"Yes, 'Who' Can?": Who "We" Are In American Liberal Discourse


  • Maryam El-Shall University of California, Irvine


American Liberalism, Obama, American history, African-American


In this essay, I posit President Obama's hopeful promise--"Yes, we can!"--within the framework of American liberal discourse. I examine how both the promise and the discourse within which it fits disguise the material realities of exclusion and oppression behind vague principles of freedom and equality. By parsing Obama's phrase and tracing its roots to the origins of American notions of identity, I try to show how the national collective imagined in the phrase "Yes, we can," is situated against assumptions of an Other--primarily African-American. I argue that such vague notions of a national collective serve not to unite, but rather to marginalize. Those who cannot or do not identify with the majority are often left out of the discussion. In this vein, I propose that arguments often made in the name of national interest--the collective "we" imagined in Obama's phrase-- serve many, but not all, and that such discourse is historically undergirded by an ideology of individualism and self-help, an ideology fueling current arguments against government programs benefiting the nation's poorest citizens.

Author Biography

Maryam El-Shall, University of California, Irvine

I have B.A and an M.A. in English from the University of Florida. Iam currently a third-year Ph.D student in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. Myresearch interests focus on the areas of psychoanalysis and trauma theory; emerging subjectivities and their cultural representations; cultural studies and Marxist theory.