Bernie Sanders is all about “us” and “we.” Hillary Clinton is all about “I” and “you.”
Why is this important? In English class we work on the different meanings of those words and how they are best-used. As a class, we learn together the skills needed to read, understand, learn and communicate required today and on into the future.
How the candidates communicate is an accurate reflection of how they operate right now. The messages being sent by the Sanders campaign vs. the Hillary Clinton campaign could not be more divergent. I am not referring to the “issues.” I’m referring to how they communicate on the most basic level. Their words reflect who they are. In the past, I think just about all Americans were fine with being asked to help their candidate, with the expectation that the candidate would in turn, “pay back” their supporters with good governance — but I think that was over with some time around 1976 or so.
Some people respond to Hillary’s constant use of “I” and “You” in that order. This is absolutely the way candidates spoke in the previous century. A certain number of people do respond to being told “You do this for me” with the implication of later, “I will reciprocate on your behalf.” This sometimes works in kindergarten (“You clean up those toys and I’ll give you juice!”), and it also works to a certain degree in the fake world of business and customer “families.”
Grammatically, the Hillary poster is a fake “us.” As a slogan, “Fighting for us” has what English teachers call an implied or elided subject. The full sentence written out would be “I am fighting for us.” The message may not be clear: “Fighting for what?”
“Us” exists for Hillary Clinton in the same sense that customers exist to a company like Cox Cable. Can’t pay your ginormous, ever increasing bill for spotty service? You are no longer part of the Cox family.
I believe that many more people are responding and even more in the future will, when they see and hear the messages of Bernie Sanders, because he is using the words “we” and “us.”
When he uses the “I” word, it is in an appropriate sense — the way we work on in English class. He refers to others and their ideas, then responds with his own. For example, when he is asked a question about his position on an issue, he responds with a simple sentence like “I believe ______________” or “I think _____________.”
How Different is Bernie?
This being the era of the listicle and endless streams of data, someone has compiled a list of past Presidential slogans (1828 to present). In nearly 200 years and 200 slogans, the word “us” only appears three times: “Grant us another term” (Ulysses S. Grant — get it?), “He kept us out of war” (Woodrow Wilson), and “He’s making us proud again” (Gerald Ford). The word “we” only appears once: “Yes we can” (Barack Obama). Of the group, only two were successful — Si se puede (2008) — which, unironically, was coined by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, people who got some work done; and “He kept us out of war” — Woodrow Wilson, which was essentially untrue (over 116,000 American lives lost in WWI — a staggering 11 million other lives lost in military conflict alone; 30 million total including ‘collateral damage’).
We do not work on history in our English classrooms per-se, but we do talk a lot about context. And the context here is that, despite the historic nature of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy — she is by far the most serious, full-on female candidate for the office of United States President, just as Barack Obama was by far, the most serious, full-on African American candidate for that same office in 2008 — she’s running, walking and talking as retro as any on that 1828–2008 Presidential slogan list. Maybe even more retro.
The first election in which women could vote was the 1920 election, between Warren G. Harding (R) and James Cox (D). Cox’s VP running mate was a young, pre-polio Franklin D. Roosevelt. Harding and his VP Calvin Coolidge won. Three of these guys are on Presidential dollars, but Cox, sadly, did not make it. However, you do know who James M. Cox is. Every month you are lining the pockets of his descendants and Cox shareholders. Yes — it’s Cox: “Your friend in the digital age.” That sad fake you and fake friend is a registered trademark!
What does business and history have to do with pronouns?
Today’s powers-that-be and pundits are all on about how “uncivil” the campaigns are and they’re paying special attention to how lousy candidates are speaking of each other (but really — they’re mostly complaining about Donald Trump). Historical campaigns were a lot worse than today’s campaigns.
But in 1800, candidates didn’t have Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, none of it. People had to either tell others stuff or they had to print it in broadsheet newspapers that cost a lot of money and time and trees. Later on, Abe Lincoln spoke from the back of trains, and wrote his speeches like the Gettysburg Address on the back of envelopes … probably to save paper.
It gave them time, I think. Time to think: about who they were, who the voters were, and what they were doing. I’ve read quite a bit about the time Presidents like John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln spent on their speeches. President Nixon wrote obsessively on yellow legal pads, and Ronald Reagan kept notecards of what people said to him. President Reagan goes up in the historical rankings each year; they called him “The Great Communicator.” By the way I am writing about language and its relationship to communication with the American people, not political parties, so if “your” mind is so closed you cannot tolerate the mention of the name of someone from another political party from your preference, this article is not for you. “Your” candidate has already averred her main goal is to “Get more Democrats elected” so she “can go on fighting for YOU.”
Someone in the Clinton campaign thought about this. They believe it is a great thing to say to voters.
So, let’s break this message down. If someone said that to you, like, oh, say, your friend, your co-worker — how about your spouse? Your spouse says,
“You’ve always had my back and I’ve always tried to have yours.”
What do you anticipate they are about to say next? You don’t have to be a professional writer or English teacher to know that answer in the “real world.” This message has been sent out thousands of times to over 5 million Hillary Twitter followers.
Next, after “I’ve always tried to have yours” is “I _______________” — I cheated, I lied, I let you down etc.
OMG for free! Really? I have a once in a lifetime opportunity to use my limited text messages to let Hillary know I’m by her side all the way! But when she gets there, where do I get to go? Like she so cares.
Two research psychologists at the University of Texas, Austin have been keeping track of Presidential campaign language. They analyzed the way candidates have been speaking in debates and Town Halls, using a quantitative system — as one of the researchers, Kayla Jordan, says,
For each debate, we looked at the percentage of each candidate’s speech that were I-words. For example, if a candidate said 100 words and 10 of them were I-words, then the frequency would be 10.0%. For the analysis in this post, we then averaged these frequencies across debates for each candidate to determine on average how often they use I-words.
The system the professors are using is a blunt instrument that just counts words. Reference to “I” alone isn’t a measure of self-centered-ness. It’s “I” in conjunction with “you” or any other noun or pronoun.
What is the difference in these two sentences:
“I want to tell you people something,”
and “I want to listen to you.”?
Bernie Sanders’ messages do include the “I” pronoun. But it is in a very inclusive context.
I leave it to you to parse the meaning of this message, created by Aaron Bowersock. The thing about creative art is, it becomes something new and different to everyone who views it. I see this as a true message. No candidate can govern alone.
One candidate isn’t just in control of what he says and does, able to communicate well and clearly with others. He isn’t just making people think he cares. One candidate has truth echoing in every message, visual, verbal and combined.
The average political wonk might think it was “funny” that the #BirdieSanders bird landed on Bernie’s podium. The message of the picture was so much more powerful than that. And the political wonks won’t decide this election any more than they have decided any election in this country’s history. Voters who see this picture and hear Bernie’s words will understand the message.
So, the elided subject or object in
“A Future to Believe In”
is either “We [have]” (subject) or “[for] us” (object). We and Us.
This could just be about words. But it’s really about our lives, our values, and how we want to live.
It’s 2016 and more women are going to college and graduating now than men. We do not need equal pay to the dollar. We need pay. We do not need to protect a woman’s right to choose. We need to treat each other like human beings. I wouldn’t talk to a dog (especially not!) like Hillary Clinton speaks to me and I certainly would never address a student in that manner.
But that’s just me. I don’t know — yet — about the rest of us.
A version of this article appeared on my website. I don’t sell things there but my books are not hard to find.