The National ‘We’
Scroll through President Biden’s Twitter account, and you might be surprised to find he styles himself after the great kings and popes of ages past. Nearly every proclamation uses the royal “we”—as if the American people, dominion, and constitution were encapsulated in his person.
This is by no means unique to the president. Congressmen, CEOs, celebrities, and even lowly journalists often express their private opinions in the first-person plural. By speaking on behalf of many, they hope to create consensus out of thin air. This might make sense in a society with agreed-upon common goods, but under American pluralism—especially given our current balkanization—perceptions of the common good have never been more fragmented.
The “we” technique is an ancient one. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric II.4, “On Friendship and Enmity,” he counsels the political orator to use language that makes his audience feel kinship or camaraderie, even if none exists in fact. For the communicator, this strategy makes sense—but as a member of its target audience, you must shrewdly discern whom the author intends by “we.” The feeling of unity without true unanimity becomes the energy of the mob.
Aristotle somewhat naïvely claims in I.1 that this consensus-building strategy—and all rhetoric—is useful despite its pitfalls because “the best ideas will rise to the top.” In that passage, he dismisses concerns about the harms of false rhetoric, arguing that just about anything can be harmful if it is used improperly. Yet today—particularly with war looming on the horizon—the harm of false unity amplified by mass media is plain to see. The “we”—the groupthinking public—has become a dangerous tool of tyranny and lies.
As a liberal pluralist country, America has always struggled to create a unified national consensus. Not only have the American people broken into separate polities—and fought a bloody civil war—the bar for American citizenship has sunk lower and lower throughout our history. Instead of enacting policies that distinguish between enemies and friends, as the notorious German jurist Carl Schmitt would insist, America treats everyone as a potential friend and member of our polity (unless, of course, they speak Russian).
In such a liberal political system, the fundamental purpose of politics—to pursue a true common good—is lost. Appeals to ground this good in faith or natural law gain no traction when a critical mass of Americans deny the existence of God and nature. Jurists and policymakers instead employ supposedly “neutral” philosophies like empiricism and utilitarianism, but cannot provide any basis for doing so.
This is not such a serious problem in some liberal democracies, because their ancient laws and cultural heritage prevent politicians from stretching the national “we” and its common good too far. In France, for example, political outsider Eric Zemmour has drastically shaken up the presidential race by accusing his opponents of doing just this— overstretching the French nation. But in America, an expanding definition of pluralism and the nation continues to cause strife.
In 2022, there is no American “we,” no polity of friends that can claim primacy over external enemies. Appeals to national unity are nothing more than assertions of dominance for one faction or perspective. Nevertheless, the rhetorical “we” continues to dominate opinion pieces and public statements. If the audience is not alert, they can be lulled into the nostalgic reverie of a more united American past—or worse, assuming that their in-group is the referent. “How do you do, fellow Americans?” is a common tactic of special-interest groups, from mass-immigration activists to Ukrainian lobbyists. Similar appeals to “we” Christians, “we” Texans, or “we” conservatives should raise immediate alarms.
In American liberal society, absent real national distinctives, there will always be many who claim the status of deciding who “we” are. It’s not surprising that an ideologue would foist one vision of America, or of any subgroup, on the rest. But living in a polity obliges you to dig beneath the emotional rhetoric of friendship and enmity to uncover who your real friends and enemies are.
Andrew Cuff is Communications Director of Knight Takes Rook (ktr.agency), a political agency of Beck & Stone. He lives in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, with his family of six. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewJCuff.