In the aftermath of Watergate, Vietnam, the impeachment of Richard Nixon, routine economic shocks, and the upheavals and violence of the late 1960s onward, the United States desperately needed a reset in 1976. The man Americans turned to that year was Jimmy Carter.
Regardless of Carter’s ultimate performance in office, his presidential campaign is a useful touchstone for what resonated with Americans as a viable path forward after years of chaos and government by vengeance.
Carter began by discussing King’s legacy, and what King meant to him as a southerner. He then appealed to the unachieved promise of America, before launching into a clear and direct vision he sees for America:
The America we long for is still out there, somewhere ahead of us, waiting for us to find her.
For all our progress, we still live in a land held back by oppression and injustice.
The few who are rich and powerful still make the decisions, and the many who are poor and weak must suffer the consequences. If those in power make mistakes, it is not they or their families who lose their jobs or go on welfare or lack medical care or go to jail.
We still have poverty in the midst of plenty.
We still have far to go. We must give our government back to our people. The road will not be easy.
But we still have the dream, Martin Luther King’s dream and your dream and my dream. The America we long for is still out there, somewhere ahead of us, waiting for us to find her.
I see an America poised not only at the brink of a new century, but at the dawn of a new era of honest, compassionate, responsive government.
I see an American government that has turned away from scandals and corruption and official cynicism and finally become as decent as our people.
I see an America with a tax system that does not steal from the poor and give to the rich.
I see an America with a job for every man and woman who can work, and a decent standard of living for those who cannot.
I see an America in which my child and your child and every child receives an education second to none in the world.
I see an American government that does not spy on its citizens or harass its citizens, but respects your dignity and your privacy and your right to be let alone.
I see an American foreign policy that is firm and consistent and generous, and that once again is a beacon for the hopes of the world.
I see an American President who does not govern by vetoes and negativism, but with vigor and vision and affirmative leadership, a President who is not isolated from our people, but feels their pain and shares their dreams and takes his strength from them.
I see an America in which Martin Luther King’s dream is our national dream.
I see an America on the move again, united, its wounds healed, its head high, a diverse and vital nation, moving into its third century with confidence and competence and compassion, an America that lives up to the majesty of its Constitution and the simple decency of its people.
This is the America that I see, and that I am committed to as I run for President.
Carter argued that America deserves a government that lives up to the best of the country’s promise and character. He envisioned a new administration that roots out corruption and unwinds a system rigged for the rich. He vowed to pursue the dreams of employment for all and high-quality education for every child. He promised to be a positive force for American society and government—one in touch with the pain, dreams, and strength of the American people.
It’s a utopian vision, as all progressive visions must be. Progressives wish to improve society to achieve the promise of America. Implicit in that wish is faith that those ideals and values can be achieved by flawed, mortal human beings. The inherent hope and optimism in that faith must be reflected in the vision and speeches of progressive leaders.
Former Obama White House aide David Axelrod has a theory that presidential incumbents are consistently replaced by their polar opposites. “Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have,” Axelrod wrote. “They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.” The “grandfatherly” Dwight Eisenhower was replaced by the young, vibrant John F. Kennedy. The cool-headed, cerebral Barack Obama replaced the trust-your-gut, down-home George W. Bush. Obama in turn was replaced by the antagonistic, emotion-driven Donald Trump.
In the dark, chaotic days of the Trump administration, voters may again seek an opposite come 2020. After a presidency defined by cynicism, bellicosity, trenching division, and resentment, Americans may look for the opposite: a politics of hope, love, and optimism. A spin on the forward-looking politics offered by past progressives like Carter and Obama.
Carter’s speech was titled “The Power of Love.” And in 1976, Perlstein writes, “people yearned to believe.” They may yearn again come 2020. Donald Trump has offered a fundamentally negative vision—of American carnage and a crippled America.
Progressives must be prepared to counter this vision by explaining the hope they see for America. They must paint a vision for American voters — one that doesn’t react to Trumpism, but that transcends it entirely. The power of anger can only be vanquished by the power of love.