We the Government

When we recall the now-famous incantation, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” we focus on its content: John F. Kennedy invited Americans to become active participants in, rather than passive recipients of, American democracy. But the word that stands out for me is the personal pronoun “your.” How different jfk's message would have been had he exhorted Americans to ask what they can do for “the” country. In the word “your” resides the personal connection between citizens and nation that has broken down, replaced by an adversarial stance of citizens toward their government.

Presidential historian Robert Dallek cites a comment someone made to Eleanor Roosevelt after FDR's death: “I miss the way your husband used to speak to me about my government.” Here, too, the personal pronouns leaped out at me: “my” government, hearing him speak “to me.” In their eagerness to turn voters against the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy--the party that gave Americans services such
as Social Security and Medicare that the other party now claims to protect while clandestinely striving to erode--Republicans have defined a new enemy: “the government.” The sense of unity that followed the September 11 attacks by a literal enemy has been dissolved as Republicans encourage Americans to see their own government as a metaphorical enemy. Like an autoimmune disease, this metaphoric battle turns the body politic's protective forces against the body itself.

Rather than regarding the government as ours--a source of services that better citizens' lives--many Americans now see the services the government provides as their due, while regarding the government that provides those services as an enemy force. The illogic of this stance was eloquently expressed in Bill Clinton's remarks on the 30th anniversary of Medicare in 1995: “We had people all over America coming up to me, or the first lady, or to Senator [Ted] Kennedy, saying, ‘Don't let the government mess with my Medicare.'” Again, the parts of speech tell all: The personal “my” (“my Medicare”) reveals the closeness these speakers feel toward the service the government provides, while the impersonal “the” (“the government”) evinces how distant, disconnected, and distrustful they feel toward the source of that treasured service.

How could John Kerry as president repair this internal rift and restore a sense of connection between citizens and their government? One way is to attend to the smallest parts of speech. He should refer to himself as “your president” and talk of “your” government or “ours.” He must avoid the temptation to leap on the bandwagon that Republicans have built by claiming that he, too, will get government off your backs. It's an easy way to hitch a ride, but it undermines Democratic leaders' ability to get the credit their party deserves for having created the programs voters now see as part of the landscape, and to garner citizen support for future programs.

Effective presidents have embraced new communications technologies. Roosevelt's fireside chats made brilliant use of radio, a technology that brought the public voice of a political leader into people's homes, the most private of spaces. With television, not only a voice but a physical persona enters the home, sits down to dinner, becomes a member of the family. Ronald Reagan exploited these aspects of TV to become a “great communicator.” He was not a great orator, nor was he great at communicating information. But he was superb at communicating the illusion that he was speaking directly to each listener--“to me.” Ironically, he used this skill to avoid communicating, in the sense of addressing an issue. With his famous “there you go again” quip, he sidestepped the substance of Jimmy Carter's criticism. The good-natured image became the substance of what Reagan communicated.

Kerry and other candidates have exploited Internet technology for fund raising; organizations such as MoveOn.org use the Web to create communities of physically distant but likeminded individuals. When Kerry announced his vice-presidential choice in e-mails to his core supporters, he made them feel included, part of his community.

The Internet likewise can be used to restore bonds between citizens and their government. E-mail offers perhaps the most intimate connection of any technology. Many people who would never talk about personal matters face to face are able to do so in e-mail or instant messaging, which they experience as akin to personal correspondence or to writing in a diary. And this technology is the one that young people--sadly, among the most disaffected from government--are most comfortable with. It pervades their daily lives in a way that even television never could.

To understand the effect of public policies on people's lives, citizens need to hear personal stories. How about a chance to meet, each week, an individual whose life was affected--for better or for worse--by decisions made by particular judges or the Supreme Court; by a particular act or policy enacted with Democratic support or allowed to lapse by a Republican Congress; by a civic action of their own, such as unionizing their workplace? How about regular online town halls, in which the president answers questions put to him by citizens over the Internet? In this way, those who log on and participate--yes, not listen but participate--can begin to experience themselves as part of a community that includes their government.

Restoring a sense of intimate connection between citizens and their government is essential to heal the corrosive divisiveness that contributes to the crippling vulnerability so many Americans now feel. And it is essential to ensure that their government can continue to provide services and protection rather than becoming their actual enemy, as, in the hands of Republican administrations, it has in fact become.

Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.

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