Me, We, and our Presidential Candidates

I read an interesting article on CNN last week, which compared two speeches by Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

[Secretary Clinton] used the pronouns “I” or “me” in that speech 44 times. She used the words “we” or “us” less than half that amount — 21 times.
For Sanders, it was the exact opposite. Sanders used the words “I” or “me” 26 times. “We” or “us” was used more than twice as much — 54 times.

This struck a chord with me, because it hits on one of the basic tensions we face in the work of crafting Big Questions: me vs. we.

One of the defining characteristics of Big Questions is that they matter to everyone and everyone can answer them. In addition to this, Big Questions are directed at a subject: ‘you,’ or ‘we.’

Think about these two Big Questions:

  1. For whom are you responsible?
  2. For whom are we responsible?

Both questions satisfy the key criteria of Big Questions. Yet they are very different questions.

If I were to pass by a poster or banner with the question ‘For whom are you responsible?’ written on it, I might start to think about the question to myself: “My children, my partner, my parents, my employees, my neighbors, the members of my community, etc.” The question causes me to think about myself and my relationships, and perhaps also about how I struggle to balance those competing responsibilities.

What happens if I pass a banner with the question, “For whom are we responsible?” That’s very different, isn’t it? My mind goes to a more abstract place: The poor and marginalized; my fellow citizens; my co-religionists. The “we” in this question takes the focus off of my immediate relationships and places it into the realm of people I know exist, but who in the context of this question primarily exist in my imagination.

This doesn’t mean that the people in the “we” of the question aren’t real; it means they’re part of what political scientist Benedict Anderson wrote about 35 years ago as an imagined community: “[A nation] is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” Anderson notes that this imagined community is extremely powerful: Even though we don’t know even a fraction of our fellow Americans, we sacrifice for them — by paying taxes, obeying laws, and even giving our lives on their behalf.

Presidential candidates are deeply aware of this, of course. As President Obama’s campaign strategist David Axelrod said in the CNN article: “You look at winning campaigns and they have messages of empowerment — they’re inclusive. ‘Yes we can’ was a great example of that.”

And yet, while using “we” in a Big Question can be very powerful, it can also be challenging. “We” connotes higher, less tangible, harder-to-imagine, stakes than “you.” It’s not just my responsibility to someone close to me, but my more generalized responsibility to my country. “We” is also a fraught pronoun because it’s presumptive, and potentially exclusionary. One might react by thinking, “Who gave you the right to lump me in your we?”

When we speak to “you,” the risks aren’t as high, and the effects can be more immediate. Just think of Ronald Reagan’s famous line, used to devastating effect against President Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The question likely would not have been as powerful if phrased in the first-person plural.

As I’ve written about before, at Ask Big Questions we’ve found that this little difference in the subject of a question — “you” versus “we” — is actually the tip of an enormous iceberg. And as the presidential candidates are finding, the choice of pronoun can have enormous consequences, not only in rhetoric, but in our individual and collective lives.

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