An English Teacher Parses Bernie V Hillary Language

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.

Because of my students, because of my daughter, and because of her friends, and because of the work I’ve done for the past five years, and because of how hard it has been getting our publishing company off the ground even with the very best possible writers, mission and work, I started listening to Bernie Sanders. Based on what I heard once I opened my ears, eyes, mind and heart, now I support his candidacy for President. Above all, I support the message that we’re all Americans and it’s about time America worked for everyone, not just people who …

Communicate like Hillary Clinton.

How the candidates communicate is an accurate reflection of how they operate right now. And, as they say in a lot of environments, “past performance is the best indicator of future behavior.”

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.

Some people respond to Hillary’s constant use of “I” and “You” in that order. This is a very traditional type of campaign language. I am aware that a certain number of people 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 exists in the fake world of business and customer “families.”

im fighting for us













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 in the Hillaryworld only in the same sense customers exist for Cox Cable. Can’t pay your ginormous, ever increasing bill for spotty service? You are no longer part of the Cox family.

Business. English. Life.

not me usI believe that many more people are responding and even more in the future will, when they see and hear the messages of Bernie Sanders, respond, 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 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, of course 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), “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.

cox logoLet’s consider another of the limited “us” examples — when Woodrow Wilson was running for President, women couldn’t vote. The ever-brutal Ann Coulter has famously said that “Women should not have the right to vote” as traditionally, womens’ votes have gone to candidates of whom Ms. Coulter disapproves.

The first election in which women could vote was the 1920 election, between Warren G. Harding (R) and James Cox (D). I just learned for the first time that 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 totally do know who James M. Cox is. Every month you are lining the pockets of his descendants and Cox shareholders. (I am putting this mostly because that Cox logo says everything I am saying about Hillary Clinton’s grammar messaging from a business perspective – the fake “you” and fake “friend” and just ugh. This is where that 1% comes from, what it is today, and it has been with us such a very long time).

But Professor Casil, 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, as a number of historians have pointed out.

But those old-time candidates didn’t have Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, none of it, in 1800. 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. I know about President Nixon’s yellow legal pads, and Ronald Reagan’s notecards. 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.

im youve always had my back














This message isn’t unique, it’s pretty much every Tweet sent out by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Someone thought about this. They think 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.

The next statement after that “I’ve always tried to have yours” is  “I _______________” – I cheated, I lied, I let you down etc.

Im with her









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? I get to stay right where I am until the next campaign when I get to text her again!

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.

I words past Pres comparison

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 cant do this alone bernieI 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.

This isn’t about who says “I” more. It’s about the meaning of what the candidate says and how their language reflects their capabilities and who they are.

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 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. A lot of people who haven’t shared my experiences think that Bernie Sanders just wants to spend a bunch of money, take their tax dollars, and waste them.

cost of free college

He would not be that candidate. And yes, these figures are true, not even counting the money we will need to pay to care for our veterans over time. We did not question one penny of this; and to what benefit? Well, we have recently seen some “benefits” in Paris, and in Brussels. We don’t hear much about all the other countries and suffering because *Cox Cable and all their friends.

As to how much is paid for college, it’s worth considering what the ROI is on our existing schools – with our public colleges and universities already providing a poor or negative ROI and student loan debt totaling a whole lot more than that $760 billion estimated cost. Where do people think the interest on those vast $1 trillion+ student loans goes? It goes to the 1%. There is not a government-involved program developed in the last 30 years where a significant amount does not go to the wealthy around the world. It isn’t government in isolation, it is what every establishment person and entity associated with each of the main parties is fully and completely complicit in. Student loans? Does the word “SallieMae” sound familiar? Home loans? “FannieMae.” In what way would flat out paying one time for college be so much worse than this backdoor method which is ruining students’ futures and lining the pockets of the rich like a 1% cash back 24% interest credit card?

abortion tweetIs it really so important what your “issue” is? Maybe you truly feel that whether or not a total stranger of a different religion to you has an abortion or not is the most important thing in the world. Maybe that will dictate how you vote, how you go to work every morning, what you eat, where your kids go to school, what type of car you drive if you can afford one …

Hell that’s the way Mr. Cruz thinks, isn’t it?

That’s the way he speaks to others.

But this tweet didn’t come from “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” it came from Hillary Clinton two days ago.

Because like 1976. The Bicentennial year.

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.

2 thoughts on “An English Teacher Parses Bernie V Hillary Language

  1. Jackie

    This is a really interesting perspective, although I suspect some of Hillary’s use of “I” is something learned. As women we grow up using “we” and “us” and trying to be inclusive. And then we’re taught that if we want to succeed in a man’s world we need to learn the art of self-promotion. So we cultivate in ourselves greater use of the word “I.”

    Anyway, as a former linguistics major, I find posts like this really thought-provoking, so thanks!

    1. Amy Casil Post author

      Jackie, that is a very interesting perspective! Not being a linguistics major, and also I suspect a different generation from you, my generation was not taught to use the art of self-promotion. I had mentors and guides. I do not remember anyone encouraging the use of the “I” word – quite the opposite! But then I was never at such levels as Mrs. Clinton. I was taught to echo and use what I now teach as Rogerian argument.

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