Posted by: ericgrimsrud | August 7, 2017

Pandering versus scolding in politics

Over the last half century, we have witnessed the universal triumph of pandering over badly needed straight-talk in all of our Presidential elections. This trend was firmly set in the election year of 1980 when the incumbent Jimmy Carter was running against Ronald Reagan. Because of the Middle Eastern oil embargo of that period, the USA was struggling to meet its energy demands. This prompted President Carter to gave his famous “malaise speech” in which he provided an unusually frank and somber assessment of the problem. The speech is well worth listening to again and can be seen at

While his speech squarely addressed that energy crisis, it went beyond this specific issue by addressing the basic character of the American public. It showcased Carter, the deeply religious Babtist, as the nation’s “minister-in-chief”, beginning with self-flagellation as he recounted criticism of his leadership, and then addressed what he believed to be a growing loss of confidence by the public in its nation’s institutions and leaders.

I thought both then and now that Carter’s speech was as excellent and appropriate as it was unusual. While the speech did immediately generate some positive feedback, its longer-term effect was in the opposite direction as soon became clear. Ronald Reagan, with his sunny optimism, was successful at portraying Carter as the nation’s “scolder-in-chief” who was too willing to blame Americans for the nation’s ills. Although polling suggested that many Americans’ views on the issues were closer to Carter’s than to Reagan’s, that did not prevent Reagan from winning that election. Americans liked the pandering he provided more than Carter’s appeal to our sense of responsibility. Upon arriving at the White House, Reagan immediately removed Carter’s symbolic solar panels from its roof and encouraged Americans to buy more gas-guzzling vehicles.

When Reagan then went on to be reelected in a landslide against another straight-talking Democrat named Walter Mondale – by campaigning on an “It’s morning again in America” theme – the die was cast. At that critical point with respect to our country’s policies on energy, the USA turned backwards towards the simplistic and environmentally flawed views of the ’50’s.

Mindful of the purported lesson of Carter’s “malaise” speech, no successful national candidate ever again made the mistake of speaking so candidly, and in such critical tones, about the American people – even if such criticism is absolutely true and desperately needed. Instead, candidates on the hustle are much more likely to take a page from the Reagan playbook by emphasizing the indomitable American spirit, can-do work ethic, etc., while ignoring the tough bits related to reality. Woe to any candidate who slips up and leaves himself open to the charge that Americans might be at fault for anything.

Subsequent repetitions of this behavior are numerous. For example, in the election year of 1992 the incumbent, George H. W. Bush, was running against the upstart Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Clinton had won the nomination of the Democratic party by unmatched pandering against a cast of seasoned Democrats including Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas, Tom Harkin and Bob Kerry. Clinton promised to take care of all the country’s several serious problems, including our health care systems for all ages, our decaying infrastructure, our military obligations, and our increasing national debt, all without raising taxes. The liberal wing of that party loved what he said in spite of its improbability and viewed him as their Messiah who could end the 12-year Republican domination of the White House. President George W. was still basking in the glow of Desert Storm, a well-managed push-back against the military exploits of Iraq’s Sadam Hussain in Kuwait. But that support vanished in a flash when he also responded to the increasing national debt that had accrued during his and Reagan’s terms – thus going back on his infamous “read my lips – no new taxes” pledge. For this bit of straight, responsible and wise action, he lost the enthusiasm of his own party and Bill Clinton was elected.

The most blatant example of successful pandering by a Presidential candidate, however, must surly go to our current President, Donald Trump. His use of it, mixed in with generous doses of ignorance, deception, falsehoods, and “alternate realities”, brought him – instead of a vastly more experienced opponent who lacked her husband’s knack for pandering – to the White House. President Trump has to be the most outrageous example of an ill-prepared person ever voted into the US Presidency by a gullible, pander-loving, citizenry and there is no one to blame but ourselves for the present chaotic state of affairs this has created in Washington DC.

In considering the future, one wonders whether it might not finally be time to avoid the panderers within our political system. Aren’t we now in deep enough “do-do” as to finally follow the few politicians that talk straight about the real issues before us? Isn’t our national debt now high enough to merit such straight talk? Shouldn’t our health care system finally be made adequate to ensure that any American’s illness need not constitute the end of his or her financial wellbeing? And isn’t our current state of global warming sufficient to merit our full attention and strong action?

In trying to envision the type of leaders we need in order to begin moving in the right directions, I recommend that you listen again to Carter’s speech referenced above and consider the distinct possibility that the reason his ideas were not roundly accepted and acted upon in 1980 had everything to do with the recipients of that speech and their fatal preference for pandering over straight talk. Thus, it appears to me that, yes, we do need another leader of Jimmy Carter’s ilk today but even more importantly, we need a voting public of grown-ups who can handle and respond to a very well-deserved dose of scolding.

