After the New Hampshire primary I wrote about a key difference between the victory speeches of Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders on one hand, and Secretary Hillary Clinton on the other.
In their speeches Trump and Sanders used the word “we” a lot, while Clinton relied on the word ‘I’. Trump and Sanders, like their voters, are angry and the candidates expressed that anger; Clinton expressed anger on our behalf. She was angry for us, while Trump and Sanders were angry with us. Trump and Sanders are leading a mob storming the palace gates, Clinton is standing in front of the gates saying she hears our frustration, and understands our anger, but now is the time for cooler heads.
Scholars from Aristotle forward have recognized the power of the approach taken by Trump and Sanders. Speakers succeed when they create an identification with the audience, when they and the audience become part of a larger “we” poised against a hostile “them.” In affirming the speaker as one of us, the speaker reinforces who we think we are (and we are typically just and good, or we are being redeemed so about to be just and good); and thus “they” are corrupt, immoral, and unjust. Once part of the collective “we” the speaker can guide the conversation where she or he wants it to go. The speaker says “we are just and good, and thus must pursue my idea, and those who oppose my idea are by definition unjust and bad.”
The speeches after Republican primary in South Carolina and the Democratic Caucus in Nevada were different. Trump, the winner in South Carolina, shifted to “I.” Clinton, the winner in Nevada, talked about “we,” which started as a royal “we” and transitioned to a collective “we.”
Trump’s speech spends more time on himself at the start, in part because his family was with him, but it reads more like classic Donald Trump talking about the virtue of being Donald Trump. He talks about people who have endorsed him, those who have written him off and are wrong, and asserts that he is right in spite of what others say. He moves to a “we” that is an imagined America where things have happened, with no explanation of how or any trade offs involved.
Clinton on the other hand shifted to “we,” though with a twist. After the standard opening “thank yous” (your favorite band shouting “greetings YOUR HOME TOWN!” when they play your home town) Clinton says, “We hear you, we see you, we’re incredibly grateful to you because we’re in this together.” She follows with sentences that begin, “we see…we look….we see…we see…we see…we see.” It is unclear who “we” are that are looking and seeing and in this together – is it the campaign? Secretary Clinton and her husband? Is it the royal we who are not amused by Sen. Sanders? The speech seamlessly shifts to make Clinton part of the “we” of the audience, for example “We need jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced. Jobs that provide dignity and a future. We can do it by unleashing the innovation of our entrepreneurs and small businesses. We can do it with new investments in manufacturing, infrastructure, and clean energy, especially here in Nevada which will be the center of solar power.”
Sen. Sanders’ speech stuck to the script, but in abbreviated form – thank you, we are in this together, on to the next state (the few policy position he addressed were also addressed by Sec. Clinton).
If classical rhetoric is any guide, and it is, Clinton will continue to find success as she talks less about herself and more about her audience. The more she can unify a “we” against a clearly defined “them” the more likely it is she will win.