How Jimmy Carter became a post-White House progressive hero
Jimmy Carter’s post-presidential life outshined the time he spent at the White House and won him the praise of the progressive left — a more dominant part of the Democratic Party 42 years after the end of his presidency.
Carter, 98, is a figure beloved by many Democrats in 2023 despite the difficulties of his administration. He’s respected for creating a footprint as a global humanitarian and peacebuilder in a bitterly divided world.
To liberals, his imprint on their movement is especially profound.
“President Carter promoted progressive issues well before they became mainstream,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, a grassroots group that formed with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) first presidential campaign. “His continued interest in public service laid the groundwork for modern day activists to take up causes from environmental justice to workers rights to universal health care.”
While Carter’s reputation as a one-term president is marred by persistent domestic and international turbulence and what critics denounce as unsteady leadership, his community service is widely considered altruistic and urgent.
It has allowed for a quiet rebranding of the 39th president’s legacy that is unique in American history.
Progressives feel a particular bond to his efforts.
“I love the guy,” said Cenk Uygur, host of the left-wing televised program “The Young Turks,” who’s had numerous conversations with Carter. “I think he’s the most misunderstood president.”
Some of what liberal Democrats regard as Carter’s more palatable priorities, especially putting climate justice and the risks of foreign fuel dependence on the nation’s consciousness, align with much of what they’re pushing for today.
“Though we don’t agree with all of his policy positions, he was well ahead of his time on the now-urgent need to protect the environment and expand the social safety net,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party.
Carter’s humble beginnings as an unpolished, unpretentious peanut farmer in Georgia make him an unlikely occupant of the nation’s highest office and a sympathetic figure to the left.
Symbolically, parts of Carter’s personal identity and unorthodox approach are mirrored by some of today’s leading progressive figures. He’s also set the groundwork for dozens of insurgent candidates from working-class roots to enter government.
Before then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) defeated the entire Democratic field in the Iowa caucuses, and before Sanders gave Hillary Clinton a real run for her money in the 2016 Democratic primary, Carter pulled off a better-than-expected placing in the same rural early nominating contest.
“In his post-presidency, he pushed the establishment of the Democratic Party to think outside of the D.C. bubble,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn. “His legacy of progressive people-first policies is enduring.”
That reimagined model of campaigning and vision for what is possible, some argue, has fueled the aspirations of many under the modern progressive tent, where underrepresented candidates can ascend through unconventional means and test-run new ideas.
Back when the country was still reeling from Watergate and the end of the Nixon era, Carter had an alternative approach to addressing the country’s woes, including an affinity for southern-style retail politics. He convinced enough voters to give a relatively unknown governor a shot at the White House, and ultimately won the Democratic primary against the odds, fueled in part by the momentum of his local start.
“Jimmy Carter was really one of the first grassroots presidents,” said Epting. “His election in 1976 was the end of top-down primaries. It was a watershed moment for elevating the people’s voice.”
Carter’s ability to attract praise later in life from both liberals and moderates, including President Biden, after a shaky presidency makes him an anomaly.
“Jimmy Carter’s legacy is complex and doesn’t fit neatly into contemporary ideological frames,” said Mitchell. “Carter led with his instincts regardless of the political consequences.”
Carter is a progressive from a different era and time, and his policies when he served in the White House don’t all pass liberal muster in today’s climate — at least for some.
“After leaving office, he was wonderfully progressive, but while in office he was too economically conservative,” Uygur said.
His presidency was dogged by inflation and many criticized his approach to the economy and unemployment.
His tenure was notably marked by the Iran hostage crisis, a traumatic event for Americans living through that era.
But he also had major foreign policy successes, including with the Camp David peace accords with Egypt and Israel.
“He was terrific in foreign policy in an underrated way,” Uygur argued. “He literally did peace in the Middle East and got Israel and Egypt a peace deal that has lasted decades.”
The former president and Nobel Peace Prize awardee has in later years coalesced global support around democracy reforms through the Carter Center and significant contributions to the house building movement through Habitat for Humanity. Progressives say he has also made a lasting impact on public health.
“His post-presidency life was an exercise in service and selflessness. He was outspoken on injustice in the U.S. and abroad and was among a small group of public officials that were willing to be on the record when naming those injustices were inconvenient,” Mitchell said.
“All lives and presidencies are complex and Carter’s was no different. However, his commitment to living in a more just, environmentally sustainable world will live on,” he added.
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