Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

"Yes We Can": Rhizomic Rhetorical Agency in Hyper-Modern Campaign Ecologies

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

"Yes We Can": Rhizomic Rhetorical Agency in Hyper-Modern Campaign Ecologies

Article excerpt

"YES WE CAN'T: RHIZOMIC RHETORICAL AGENCY IN HYPER-MODERN CAMPAIGN ECOLOGIES

On March 31, 2009, President Barack Obama gave an address on what would have been the 82nd birthday of Cesar Chavez, reminding Americans of the labor leader's dedication to fair treatment, fair wages, and to bettering the lives of all workers. In that address, President Obama made reference to the rallying cry established by Chavez, "!Si, se puede!"--which translates as "Yes, We Can!"--saying that it was "more than a slogan, it was an expression of hope." The President concluded by noting that Chavez "taught us that a single voice could change our country, and that together, we could make America a stronger, more just, and more prosperous nation" (Obama, 2009). The phrase "Si se puede" has special resonance for President Obama as "Yes We Can" was a central trope in his bid for the presidency. (1) The choice of Chavez's slogan was likely not a coincidence. Marshall Ganz, Obama's field organizer for the campaign, worked closely with Chavez and the United Farm Workers for 16 years. Further, "Si se puede" is a phrase that has special resonance with farm workers, union workers, and Latino voters, traditionally Democratic voters whose support Obama needed to garner in order to secure his party's nomination for the presidency. His description of Chavez's activism very much mirrored his own campaign discourse of hope, optimism, and the power of individual citizens to unite in community. Throughout his campaign Obama situated himself in narratives of America's hope and recovery alongside "average voters," articulating his own story of perseverance and success with that of the American Dream, and his election as the means to salvage that dream for contemporary citizens (Hollihan, in press).

The slogan "Yes We Can" was effective in mobilizing voting audiences, as demonstrated by its viral and resounding effect, from the chants of supporters to the bumper stickers on their cars. It even spawned a Grammy award winning music video by Black Eyed Peas front-man Will.i.am. Since the election, the phrase has penetrated even further into popular culture, appearing in television commercials and radio ads looking to capitalize on the massive popular support for the nation's 44th President. But this wasn't always the case. How did a rallying cry for Chavez's United Farm Workers movement become the watchword of the Obama campaign? How did a phrase that appeared on campaign posters in field offices find its way into debate responses, car bumpers, and the address recognizing the victory of the nation's first African American President?

This essay traces the emergence and development of the "Yes We Can" slogan and details its evolution as a primary argumentative trope in the 2008 election from the early stages of the Democratic presidential primary through the general election and Obama's victory. The essay examines a portion of the discourse surrounding the New Hampshire Democratic debates, Obama's concession speech after the New Hampshire primary, and the subsequent production of Will.i.am's music video. The troping of "Yes We Can" provides a critical case study of hyper-modern campaign rhetoric, and the trajectory of argument in a postmodern campaign context. Through the appropriation and re-appropriation of campaign themes, statements, and controversies, the formal presentation of the arguments and their content converge in various ways in a struggle to delineate and control the rhetorical spaces of "true" and/or "realistic" change, the old guard of traditional politics, and the possibilities and promises of citizen activism. The interaction of multiple texts in political and popular cultures combined to create multiple meanings alternately taken up, contested, and abandoned by the candidates and their supporters. This set of texts is located for analysis because it is in them that "Yes We Can" is figured as a central element of Obama's campaign. …

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