When the “Greatest Generation” (that Tom Brokaw wrote about) responded to the realities their era – that is, the Great Depression and WWII – I am sure that generation had in mind the future of all American generations to follow and not just ours. Isn’t it time for our generation to recognize that “it’s not all about us” and endeavor to leave behind a better world for further generations?  For that purpose, I hope that the Democrats can do better in 2018 than offer just another “better deal” and that the Republicans will think about more than just cutting taxes. We are in desperate need of leaders who can raise the consciousness of Americans above the superficial and immediate. While some might laugh at that notion, others believe that we are “an exceptional” nation capable of doing great things. The present moment of political chaos in Washington DC might provide an excellent opportunity for making needed changes in our priorities and attitudes along the lines recommended by Jimmy Carter almost 40 years ago.



  1. Nice piece, Eric. However, I think you might also want to address the reason why Americans so welcome pandering to selfishness, and why they once chafed at Carter’s scolding. Namely, that older and rural Americans had recently endured prolonged scolding and disillusionment during the Civil Rights struggle, the Vietnam mistake and the Watergate debacle–along with the rise of secular, diversity-embracing urban culture that questioned religion and patriarchy. By the late 1970s the country was full of grumpy white racists and traditionalists trying to regain their lost status, especially in the Southeast, so they were easy prey for appeals to selfishness. They still are.

    “6 Reasons why U.S. Paris Reversal Won’t Detail Climate Progress”
    — National Geographic
    Look for the positives. Change has to work with the economy.
    Regulations won’t stop coal but economics will and apparently are.

  3. Dave,

    A major reason why coal use has decreased is because fracking has increased the availability of and decreased the cost of natural gas and oil, both of which are also fossil fuels – causing our atmospheric CO2 levels to continue to increase – now at a greater than ever rate. Look up the Keeling Curse (background CO2 levels since 1958). It and the corresponding increases in other greenhouse gasses such as methane provide the only legitimate “score card” of how we are doing. For those that are looking for the “positives” derived from our economy and not regulations, it is good that we at least have some “talk” in articles like the one you referred to. Unfortunately, such articles are poor score cards relative to the Keeling Curve. We need some drastic changes and our natural economy which you have such high hopes for isn’t going to do the job in the time we have left for successful corrective action – in my humble opinion. Stiff carbon taxes and regulations will be necessary.


  4. Let’s build more nuclear power plants. High costs, sure — but what is driving up the costs? Regulations driven by politics? I live 20 miles from a nuclear power plant. Please, what should be my concern? Where is the truth on nuclear energy? Stiff carbon taxes and regulations may not be necessary. Add nuclear to the “green” energy mix and maybe the public will listen. Be truthful.
    No pandering to the anti-nuclear folks. You know this country can fight climate change by adding more nuclear power. If I recall, Dr. James Hansen is okay with nuclear power. God damn it. Agree with me. I’m your brother.

    • Dave,

      I do agree that we need nuclear power plants, but also much more. Nuclear is for generating electricity for our grid. We also need to stop fossil fuel use for other things, such as transportation. All of these will come on board only if we put a stiff tax on fossil fuel use. The low hanging fruit here is changes to our lifestyles. While inconvenient, we know they will work.

      Next week we are attending a golf scramble at St. Olaf College so that their basketball players can go to Europe next summer. Crazy us! Do we think there are good and ethical CO2 emissions versus the bad ones we talk about. Some of these problems will only be solved by a still C tax. The nuclear plants you support will not save the lifestyle you hope will continue. The StO bb team and their choir and their study abroad students could get to Europe and other distant places on a ship which can be powered by nuclear. But of course they want to get the Europe and back quickly. So they and millions like them will continue to fly in ff-driven jets.

      We need leaders who can talk straight about these things rather than simply pander their way around the inconvenient points. Its much too late to think that Business as Usual, even with nuclear, is going to do the job.

      BaU even with nuclear has to be stopped. Because you are my brother, I guess you are supposed to agree.


  5. We can leapfrog nuclear power according to the recent study results presented to Secretary Perry by his own agency. Grid stability was shown to be unaffected by a massive scale-up of solar and wind energy in the US and will be unaffected by further alternative energy in the mix. The old dogma that solar and wind won’t produce reliable full time power is now proven to be a dead dogma by the Perry’s own reliable professional staff and their work is likely to be buried by him in favor of more alternative facts to be served up to the US voting body of citizens. No truth in government is bad government. We don’t need more nuclear power now. As the IEA says, it is needed in some other countries, but not here.

    “Who killed nuclear power?” Good article. Lots of details. It there is will, we’ll learn from this history and do better next time.

  7. Straight talk is desperately needed, but given that a straight talker is unlikely to be elected, the honesty about current problems would have to come from somewhere else. Politicians watch their poll numbers, media count their readérs or viewers, and companies count their money. No-one really counts and almost all of us are heading for a future Hall of Shame. With regard to health care in the US, well people will suffer and die prematurely. But climate change is a problem of a different magnitude and for that we have to come up with solutions to the communication and lethargy problem. Democracy has survived the healthcare issue, but it is not obvious that it will survive climate change when nature finally slam humanity and its incomptence. Let us acknowledge that Trump is a victory for the will of the people, but an absolute failure for informed governance.

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