Sociology and the Presidency

The current election season sparked me to reflect on the access (or lack thereof) to the ears of Presidents that sociologists have enjoyed over the past several decades.  It seems clear that sociologists’ Oval Office influence pales in comparison to the access wielded by economists.  Numerous economist-and-President pairings have become famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) – for instance, can you think of Arthur Laffer or Jude Wanniski without also thinking of Ronald Reagan?  If you’re searching for sociologists who have served as Presidential confidantes, the pickings are slimmer.  There is Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served as an advisor to Presidents of both parties and whose Washington connections helped ensure that his “Moynihan Report” on the African American family would become as famous (or – once again – infamous, depending on your point of view) as it did.

But the high-water mark of sociological influence on the Presidency may well have come in the summer of 1979.  The typical story of that period reads something like the following:  As the country grappled with high inflation and energy shortages, President Jimmy Carter delivered a speech diagnosing a national malaise, which fell flat and contributed to his eventual loss to Ronald Reagan.  In his 2009 book What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?  Jimmy Carter, America’s “Malaise,” and the Speech That Should Have Changed the Country, Ohio University Professor Kevin Mattson fills in some of the gaps in the story of the speech.  For starters, Carter never actually used the word “malaise.”  But beyond that, Mattson’s book illustrates the extent of sociological thinking’s influence on Carter in the weeks leading up to the speech.

In an attempt to take the pulse of the nation and investigate his hunch that the nation’s troubles ran deeper than long lines at gas stations, the President met with dozens of academics, religious leaders, political figures, and ordinary Americans, as well as his own pollsters and advisors.  I took particular interest in Mattson’s references to Carter’s meetings with Robert Bellah and Christopher Lasch.  Bellah, a sociologist from the Univeristy of California at Berkeley, advised Carter to speak uncomfortable truths to the public about the decay of the bonds that held them together.  Americans had once shared a sort of “national covenant” – a commitment to one another that transcended self-interest.  By the 1970s, Mattson describes Bellah as telling the President, this covenant had eroded into a “contract model” of society that facilitated the growth of narcissism.  This trend toward selfishness was further discussed in Carter’s conversations with Christopher Lasch.  While he was not a sociologist by trade, Lasch and his book The Culture of Narcissism, a surprise bestseller in 1979, have long received considerable attention in sociological circles.  Intriguingly, Mattson describes Lasch as cautioning Carter that a discussion of the need for sacrifice might fall on deaf ears in light of increasing public cynicism. 

Ultimately, on July 15th, 1979, Carter gave a speech in which the themes Bellah and Lasch had discussed figured prominently.  Carter appeared to hope that Lasch had been wrong about the way the public would react to a call for sacrifice on behalf of the common good.  The President spoke of a crisis of confidence that he saw sweeping the land and the renewed public commitments that would be needed to overcome it.  In other words, he exhibited more confidence in the ability of the American people to acknowledge and respond to Laschian concerns than did Lasch himself.  Among the President’s words were the following:

“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.  We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose” (quoted in Mattson 2009:  211).

So then what happened?  Another valuable contribution of Mattson’s book is its discrediting of the notion that the speech was an immediate disaster.  On the contrary, the public response was initially positive.  In time, however, a number of factors would contribute to the collapse of both Carter’s standing with the public and the resonance of his speech.  For one, Carter squandered much of the immediate momentum from the speech by orchestrating a purge of his Cabinet in the following days.  More fundamentally, however, the American public was unsure exactly how to go about addressing the crisis of confidence.  The most appealing response, offered by Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, proved to be the rejection of the entire concept of a decaying national covenant.  In Reagan’s eyes, according to Mattson, the American covenant required little in the way of sacrifice.  On the contrary, the pursuit of self-interest was to be celebrated and encouraged.

What lessons, then, do Carter’s speech and Mattson’s account of it hold for sociology?  I believe that the initially positive reaction to Carter’s speech suggests that a President can stand to gain from bringing sociology to the masses.  The juxtaposition of the positive response to the speech and Carter’s eventual loss to Reagan and his message of unabashed individualism points to a duality of American civic culture.  We value individualism, yet strive for something beyond ourselves. 

At the same time, we should also acknowledge that the variety of sociology that speaks of a “national covenant” is but one of many.  Who gets to define this national covenant?  Who has the right to try to change it?  It seems possible that the negotiation and maintenance of a national covenant could take place under the terms of those with the most power in our society – Whites, men, heterosexuals, and so forth.  The thicket of these debates is familiar terrain for sociologists, but the complexity is perhaps indicative of why Presidents have generally been reluctant to engage with the discipline.  Better to just tell everyone to go shopping.


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