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How the 2016 presidential election will shape American identity

What does it mean to be an American? REUTERS/Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

How the 2016 presidential election will shape American identity

The 2016 American presidential election will boil down to one simple question:

Who do we want to be as Americans?

The language used by the leading presidential candidates reveals that both candidates want to appeal to what it means to be American – though this may mean different things for each of them.

On Tuesday, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said:

Making Donald Trump our president would undo much of the progress we’ve made and put our economy at risk and beyond that, this election will say something about who we are as a people.

What often distinguishes their rhetoric is that Trump talks more about non-American groups and “who they are,” which has the potential to create sharp divides and even animosity between “us” and “them.”

For example, Trump said in a speech attacking Hillary:

Under her plan, we would admit hundreds of thousands of refugees from the most dangerous countries on Earth – with no way to screen who they are or what they believe.

As a social psychologist, I study how leaders communicate about identity. My colleague, Michelle Bligh, and I analyzed the rhetoric of 20th-century American presidents and found that charismatic presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan followed a clear and compelling pattern of communication that distinguished them from less charismatic presidents. Charismatic presidents painted a vivid picture of American identity in their speeches.

The power of identity

Why is talking about American identity so powerful?

Group memberships, like being American, tap into our basic human need to feel like we belong. Groups can reduce our uncertainties about ourselves, and provide us with identity or a script of “who I am.” Group identity can have a profound influence on how we think, feel and act, and we are susceptible to influence from other fellow group members.

We take cues about what being American entails from our leaders. That means that if a leader is able to redefine what it means to be American, he or she is able to influence how you think, feel and act.

For example, in a speech earlier this month, Hillary Clinton said:

And I believe with all my heart that America is an exceptional country … We are not a country that cowers behind walls. We lead with purpose, and we prevail.

Politicians adjust their language to send a message about “who we are” as a group and “what it means” to be a group member. In many cases, they articulate an appealing vision of the future and try to align “who we are” with their vision.

This technique is called “social identity framing.” When done right, it can profoundly influence people and help leaders gain support for their visions.

Using ‘we’ language

A key marker of using identity to captivate an audience is the use of “we” language. This language includes words like “we,” “us” and “our.” It also references the group (“American”), the people in the group (“Democrats” “Republicans”) and a general emphasis on the collective (“nation”) in communication.

One of the best examples of “we” language is in President Obama’s remarks at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 2015. President Obama’s speech helps clearly define how he sees “who we are” as Americans and “what it means” to be American.

My research shows that leaders who use high levels of “we” language are seen as more persuasive, effective, charismatic, representative of the group, likable and trustworthy than leaders who don’t. This language also provokes more positive emotions about the leader’s vision, and increases support for the vision and confidence that the group can make the vision into a reality.

Who will Americans be in 2016?

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump express “who we are” and “what we should stand for” and “where we are going” as Americans, while simultaneously projecting themselves as an embodiment of their own version of American identity.

Each candidate communicates a very different version of what it means to be American. People will likely vote for the candidate that most closely typifies the version of American identity that resonates with them.

The election will reflect who we believe we are as Americans. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

This requires projecting an American identity that is broad and inclusive enough to appeal to our diverse political and demographic population. This is not an easy task.

As we head to the polls in November, we are not just voting for a leader’s personal characteristics and qualifications. We are voting for a vision of what it means to be an American.

The election will determine who we are as Americans for years to come.

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