The Meaning of “We”

A friend of mine and I were engaged in a discussion on the wall of my Facebook, a link I had posted to Thomas Piketty’s piece about the rise of Sanders in the Guardian – and he asserted that the economic message Sanders is promoting is really in the interest of everyone. I left the conversation there, in part because I saw a cliff on the other side of that comment. But its on my mind right now, so lets take a peak over the drop for a minute.

The idea of “we” or “everybody” in American politics is one of the most poorly understood concepts in the history of ideas, as I see it. Americans have not ever thought of themselves in such a monolithic way – sure, they talk about themselves as “Americans” frequently enough, but in my experience they mean something way, way more narrow than all of the people who are citizens, let alone residents, of the United States. In the Midwest, when folks say “Americans,” they mean “white people who live in the Midwest” as a general rule. Back along the Northeast coast, I think Americans means something closer to “citizens with jobs, and their dependents.” In the South, Americans are still white Anglo-Saxon protestants. In the pacific northwest, I get the sense that “Americans” means something closer to “unreconstructed rednecks, and occasionally pencil necked ivy leaguers.” While all of this is hyperbolic and imprecise, my point is that what people mean by “Americans” or, to use the words of the Constitution, “We The People” is subject to enormous variation across the United States. It’s almost impossible to make categorical statements about any sort of “we” because it really depends on who is speaking and who is being spoken to.

What this all means is that appeals to policy goals as being in the interest of “everybody” or “almost everybody” are prone to missing the important fact that not everyone agrees who is included in the category “everybody.” Thomas Frank wrote What’s the Matter With Kansas? well over a decade ago, and yet that state has since gone deeper into austerity politics than any other state. Is it because the Koch brothers bought the state’s politics? Or is it because people in Kansas are convinced that austerity is the way towards the light?

Living in a small Midwestern town, I sometimes see pickup trucks with Confederate flags driving around town (they’re always pickup trucks, not SUVs, not regular cars – and I think the identification of pickup trucks with masculinity in this country is just ridiculous) and I just want to walk up to the driver and bop him (or her) in the nose! Because the Confederate flag symbolizes bigotry, and I am intolerant of bigots. But I don’t go around punching people in the nose (or even calling out their bigotry) because 1) I know where I am – that is, in a place where lots of people are racists, even if they don’t go around advertising it, and I can’t really afford to make myself a social pariah, and 2) as someone who at least is trying to follow Christ, my instinct towards offense regarding bigots is followed by recalling the command “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Yes we should resist bigotry and racism, no we should not tolerate it, ever. But anger and violence, no matter how righteous, will not help anything or anyone. Racists will not be persuaded of their wrongheadedness by attempts to suppress their racism. Love is the answer. Not hatred. If they respect you, and then see that you are not racist, they might take pause and consider their own prejudices.

The word “we” should always include our neighbors, especially the ones we don’t trust. When we talk about what’s best for everybody we should always include the people we do not like. As a Democrat, I think the question of “what will the republicans think?” ought to be in the forefront of policy discussions. As a liberal, I the question “how will conservatives respond?” is always relevant to ideological concerns. Because what’s best for “everybody” depends on who gets included in that category.

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