I, You, We

May 14, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

One of the things that bothers me about Hillary Clinton is that I don’t think she really believes in democracy. Or rather, she believes in democracy the same way that the people in the Cheney-Bush administration believe in democracy. It’s an O.K. way to elect a president but an inconvenient way to run a government.

Democracy, or their version of it, is best summed up as “electing our king.”* They see their election as a mandate to rule as they see fit. And because they are the ones who know best, sharing power and information with others would just be inefficient. What they want, and what they believe is necessary, is the concentration of power.

Why, I wonder, do I think that Hillary doesn’t really trust others and that her approach to government would be a continuation of the current administration’s arrogation of power and information? I have little evidence beyond the way she tried to run the health-care policy reform initiative in the early days of the Clinton White House. Other evidence may exist; I’m just not enough of a political junkie to have collected it.

More to the point, why do I think that Obama would be substantially different? Where did I get these impressions?

I’m not sure. But brands consultant Claude Singer has an answer: pronouns.
The key to understanding this primary struggle and the ultimate victory of Obama over Clinton lies in the pronouns. Hillary is about I and you. I will do this for you. . . . You are in trouble and I will help you. I will fight on and on… for you. I – it’s very much about what I am, have been, will do – am here for you. . . . Hillary is pleading for us to help her… and in return Hillary promises that she will help you.
Obama is all about We.

Claude hedges his bets. “I’m not speaking of the words themselves, not literally.”

But what if we did take the idea literally, word for word, pronoun for pronoun?

I did a quick-and-dirty with the texts of speeches I could find easily on the Internet. These included the speeches of both candidates after SuperTuesday, Clinton’s speech after the West Virginia primary last night, and Obama’s speech on race in response to the Rev. Wright flap. I counted all the instances of I, We, and You (including contracted forms like I’ll and You’ve but excluding the thank yous and you knows). I divided by the total word count of each speech to get a rate per 1,000 words. Here are the results.

We usually has the highest frequency for both candidates – Clinton’s West Virginia speech is probably an exception, but worth noting nevertheless. Clearly, the We/I and We/You ratios are higher for Obama – even in the Race speech, where he had to discuss his own experiences with race, religion, and Wright.

I do believe that the candidates’ styles of speaking, including their choice of pronouns, reveal a difference in their styles of thinking and that while Clinton prefers the concentration of power, Obama looks more favorably on the diffusion of power. Can this decentralizing tendency survive the structural pressures of the White House? I hope we find out.

*I was sure that this was the title of a book some years back, but Google and Amazon though I might, I cannot find it.


kristina b said...

Nice work, Jay. This is a really interesting perspective. It's one of those things where you either buy it or you don't. And it strikes me as something that Obama supporters would totally buy, Clinton supporters would totally not and republicans would dismiss or buy as evidence for Obama supporters' superficial understanding of the world. And what, really, is the truth? Impossible to say. Fascinating.

maxliving said...

As for further examples of withholding information, the one that springs to mind is Hillary's absolute refusal to release documents, etc. from her time as first lady, while at the same time slamming the President for doing essentially the same thing. The Daily Show had something about it awhile ago.