Big Think Interview With Jimmy Carter

Question: Why has America led the world in innovation for so many decades?

Jimmy Carter: Well America has always been a country of innovation and dynamism, entrepreneurship. And I think that one of the things that has made our country great too is its heterogeneous population where people come here from all over the world. And quite often, the people who do leave their own nation and come to an unknown destination, like the United States, are inherently adventurous, so we’ve had that adventurous spirit that has embedded itself collectively in the American consciousness.

I think all of those factors combined have made it possible for us to be in the forefront of change, social change as we had to accommodate people from different societies and different religions and so forth, and also changes that have taken place in innovative science because America has had the best university system in the world for a long time. And so we have been innovators, not only in the discoveries as proven by Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics and that sort of thing, but we’ve been able to put that into practical application with new gadgets that people admire.

Question: Is America falling behind?

Jimmy Carter: We’ve had a serious problem in our country in recent, I’d say few decades, in becoming more inclined toward consumption and gratification on how much we own, rather than having a spirit of innovation and dynamism and producing new products. It was in the 1970s that our nation first became a consumer nation, that is, we bought from foreigners more than we sold to foreigners. And increasingly, that has been a blight on our economic system—increasingly every year. And now we have an enormous trade deficit, that is we buy from foreign nations, particularly China and others, a lot more than we sell them. And it means that they are producing the products that we use. And we used to be the main producer of goods to be sold to our competitive nations that were fairly well off, in particular to the countries that were very poor. That’s changed now.

So I think we’ve lost the competitive edge that we had a number of years ago.

Question: Has America failed to adequately address the problems you laid out in your 1979 "crisis of confidence" speech? —Asked by Aaron Parr

Jimmy Carter: The main subject of my talk was oil, and while I was in office we passed a massive legislation that reversed that trend, we reduced all imports from 8.5 million barrels a day to less than half that in just five years, but now we almost doubled what we had to begin with. So we’re still heavily dependent on other nations for not only goods, but also money. Now every time we spend a dollar that we don’t have, we have to borrow 40 cents of it, for instance, from the Chinese, to balance our budget just by going deeper and deeper in debt.

We’ve become increasingly addicted to consumption of goods that we don’t produce ourselves, and a lot of the manufacturing has gone overseas. And this is... in the last few years it’s been not just handwork products like shirts and shoes and clothing, but it’s become the advanced, cutting-edge technological products.

For instance, when I was in office, we had the pre-eminent position in the production of alternative sources of energy—windmills, and photovoltaic cells, things of that kind. Now that ascendancy has moved to China. China's the number one producer of new kinds of advanced photovoltaic cells, for instanced. And they are the number one producers of advanced windmills to utilize the power from the sun and directed through the wind. So we’ve lost that edge that we used to have in scientific innovation applications to goods to be sold. In many ways, that is also changing in the electronic field. Almost all of the materials that we use now are of advanced technology, I have an iPad and also an iPod, both of which are made in China. Although we have designed them here with Apple, for instance, they are manufactured overseas.

Question: Is the country ready for a gay President?

Jimmy Carter: Well I think the entire population of America has come tremendous strides forward in dealing with the issue of gays. And I would say that the answer is yes. I don’t know about the next election, but I think in the near future. Because step-by-step we have realized that this issue of homosexuality has the same adverse and progressive elements as when we dealt with the race issue 50 years ago... or 40 years ago. So I would say that the country is getting acclimated to a President who might be female, who might obviously, now be black and who might be as well, a gay person. Yes, I would say the answer is, yes.

Question: What was your biggest failure as a President, and what did you learn from it?

Jimmy Carter: I guess my biggest failure was not getting re-elected. And I learned two things; one is that you ought not to ever let American hostages be held for 444 days in a foreign country without extracting them. I did the best I could, but I failed.

