cream, we cooked all our meals at the townhouse we rented. We spent a lot of time kayaking and going for walks on empty wooded trails or in quiet neighborhoods.

We did cover a lot of territory on the beach, walking between the northern reaches of Ocean City to South Bethany and back. We moved discernibly away from people whenever we encountered them, especially at the water’s edge. But we can’t say the same of anyone else.

We barely saw anyone wearing a mask on the beach. Very few people moved to walk away from us. Kids and sometimes even adults thought nothing about bumping right into us.

We saw lots of crowded bars and restaurants. Ocean City attractions like mini golf and go karts seemed about as busy as ever. Were they wiping down the steering wheels after every lap around the go-kart track? Somehow I doubt it.

So this is America in the summer of COVID. And this is why we are in such serious trouble — and why there is little evidence to suggest that the public health emergency is going to abate anytime soon.

The growing rate of confirmed virus cases in the U.S. is an embarrassment, a testament to the utter failure of the federal government to put together any kind of coherent public health strategy. But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

Americans like to think of themselves as making sacrifices when tough times call for it. We celebrate the World War II generation as “the greatest generation” because of all the sacrifices they made — on the battlefield and at home.

But when was the last time Americans were actually asked to make sacrifices? After 9-11, we were advised to go shopping. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars we were told that the U.S. could enjoy the fruits of tax cuts while the Pentagon spent unlimited amounts of money on two wars simultaneously.

The last time any American president asked sacrifices of the people — Jimmy Carter in the late 1970’s — he lost 44 states in the next election to Ronald Reagan, who smiled and waved and offered platitudes about restoring the broken American spirit as his combination of tax cuts and military spending produced grievous budget deficits and ripped the social safety net to shreds. Maryland, for the record, went for Carter in 1980.

Americans have often responded to magical thinking when it’s dished up by their political leaders. We still demand premium government services while resisting higher taxes. We become numb to extraordinary rates of gun violence — far greater here then in any other western country — because to do otherwise would clash with some fantastic notion of liberty.

We accept public health outcomes that would embarrass many third world backwaters. Our racial disparities are a disgrace. We bellyache when gasoline prices rise above $2 a gallon, interfering with our god-given right to cruise around in gas guzzlers — the next generation can worry about climate change.

And so the coronavirus rages. And our president and his administration officials offer no guidance on wearing masks, or staying away from crowds, or taking any other steps to protect ourselves and the public health, because doing so would deny us our freedoms.

It was surely enjoyable to be on vacation, because we all needed some down time. But what we witnessed was really unnerving.

Are you thinking about going on vacation? Are you looking for a good beach read, a fascinating, thought-provoking read wherever you are?

It is now 41 years and one month since Jimmy Carter delivered his so-called malaise speech, also known as his “crisis of confidence” speech. It was delivered in the midst of a national energy crisis, and Carter made it after spending 10 days away from the White House, conferring with an array of political leaders and policy experts — and even with normal citizens — about what was ailing the country.

Carter’s speech was panned by critics — characterized as too negative, too weak, too preachy, too alarmist. It, as much as anything, helped pave the way for Reagan’s landslide victory a little over a year later.

But in retrospect, it was really extraordinary — honest and prescient. And it’s worth a look today.

“We are at a turning point in our history,” Carter said about halfway through the speech. “There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”

Carter then laid out a long list of policy proposals to help the U.S. move away from its dependence on foreign oil. These included major investments in renewable energy and public transit. He wanted to cut utility companies’ reliance on oil by 50%. He called for energy conservation by every American — and for stronger environmental protections. He called on the government to bolster programs that provide assistance for poor families to pay their energy bills.

“We often think of conservation only in terms of sacrifice,” the president said. “In fact, it is the most painless and immediate way of rebuilding our nation’s strength. Every gallon of oil each one of us saves is a new form of production. It gives us more freedom, more confidence, that much more control over our own lives.”

Moments later, Carter spoke even more frankly.

“I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy,” he said. “I do not promise a quick way out of our nation’s problems, when the truth is that the only way out is an all-out effort.”

Imagine if Jimmy Carter, calling for modest sacrifices from the American people, had been reelected in 1980. Everyone who’s now talking about American exceptionalism could perhaps be pointing to U.S. leadership on renewable energy, on a sustainable economy.

Instead, we’re still having the same debates over energy policy that Carter tried to initiate four decades ago — as we lead the world in coronavirus cases and deaths. Congratulations, America.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.