The ambiguous “we” of modern American politics

From the beginning, Monday night’s presidential debate was a cavalcade of collectivist rhetoric, with both candidates frequently invoking an ambiguous “we” as justification for their plans and policy positions.

Leaving aside the troubling implications such attitudes towards expansive central control have for a society supposedly founded on the idea of power flowing upwards from the self-sovereign individual, the grounding of political discourse in such insubstantial language is troubling.

“We” is an enigma, and enigmas have far too intimate a relationship with tyrants.

“We” could just as easily mean the president working with the general populace as a code for party insiders familiar with the code in which controversial messages are sanitized to avoid dissent and protest form ideological adversaries. It could encompass a Congressional majority working with the president in a rare display of the government constraining its actions to the rails of legitimate power or it could presage a far more dictatorial attitude in which the wiser elite implement an agenda for the benefit of a well-intentioned but ignorant constituency.

There is uncertainty not only as to whom the policy is enacted by but whom it benefits. And, particularly where the latter is concerned, this also means there is a degree of uncertainty over whom is to be singled out and punished by policy.

“I” is specific; “we” is nebulous. When politicians speak in terms of “I,” they not only create a concrete public record of belief against which future statements and actions can be judged, they reveal something about their character, allowing voters to make discerning value-oriented choices.

It is no coincidence that abstract generalities go hand in hand with the language of the collective. By speaking in broad strokes of ill-defined factions of “we,” politicians fold themselves into the amorphous polity, paradoxically appealing to everyone and no one. The saccharine tones in which “we” is uttered allow voters disposed to identify with the narrative of a candidate to see a sympathetic figure.

“We” is rhetorical sleight of hand. Those predisposed to buy into a narrative will see what they want to; those of a different orientation may also do so. The politician is at one and the same time appealing to everyone and no one, and does so without risk of alienation or offense, for they have actually taken no stance. They have created a hollow outline of a legislator and allow the constituent to fill in the details in accordance with their natural sympathies.

“We” casts a pall of cozy familiarity to political discourse, but is in effect a sinister cloak obscuring the real motivation of the office seeker- power at any cost.

Honest politicians do not shy from “I,” for that pronoun is an end to itself. The politics of “we” is dependent on externality; it needs people and power to achieve its end. It cares more for the ability to gain than the value of what is being gained. The politics of “I” is just as self-interested, but it is governed by the absolutism which ego demands. It is bold, up front and honest about its desires and it invites the individual to see its message and either accept or reject it on its merits.


Also published on Medium.

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