And I think another lesson I learned is, I should have paid more attention to the organization of the Democratic Party. I was not only the leader of our nation, but I was also the leader of the Democratic Party. And I think I failed in that respect to keep the party united. It was divided in my reelection campaign between me and the people who were loyal to Ted Kennedy and then that cost me a lot of votes. So those were the two things that I believe could have been done better.

Question: What could President Obama learn from your presidency?

Jimmy Carter: Well I would say quickly, that in a midterm election I had great success. We wound up after the election in 1978 with a majority of 19 in the Senate and a majority of 100 in the House. So we had a very good success with that. But I think that what is likely to happen in the next two years, I hope, is for President Obama to be much more firm in letting his specific views be known and then adhering to his commitments through thick or thin. I think in his last two years, he’s been faced with a totally irresponsible Republican Party that have given him on major issues sometimes zero votes in the House and in the U.S. Senate. And I think he’s tried maybe too much to maybe get a few of those Republican votes, which have now proved to be impossible.

In the days when I was President, I had superb support from the Republican Party in the House and Senate and that gave me a chance to have a very good success in my batting average with the Congress.

So, just stick to his guns, be firm and let the American people know what he wants quite without equivocation and without doubt and don’t back down. I’m sure those are the things he’s going to do in the next two years.

Question: Given that you brokered some of the most successful Mideast peace agreements, do you have any suggestions for resolving the Israel and Palestine situation once and for all? —Asked by Sarah Wildman

Jimmy Carter: Well, when I left office, we had an agreement, a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, not a word of which has been violated. And we had an agreement with the Israelis to withdraw from their occupied territories in the West Bank and also later, the idea was for them to withdraw from Syria and also from Lebanon. Unfortunately, in the last 25 years, no progress has been made on those issues that depend upon Israel’s willingness to withdraw from occupied territories. And I don’t think peace is possible until that comes. Of course, the other aspect of that is to make sure that the Israelis know that if they do withdraw from the West Bank, from East Jerusalem, from Syria and from Lebanon, that their security and their integrity as a nation will be preserved with safety.

So that’s been the quandary in which we have wallowed in a way for the last 25 years, and my hope is that we will make some progress in the near future.

Question: What role will China play in the 21st century?

Jimmy Carter: Well China changed in many ways because of a decision I made to normalize diplomatic relations between the United States and China after 35 years of estrangement, yet at the same time China announced on December 15, 1978, they also announced they would have a complete reform within China and in China’s relationship with the outside world. And so since that date, January 1, 1979, China has expanded its freedom within its country and also has been very aggressive in their foreign policy.

So now no matter where you go in the world in any country in Africa or Latin America and other place, you will find that China is very deeply involved in the affairs of that country. So China, I think, is now destined to be one of the great powers, not only in trade and commerce, they have now exceeded Japan in that respect, but also a great power in international affairs. And I don’t believe that China, in my lifetime or maybe my children’s lifetime, be equal to the United States militarily speaking, but they are very careful to avoid any engagement in war, they are basically a peaceful country, which gives them another advantage over the United States when we are much more inclined to go to war for various reasons.

So, China is going to be a competitor in the future, I hope it will be a friendly relationship between the United States and China.

Question: What does it take to be a good husband?

Jimmy Carter: Well, I think a good husband for one thing has to depend on having a good wife and I was lucky enough to choose the right woman and we were married more than 64 years ago. Rosalynn and I have run into a few things, first of all, we give each other plenty of space. We don’t try to encroach on the private affairs of each other. Rosalynn has her own major commitments outside of home and so do I. We cooperate whenever we can, we share delightful aspects of life like fly-fishing and bird watching and things of that kind. And also we made a commitment a large number of years ago not ever to go to sleep at night estranged. If we do have some arguments during the day, we have almost a commitment before God that we will resolve that argument before we go to sleep. So I think those are the reasons we’ve been able to enjoy each other’s company all this time.

Recorded November 30, 2010
Interviewed by Andrea Useem

A conversation with the 39th President of the United States.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.