Carter was first on his father's side to finish high school. His home was in Populism's stronghold, rural red-dirt Georgia. He shared the moral values of religion and southern culture. He was a southern populist, progressive, and Baptist. He claimed that the people were his strength and that his decisions had to have the backing of the people. He wanted to deserve their support, to be seen as worthy in their eyes. He attempted whenever possible to be close to the people—physically, emotionally, and culturally.
Rhetorically, he was grounded in populism. When he ran for governor in 1971 he attacked privilege and power and called for justice for the poor, weak, black, or rural. Running for president in 1974, he attacked ivory-tower government and business tax breaks. At the Democratic convention in 1976 he attacked elite domination of the economy and the political system and called for national health care. He even self-identified as a populist.
At the same time, he was a technocrat. In his first office, state senator, he was a cost-conscious liberal. His bywords were competence and compassion. As governor, he pleased business with government reforms and moderate taxes. When he chose the strongly liberal Walter Mondale as his vice-presidential running mate, Republican Bob Dole described Carter as a liberal in conservative attire, a southern-fried George McGovern or Hubert Humphrey.
Carter's technocratic side fought with his populist ideals. He believed that the people would make the right decision, or follow it, if the decision was reached openly. Carter did not understand that sometimes people cannot make the right decision because of socioeconomic or other compelling situations.
He ran on the anti-Washington mood that was prevalent after the Watergate scandal, calling for a Jacksonian return of government to the people. Yet Carter was more talk than action, and his administration enacted little in the way of reform. The pious Sunday school teacher who wanted to restore faith in government instead began to roll back the welfare state, began the defense buildup carried on by Ronald Reagan, gave corporations tax breaks and lighter regulation, and weakened unions. During his term, wealth began concentrating in the hands of a few, average living standards stagnated, and the United States began arming and backing tyrants in Indonesia, Iran, and elsewhere.
Throughout his presidency (1976–1980), Carter was the outsider, the populist everyman, the representative citizen. His populism was in his technique and rhetoric rather than in his ideology or platform. He never articulated any specific goals but merely assumed that the right process—the open and moral approach—would inevitably lead to the right outcome. He preached a messianic message of lowered expectations and postimperial humility.
Leaders without vision lack followers. Carter lost to conservative populist Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since his retirement from public office, Carter's populist vision has flowered in his work with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds houses for the poor. He has also become a writer and a statesman-errant, helping to broker international peace deals beyond the scope of government agency.
John H Barnhill
See also: Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Democratic Party ; Reagan, Ronald, Populist Rhetoric of
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