Dog-whistle Politics

gop by Rick Sealock

Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The phrase is often used as a pejorative, because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the messages are frequently coded because they are distasteful to the general populace. The analogy is to a dog whistle, whose high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans.

The term can be distinguished from ‘code words’ used in some specialist professions, in that dog-whistling is specific to the political realm. The messaging referred to as the dog-whistle has an understandable meaning for a general audience, rather than being incomprehensible.

According to etymologist William Safire, the term ‘dog whistle’ in reference to politics may have been derived from its use in the field of opinion polling. Safire quotes Richard Morin, director of polling for ‘The Washington Post,’ as writing in 1988, ‘subtle changes in question-wording sometimes produce remarkably different results…. researchers call this the ‘Dog Whistle Effect’: Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not,’ and speculates that campaign workers adapted the phrase from political pollsters.

In her book “Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia,” academic Amanda Lohrey writes that the goal of the dog-whistle is to appeal to the greatest possible number of electors while alienating the smallest possible number. She uses as an example Australian politicians using broadly appealing words such as ‘family’ and ‘values,’ which have extra resonance for Christians, while avoiding overt Christian moralizing that might be a turn-off for non-Christian voters. Australian political theorist Robert E. Goodin argues that the problem with dog-whistling is that it undermines democracy, because if voters have different understandings of what they were supporting during a campaign, the fact that they were seeming to support the same thing is ‘democratically meaningless’ and does not give the dog-whistler a policy mandate.

The term was common in Australian politics in the mid-1990s, and was frequently applied to the political campaigning of John Howard. Throughout his 11 years as Australian prime minister and particularly in his fourth term, Howard was accused of communicating messages appealing to anxious and perhaps racist white Australian voters using code words such as ‘un-Australian,’ ‘mainstream’ and ‘illegals.’ One notable example was the Howard government’s message on illegal immigration. His tough stance on illegal immigration was popular with voters, but the government was accused of using the issue to additionally send veiled messages of support to voters with racist leanings, while maintaining plausible deniability by avoiding overtly racist language. Another example is the publicity of the citizenship test in 2007. It has been argued that the test may appear reasonable at face value, but is really intended to appeal to those opposing immigration from particular geographic regions.

Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, who had previously managed John Howard’s four election campaigns in Australia, worked as a UK Conservative Party advisor during the 2005 British general election. In what Goodin calls ‘the classic case’ of dog-whistling, Crosby created a campaign for the UK Conservatives with the slogan ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’: a series of posters, billboards, TV commercials and direct mail pieces with messages like ‘It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’ and ‘how would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?’ focused on hot-button issues like dirty hospitals, landgrabs by ‘gypsies’ and restraints on police behavior.

The phrase ‘states’ rights,’ although literally referring to powers of individual state governments in the United States, was described in 2007 by David Greenberg in ‘Slate’ as ‘code words’ for institutionalized segregation and racism. In 1981, former Republican Party strategist Lee Atwater, when giving an anonymous interview discussing the GOP’s Southern Strategy said: ‘You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’

Law professor and author of the book ‘Dog Whistle Politics’ Ian Haney-López described Ronald Reagan as ‘blowing a dog whistle’ when the candidate told stories about ‘Cadillac-driving ‘welfare queens’ and ‘strapping young bucks’ buying T-bone steaks with food stamps’ while he was campaigning for the presidency. Journalist Craig Unger wrote that President George W. Bush and Karl Rove used coded ‘dog-whistle’ language in political campaigning, delivering one message to the overall electorate while at the same time delivering quite a different message to a targeted evangelical Christian political base. William Safire, in ‘Safire’s Political Dictionary,’ offered the example of Bush’s criticism during the 2004 presidential campaign of the Supreme Court’s 1857 ‘Dred Scott’ decision denying the citizenship of any African American. To most listeners the criticism seemed innocuous, Safire wrote, but ‘sharp-eared observers’ understood the remark to be a pointed reminder that Supreme Court decisions can be reversed, and a signal that, if re-elected, Bush might nominate to the Supreme Court a justice who would overturn ‘Roe v. Wade.’

During the 2008 Democratic primaries, several writers criticized Hillary Clinton’s campaign’s reliance on code words and innuendo seemingly designed to frame Barack Obama’s race as problematic, saying Obama was characterized by the Clinton campaign and its prominent supporters as anti-white due to his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, as able to attract only black votes, as anti-patriotic, a drug user, possibly a drug seller, and married to an angry, ungrateful black woman. Obama was accused of dog-whistling to African-American voters by using a blend of gestures, style and rhetoric, such as fist-bumps and walking with a ‘street lope,’ that carefully affirmed and underscored his black identity.



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