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43 years ago, Carter addressed national malaise. Have 'unprecedented times' driven us there again?

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

High gas prices are shown in Los Angeles, Thursday, June 16, 2022.

To many, we’re living through unprecedented bad times.

Inflation’s higher than it’s been since 1981. Gas prices are a big part of that. We’re still living with the remnants of a pandemic that killed more than a million Americans.

Through congressional hearings, we’re seeing just how divided the country is; and lots of people are losing faith in the ability of everyday Americans to make common sense choices, to be smart enough to separate truth from lies.

The truth is, this isn’t unprecedented.

Forty-three years ago this month, President Jimmy Carter gave what become known as his “ malaise speech." He urged people to find happiness, but "not through mindless self-indulgence and unrestrained consumerism."

Little by little we can and we must rebuild our confidence. We can spend until we empty our treasuries, and we may summon all the wonders of science. But we can succeed only if we tap our greatest resources -- America's people, America's values, and America's confidence.

That speech provided an immediate boost to the president and buoyed national sentiment — for a while.

But does it also provide us, today, with hope? With a mental roadmap, a blueprint of how to heal a divided nation, a divided state?

"I think there's a certain amount of tribalism that has kind of balkanized us in a way," said DeRionne Pollard, president of Nevada State College. "It has placed us in a way that doesn't allow us to have a shared experience because you 'either/or' everything. So either you are a red state or blue state, you are a Republican or a Democrat, you are rich or or you're poor, you are a consumer or you are a saver. Everything is about these kinds of binary oppositions that exists simply because we say we're complete opposites of each other."

She said we need to get back to a place of shared commonalities and a belief structure that would allow pathways back to each other. It's looking at varying perspectives and considering how they all have value.

"We've gotten so vitriolic where we've become so violent in a way that we have to create intentional spaces," she said.

Longtime politics reporter and editor Steve Sebelius echoed that:

"We have politicians who have discovered the way to raise money, to win, is to divide the base," said Sebelius. "People give money. It works. Inflaming the base -- one against the other -- works in order to raise money. ... It creates these divisions that then make governing impossible."

Rabbi Sanford Akselrad said the key is finding ways to work together.

"And that will give us hope," he said. "There's always opportunity if someone wants to effect change in a positive way. When we reach out to other people, it does something that lifts not only them, but lifts ourselves."

How many of us have gotten to know our neighbors? He asked. He applied that on a political scale:

"When we elect leaders who reflect that ideal, will reward them, for not only reaching across the aisle, but for looking for solutions, and not just pointing at the problems that were caused by 'the other guy.'"

What's beneficial for communities like Las Vegas to heal, Pollard said, is Nevada's "pioneering spirit." She said the melting pot of Las Vegas provides an opportunity. 

"I would challenge us to think about how we move from this kind of navel-gazing that occurs when you are in the echo chambers of people who think like you, look like you, love like you, experience the same things as you, and think about what you can do. And two ways with that in terms of strengths, one, we need to make the private more public and the public more private," she said.

The other thing is "this idea of service, and that talking about buying a table at somebody's event and showing up. This idea of being of service to someone else, and therefore I see your humanity."

DeRionne Pollard, president, Nevada State College; Sanford Akselrad, rabbi, Congregation Ner Tamid;  Steve Sebelius, politics and government reporter, Las Vegas Review-Journal

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Dave Berns, now a producer for State of Nevada, recently returned to KNPR after having previously worked for the station from 2005 to 2009.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the audience engagement specialist for Nevada Public Radio. She curates and creates content for, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.