We We We – The Political We”

Interview with Elisabeth Wehling by Stephanie von Hayek

In political campaigns and slogans of recent years it can be observed that politicians in Europe and America appeal repeatedly and impressively to a We”. In the United States it is Yes, we can”, in Germany We can do it”, in Great Britain We want our country back”, and in France On est chez nous”.

Ms Wehling, how do you explain the We” in political campaigns?

Behind it are very different projects. With Yes, we can” and Change we need” in 2008, Barack Obama was referring to the American population; he was concerned about democratic co-existence. It was different with Hillary Clinton’s slogan in 2016, Hillary for America”; this conveyed the idea I’ll do it for you’” With Donald Trump it was America First”; his campaign devalued others. The questions behind the We” are How do we want to treat each other?”, What kind of political leadership am I offering you?” It’s interesting that groups with different moral-ideological postures use this We” construct.

Has the appeal to a We” feeling always been part of political campaigns, or is this a new development?

The appeal to a We” has of course always been part of political campaigns – for example, with Willy Brandt in 1969: Germans, we can be proud of our country”. That it has re-emerged with such clearness is partly to do with the fact that many societies are increasingly progressive and inclusive, and partly that we no longer feel connected. Many ask: Who are we? The populist answer, all over the world, is that the We” is defined by demarcation from the Not-We” – an aloof Establishment that rules the country and forgets the little people.

A progressive We” feeling

What do you mean by progressive politics”?

A progressive community has a caring, less hierarchical, less exclusive, more inclusive community image. Angela Merkel is an example of this; as a conservative, she moved towards the middle. The counter-movement goes in an authoritarian direction. The mainstream in Germany has a progressive We” feeling; it’s not a matter of marking yourself off and fighting with others.

Has the development of the We” in campaigns something to do with the social media?

The social media are a two-edged sword. On the one hand they divide: We” in contrast with others. This is the phenomenon of the echo chamber. The coarsening of language on the internet also contributes to the demarcating We” feeling: We, a small group with the right values against the others. This is the way Pegida and the AfD argue. This form of the We” is fuelled by the social media. But there’s also the other We”, which moves closer together, gives up more itself. International cooperation, for example, rests on the feeling that the other is of concern to me, including the other on the other end of the world. Social media also convey an enhanced sense of co-existence.

What is to be achieved with the use of We”, the first person plural?

It defines community at the meta-level. Angela Merkel could also have said: Germany can do it”. Then speaker and listener are more distant from one another, the nation is named. In We can do it’” speaker and listener are implicitly united. Anyone who hears this can’t initially resist the feeling of belonging. Later, he can ask himself whether he agrees with Merkel and respond No, we can’t do it” or Yes, as a group, we can do it; I’m with you”

Positive feelings

What happens in our heads when we say We”?

With We” we’re in a group. We” is an everyday word, not one that identifies an abstract thing like nation”. Closeness and intimacy are associated with We”, positive or negative feelings. If I say to a colleague, Come on, we’re going to lunch”, we’re doing something together, we feel connected. If I say We only argue with one another”, the feeling is negative, yet there’s still closeness. The We” in politics activates such formative everyday experiences. It activates conscious or unconscious closeness; people feel more directly addressed – no matter whether they’re for or against the ideas of the participative We”. They feel they belong to it initially.

Marine Le Pen, Chairwoman of the extreme right-wing Front National, has said that On est chez nous” is a cry from the heart, a cry of love for the homeland; she would restore the rights of the owners of France. Jayda Fransen, the leading figure in the ultranationalist movement We Want Our Country Back” in Great Britain, also demands back something that has similarly been lost. Who is or is supposed to be the We” that these two politicians are appealing to?

Marine Le Pen is the more ideologically strict and authoritarian of the two. Both politicians have in common that they’re appealing to an endangered We”. For example: France must be saved from destruction; it’s about to be extinguished. This activates a frame of meaning in which France is in need. In Great Britain it’s more about a frame in which the country is losing its national autonomy. There they talk of taking back control”. This is an appeal to a We” embedded in the idea of the (endangered) existence of a group with a clear cultural and religious identity – say, more those with white skin and Christian symbols and as independent as possible from others.

Which We” do Barack Obama and Angela Merkel want to appeal to?

