Clinton, when she speaks, frequently uses collective you as she addresses “the American people.” In (line 5), she emphasizes America’s need for “your” positive traits, and in (line 7) mentions life getting better for “all of you.” She likely speaks this way in order to appear inclusive, addressing the strengths of Americans as a whole rather than singling out the characteristics of any particular group. In lines 6 and 7 in particular she emphasizes her claim that she desires to act in leadership for the good of all of her addressees. Notably, however, she focuses nearly all of her speech on what “you” can contribute, and talks less about what she herself will do. The use of you this way allows Clinton to speak to the American people without explicitly including herself among them, distancing herself from their experiences and affirming her presence in a position of political power.
Trump also creates distance between himself and others, but his use of we and they separates him from the people he talks about rather than the audience he directly addresses. He begins and ends in (9)-(12) and in (17) by describing what “we” have and what “we” will do, but diverts to referencing inner city residents, African-Americans, and Latinos as “they” in (13)-(16). Presumably, “we” are the agents that will “make America great again,” despite being responsible for structural issues in society, while “they” are minority victims of Democrats’ failed policies, and recipients of Trump’s future assistance. This shift implies that Trump seeks to identify himself with the group he’s directly addressing, while simultaneously separating himself from other groups -- minorities and those living in inner cities. Although done with different pronouns, Trump, like Clinton, uses his speech to place himself in a position of power relative to those he talks about. This is especially true given his claims that he will provide widespread assistance if elected; it would be difficult for people without comparable influence to substantially challenge these claims.
Of course, this debate is situated in the context of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which has been riddled with unprecedented levels of controversy and division. It is clear that the orders of discourse mentioned above have often been disobeyed or ignored entirely. As such, those in one political camp freely disseminate rhetoric deemed hateful by many, while distrust and blatant dishonesty persist in the other. This debate is no different, with its many outbursts and chaotic episodes at moments other than those in the transcript. However, as explicitly undesirable as 2016’s campaign talk has been, analysis of the transcript shows that an element of language we may not first consider -- pronoun usage -- reveals the candidates’ underlying ideologies.
We often try to change people’s ideologies by changing their explicit language habits. One might hope to increase cultural sensitivity, for example, by encouraging the use of appropriate ethnic terminology. However, Trump’s and Clinton’s oft-considered detrimental ideological stances are not only perpetuated explicitly, but are also enforced by such seemingly implicit elements of language as pronouns. It appears that perhaps one cannot truly hope to change a person’s outlook until issues with these underlying elements are confronted and addressed.
Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and power. Harlow, England, UK: Longman Group. Print.
[NBC News]. (2016, Oct. 19). The Third Presidential Debate: Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump (Full Debate) | NBC News. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/smkyorC5qwc.
Michael is a student in the introductory sociolinguistics course at Swarthmore College.