Jimmy Carter: The American Franchise

Jimmy Carter: The American Franchise

Although Jimmy Carter helped to restore faith in government after the Nixon Watergate debacle and the Ford pardon, during his presidency the authority of government declined. More Americans than ever before believed that government was being run for large interests not the common good, that America was on the wrong track, and that leaders in Washington were not interested in their problems. Carter himself was the major part of the problem.

Public Cynicism and Small Gains

Pollster Pat Caddell's own surveys for Carter showed that public cynicism about the government was at an all-time high. Half of the American people were pessimistic about the future, compared with only 30 percent in 1975. Those optimistic had declined from 47 to 21 percent. Many Americans thought it made no difference who got elected to office. Most felt that the government was not paying attention to them. Yet Carter's political position was precarious. Cadell told Carter that in polling samples, "More people believe you to be ineffective than effective, wishy washy than decisive, not in control than in control." Cadell further reported, "Concern for people has declined, as has the belief that you take on tough issues, even if they are unpopular. The half leg of competence is gone entirely." The news got worse: "By two to one margins, the electorate believes you unable to take charge of the government and unable to reorganize the government."The voter turnout in 1976 was distressingly low, just 54 percent of registered voters. Many people, still disgusted with government's missteps in the era, stayed home. In 1978 midterm elections turnout was also down from its historical patterns.

The only real sign of change was that in 1980, more women voted than men for the first time. By 1976, there were 4,300 African American elected officials in America—a fourfold increase from a decade before. In its time, the Carter administration featured an unprecedented inclusion of women and minorities, including four cabinet posts and the United Nations ambassador.

Negative Socio-economic Trends

The Carter years saw a continuation of a number of negative trends for quality of life in America. The marriage rate declined, the illegitimate birth rate and the abortion rate increased, the crime rate skyrocketed, and drug use increased markedly among the young. These negative social trends were associated with growing income inequality. The Carter years mark the beginning of the "deindustrialization" of America, which for the next fifteen years, would see downsizing of the skilled workforces in American factories, as jobs moved to lower-wage nations in Latin America and Asia. There was a sharp increase in income inequality: the top fifth of American families, headed by managerial and professional breadwinners, increased their incomes. The bottom fifth saw incomes decline. Especially hard hit would be young people, who in the late 1970s found it increasingly difficult to get good entry level jobs, or indeed any jobs at all.

With inflation moving into double-digit range, interest rates on consumer goods and mortgages moving in the same range, and productivity and growth of the gross national product declining, America was entering into an era of "stagflation." This was the worst of all possible worlds (barring depression), in which low growth was combined with high inflation. The poor and elderly were hardest hit of all. It seemed by the end of the Carter presidency that for the first time since the Great Depression, the American Dream was foreclosed for the rural and urban poor (now referred to as the "underclass"). Young working and middle class families would never be able to live as well as their parents.