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Yes We Can and the Making of a (Post) Racial Super Slogan?


University of British Columbia

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan, Yes We Can, captured the American socio-political and racial zeitgeist unlike any other in US history. This paper examines the slogan in unparalleled analytical detail, drawing upon issues of origins, rhetorical deployment and linguistic structure, but with a central focus upon Obama’s use of the phrase to run simultaneous and parallel racialized and post-racial campaigns. Yes We Can enabled Obama to present himself as a symbolic representation of general and racial transformation, whilst encouraging his supporters to engage in a variety of rhetorical visions (Social Movement Theory) which were, whether racial or not, authenticated by an icon of multivariate political change. In its a priori superficiality, but experiential complexity, this tapestried phrase, interwoven with various levels of meaning, is able to function as a multivocal dog whistle, which in its appeal to some, does not exclude others. Rather, Yes We Can is a cradle for multiple symbolic understandings of Obama and his promise, which are created and stabilized by a grass roots campaign founded upon performative polyphony. That Mr and Mrs Obama had once perceived entirely different meanings within the unassuming trisyllabic phrase, underscores the slogan’s stealth, which is so expertly used to simultaneously discriminate and unite difference, to propel the first African American president to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on the crest of a social movement unlike any other in recent political observation.

Keywords: Yes We Can, Political slogans, Barack Obama, Race, Symbolic Convergence Theory, Prolepsis, Aposiopesis, Polyphony, Winning the Future, Grass roots organization, presidential campaigning, rhetori



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