The Politics of Despair
Jude Wanniski
August 16, 2002


Memo To: SSU students
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Politics of Despair

This week, for a change of pace, I've picked out an ancient editorial that I wrote for The Wall Street Journal in early 1976, "The Politics of Despair." It is about the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination that year and was written early in the primary season. As you will see, it has an early flavor of "supply-side economics," the phrase I had coined a year earlier, which was not yet in general use. As it turned out, of course, Jimmy Carter did go on to win the nomination and the presidency, defeating the incumbent Republican Jerry Ford. In the fall election, Carter actually sounded like a supply-sider, denouncing the federal tax system as "a disgrace to the human race," and promising to lift the price controls on oil and gas that President Nixon had instituted to fight inflation. Upon his election, though, Carter did nothing about the tax system and reneged on his promise to price controls on energy. In 1976, remember, the conventional wisdom was that the world was running out of oil and gas, which was the reason so many thought was the cause of the high prices. Supply-siders of course knew that it was Nixon going off the gold standard that led to the great inflation.

* * * * *

The Wall Street Journal
February 23, 1976

The Politics of Despair

The unofficial word from the political handicappers is that out of the cluster of liberal Democrats running in New Hampshire, Rep. Morris K. ("Moe") Udall seems to be spurting ahead in the homestretch and should finish on the heels of Georgia's Jimmy Carter, who is a moderately liberal conservative Democrat. This makes sense to us, and indeed gives us a perspective from which to understand the whole spectrum in the race for the Democratic political nomination.

Mr. Udall is the logical candidate of the party's true left, for he best exemplifies the prevailing liberal ethos, expressed in what we think of as the politics of despair. The lanky Arizonan, who vies with Mr. Carter as the most amiable and personally pleasant of all the various contenders in their party, makes no bones about his belief that the year 1976 marks a divide in the history of civilization: Heretofore there was plenty and henceforth there will be less.

Thus Mr. Udall offers himself as the one political leader who can help the nation accommodate to this brooding period of declining resources and Malthusian population curves, a modern Dark Age. When a high school boy the other day asked him what distinguishes him from the rest of the field, his answer was that he is the only candidate discussing "the hard, tough facts about where this country is going" as its resources are being depleted.

On "Meet the Press" last month, he capsulated his campaign, declaring that the days of "cheap land, cheap timber, cheap resources, cheap everything" are over, and "the story of our lives is going to be how we are going to adapt to the end of that era." He proposes "to move us toward an era in which our lives are different, but our lives are going to be better. We are going to recycle, we are going to conserve energy, and we are going to bring the people down below the poverty line up, and we are going to have a just society where everyone pays fair taxes and we have national health insurance
and a lot of other things."

The politics of despair appeals to the liberal Democrats because, as Mr. Udall's rhetoric makes so clear, once you have written off growth you have to concentrate on the issue of wholesale income redistribution. This is a program to transfer power from the conservative wealthy elite to the liberal intellectual elite, which is to say, to the left wing of the Democratic Party: So our guess is that the liberals will recognize Mr. Udall as their man, since his the only Democratic contender to explicitly embrace a Club-of-Rome, doomsday, no-growth philosophy.

Now we do not believe the American people are yet quite ready to throw in the towel and abandon the American dream, and it will be a very tough job marketing political despair to the electorate at large. So even though the liberal wing will exert considerable clout at the national convention, the party will reach out for alternatives. Within the Democratic Party, the chief counterweights to the politics of despair are Mr. Carter and Hubert Humphrey, not to mention George Wallace. The three are all "growth" candidates, and the fact that they are all doing so well in the public-opinion polls reflects our belief that Americans as a whole do not accept the inevitability of an end to plenty.

Governor Wallace proposes more growth through less government. Senator Humphrey proposes more growth through more government, which is the "politics of joy" of the old liberalism. Mr. Carter, like President Ford an avowed pragmatist, proposes to have more growth through government more efficiently organized. The Carter approach is similar to President Nixon's New Federalism, but where Mr. Nixon sought economies through decentralization, Mr. Carter seeks economies through centralization. The true liberals will of course have nothing to do with Governor Wallace; even without the racist history and anti-elitist oratory, there is the likelihood that less government would in fact produce economic growth. Mr. Carter is unacceptable because he is soft on private enterprise and does not want to break up the oil companies. Thus he also presents some risk of actually producing growth. Mr. Udall clearly states that he does not want growth, but even true liberals know the odds are stacked against the election of a candidate selling out-and-out despair.

Which brings everyone back to Senator Humphrey. He can probably pull enough of the party together to get the nomination. Moderates will want to try one more time to produce growth through government planning and spending. The liberals can take comfort in the fact that this does not work, so that to them the politics of joy will be almost, if not quite, as good as the politics of despair.


The liberal Democratic line continues to fret about oil and gas, not that the world is running out of them. This was going to produce a new ice age on the planet. Now, there is too much of the stuff being consumed. The bogeyman is global warming. (Sigh)