The real pronoun problem: political “we”

Political speech is full of lies, euphemisms, deceptions, and nonsense, with words large and small. One of the most deceptive small words is political “we.”


Pronouns, considering that they comprise only a short list of words, are one of the most fascinating aspects of English grammar.  All of them have multiple meanings, and there’s a lot of room for fuzzy interpretation and language deception.

Let’s focus on “we.”

It can mean ‘you (singular or plural) and I,’ but nobody else.  Or ‘you and I and (un)named) others.’  Or ’I and one or more others, but not you.’

Politicians leverage the ambiguity of pronouns with two additional meanings.  I refer to the ubiquitous “political ‘we.’”  It denotes a collective group of indeterminate and ambiguous size and scope.   It can mean ‘I but not you’ or ‘you but not I’

‘I but not you’

Whenever a politician or bureaucrat says “we” are going to do this or that, it’s likely as not that the person is referring to “the government (or relevant agency thereof), acting as society’s self-appointed agent.”  You, the audience, the citizens, are not doing anything.

This article from The Atlantic sums up the issue very nicely.

This political “we” barely includes you and me, but it profoundly affects us.  Politicians have long lists of things that “we (i.e., the government) must” do — with our money.

‘You but not I’

On the other hand, when the predicate is negative, political “we” means ‘you, not me.’

Kamala Harris in late February said in Europe that ”we are going to incur” costs if we get involved in the Ukraine-Russia dispute (similar blatherings can be heard from other politicians).

Her “we” means that the consequences — among other things, skyrocketing gas and oil prices, inflation, perhaps a war (that she and her family won’t have to fight)  – will be incurred by you.

She and her fellow-rulers, many of them worth millions of dollars, will continue to cruise around on private jets and limos at taxpayer expense and will incur nothing.

Language alert

Political “we,” in both versions, goes right past you because it’s so common.  But keep in mind that every time you hear or read it, some politician somewhere is planning to pick your pocket.  Either that, or you’re going to suffer, while the politician doesn’t feel a thing.