Posted by Jay Livingston
What do we mean when we say “we”? Or more to the point, what does the president mean when he uses that word?
The Atlantic has an interactive graphic (here) showing the relative frequencies of words in State of the Union addresses. (“Addresses” because I’m choosing my words carefully. These were not “speeches” until Wilson. Before that, it was written text only.) Here “we” is.
The rise of “we” seems to parallel the rise of big government, starting with Wilson and our entry into a world war, followed by a brief (10-year) decline. Then FDR changes everything. “We,” i.e., the people as represented by the government, are doing a lot more.
Sorting the data by frequency shows that even in the big-We era, big-government Democrats use it more than do Republicans. (JFK used We less frequently than did the GOP presidents immediately before and after him. But then, it was JFK who said not to ask what the government could do for us.)
Freedom in this sense is what Robert Bellah** calls “utilitarian individualism.” As the word count shows, freedom was not such a central concern in the first 150 years of the Republic. Perhaps it became a concern for conservatives in recent years because they see it threatened by big government. In any case, for much of our history, that tradition of individualism was, according to Bellah, tempered by another tradition – “civic republicanism,” the assumption that a citizen has an interest not just in individual pursuits but in public issues of the common good as well.
I checked one other word because of its relevance to the argument that the US is “a Christian nation,” founded on religious principles by religious people, and that God has always been an essential part of our nation.
That is the end of this post. Thank you for reading. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.***
* For those who are very young or have led sheltered lives, this title is the punch line spoken by Tonto in an old joke, which you can Google.
** See his Habits of Heart, written with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton. Or get a brief version in this lecture.
*** Update: I just noticed that the two “Gods” in that sentence work out to a rate of 200-300 per million. If tag lines like that are included as part of the text, that accounts for the higher rate since FDR. It’s not about big government, it’s about radio. Prior to radio, the audience for the SOTU was Congress. Starting with FDR, the audience was the American people. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether these closing lines, which have now become standard, are included in the database. If they are included, the differences among presidents in the radio-TV era, may be more a matter of the denominator of the rate (length of speeches) than of the numerator (God). FDR averaged about 3500 per SOTU. Reagan and the Bushes are in the 4000-6000 range. Clinton and Obama average about 7000. So it’s possible that the difference that looks large on the graph is merely a matter of a one God-bless or a two God-bless at the end of the speech.
This audience factor might account for some of the increase in the use of we. A president addressing the nation rather than reporting to Congress might use we far more often.