This is far from the first time that America has faced a worrisome future. In many ways, the economic uncertainty and looming international threats mirror those of 1980. At the time, the country was facing high unemployment, rising inflation, a lurking menace in the Soviet Union, and incredible tension with Iran, which had taken 50 Americans captive.
These threats compounded the growing sense that America was stuck in a state of unease that would be difficult to shake.
“In a way, the malaise in the country had been going on for 17 years going back to the assassination of JFK in November of 1963,” Craig Shirley, who wrote a biography of Ronald Reagan, told NBC News. “We’d had one president cut down by an assassin’s bullet, one president resigned because he had contempt for the constitution, a failed presidency in Lyndon Johnson, the first time America had ever lost a war, and then you had the cultural decline of the 1970s.”
The president at the time, Jimmy Carter, was clearly beaten down by the events. In a speech now-infamous for its negativity, Carter argued that America was suffering from a crisis of confidence.
“Carter said people were in a malaise,” Ed Meese, Reagan’s campaign manager told NBC News, referring to the speech. “Ronald Reagan’s idea was that the people aren’t in a malaise, the leaders are in a malaise. One of his objectives was to revive the spirit of the American people.”
Reagan’s preternatural optimism was so apparent and so sincere that Americans, who were desperate for a hopeful vision of the country they loved, swept him into office. He did not disappoint.
“We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we’re in a time when there are not heroes, they just don’t know where to look,” Reagan said in his inaugural address. “You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and they’re on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They’re individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.”
Unfortunately, such optimism is hard to come by right now. Our politics have become divisive, the chasm between party lines growing ever wider. Our debates have become shouting matches in echo chambers, where we only listen to the like-minded. And our politicians are too often incentivized to oppose ideas rather than propose new ones.
It should come as no surprise then that American’s faith in government is hovering near all times low, that our trust in U.S. institutions is waning fast, and that young adults are turning to alternative ways to influence society outside of the political system.
It’s not too late to change that course.
In a much anticipated speech to hundreds of new interns on Capitol Hill, House speaker Paul Ryan laid out vision for a forward-looking, idea-generating, opportunity-focused party.
“Ideas, passionately promoted and put to the test—that’s what politics can be.That’s what our country can be,” Ryan argued. “It can be a confident America, where we have a basic faith in politics and leaders. It can be a place where we’ve earned that faith. All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of “our base” and “their base,” we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold.”
Ryan was introduced by Elise Stefanik, a 31-year-old congresswoman from upstate New York, who is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. And he chose to give the important speech not to a room full of party elites, or the press, or in front of the House of Representatives. Instead, he opted to talk to interns, almost all of which were in their early 20s and came of age in the Obama era.
“It almost sounds like I’m speaking of another time, doesn’t it?” Ryan told the audience. “It sounds like a scene unfamiliar to your generation.”
A true statement that only reiterates the need to revive that noble notion of politics.
“Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults. It can be about solutions. It can be about making a difference. It can be about always striving to do better. That’s what it can be and what it should be. This is the system our Founders envisioned. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It’s infuriating at times. And it’s a beautiful thing too,” Ryan concluded.
But it will take more Ryan-style optimism to make anything resembling beautiful again.