This is a completely different appeal. They’re appealing that all people need equal protection, that in a humane society everyone jointly bears the responsibility for the welfare of himself and his fellow human beings. These two We” appeals couldn’t be more different. 

What roles do these respective slogans assign to the others?

The first one is about an authoritarian, nationally defined We”. Others have already taken over” our country – for instance, the EU or refugees; that’s the narrative. The progressive We” goes beyond your own group. It’s about the We” in Europe or the even larger We” of a world community. In the UN General Assembly each country has an equal vote. That’s a We” which doesn’t look for an other to define itself in contrast with, but rather a We” which is experienced through inclusion.

Take the example of patriotism. Authoritarian patriotism has to do with marking yourself off, with a conceptual, cultural obedience to the authorities of your own country. But patriotism can also be conceived of progressively: to be a patriot then means to care for your homeland and fellow human beings – for instance, for education, the protection of the water and the air, reasonable wages for work. The whole thing isn’t at the cost of other countries or instead of concern for the wider world community, but is rather an imminent task of the government elected in the country. It’s important that the idea of patriotism isn’t abandoned to the authoritarian right-wing. Everyone who pays his taxes, everyone who cares for himself and for his fellow citizens, whether through the social infrastructure or international cooperation, is a patriot. When Obama was attacked for not being a patriot, he said that for him being a patriot meant concern for his fellow human beings.

You really have to wonder where this international We” feeling is heading …

Absolutely, and we have to be careful about it. In Germany it’s different from some other places, since we have the recent Nazi past. In comparison with other states, we at least have a still fresh awareness of the importance of living together peacefully, of not behaving as an international agitator and of acting benevolently in foreign affairs.

For peace we need the others

What can be inferred from the increased use of such a We” in our times?

That human beings don’t function as individuals in fragmented groups. The globalization of the media, for example, shows us the inhumanity that prevails in many places and reminds us of the importance of human solidarity. A Marine Le Pen would also endorse this, but only for people who correspond to her image of a Frenchman or Frenchwoman.

After the election of Donald Trump the media spoke increasingly of the white East and West Coast elites, which have little to do with the rest of the United States. In Germany too the public discourse speaks of a bubble”. Evidently, there’s a feeling that we’re no longer connected to each other. The We” is lacking. How do you explain this.

There are, roughly speaking, two types of people. People who see security and stability in large social or political groups in which there are binding forces. And people who retreat into small groups, looking for ever narrower parameters to define membership and to experience a feeling of stability. This is a cuddly straight-jacket.

A limited We” that fights against the other We” to protect its own We”, perhaps to exercise long-term control over other groups. Psychologically, this means a greater sense of security. The higher up the identity of our own group, of our We”, stands, the more unassailable the ego of the individual. These two tendencies have always existed; you can’t get them to go together because they are quite different types with quite different psychological foundations. They’re being strengthened by the signs of the times; this is going to continue for a while.

Many people no longer feel spoken to and represented by the traditional political parties. Is there any advice you could give to politicians? 

Absolutely. If politicians want to get through to their fellow citizens, they must speak more specifically and explain their values better. There must be a more authentic and clearer language in politics again. In Germany, for example, there is often a lack of clear formulations on the left.

Social justice, for instance, is a contested concept”, meaning an idea that isn’t filled in with much meaning. It can mean just” is that I can keep what I’ve worked for. If I give things to others, who haven’t worked for them, I make them weak. Or it can mean that we all build our well-being on collective structures, created by tax contributions. Every human being is equal, no matter how much money he has. Such concepts have to be filled in. This includes questioning current language patterns. For example, we often speak of upper” and lower” when it comes to wealth and influence. This implies a moral devaluation of the people we call lower”. We know this from everyday life when we say we look up” to or down” on someone.

Politicians must distance themselves form such language patterns and see people as equal, no matter how much they have earned or how much socio-political influence they have.


Photos: The Amplify Foundation

Photo: Elisabeth Wehling

Elisabeth Wehling is a linguistic and cognitive researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2016 she published the SPIEGEL bestseller Politisches Framing”.

Stephanie von Hayek is a journalist and political scientist. She writes for various journals, including KULTURAUSTAUSCH.