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 only ever used as a pejorative, because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently themselves distasteful, for example by empathising with racist or revolutionary attitudes. It is an analogy to dog whistles, which are built in such a way that their high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs, but is inaudible to humans.
The term can be distinguished from "code words" used by hospital staff or other specialist workers, in that dog-whistling is specific to the political realm, and the messaging referred to as the dog-whistle has an understandable meaning for a general audience, rather than being incomprehensible.
Origin and meaning
According to William Safire, the phrase may have been borrowed from the field of opinion polling. Safire quotes Richard Morin, director of polling for The Washington Post, as writing in 1988 that "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.
History and usage
The term originated 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 messaging on illegal immigration. The Howard government's 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, and the term was introduced to British political discussion at this time. 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 behaviour.
Journalist Craig Unger writes 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 U.S. Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding slavery. 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. This view is echoed in a 2004 Los Angeles Times article by Peter Wallsten.
Economist Paul Krugman in The Conscience of a Liberal (2007) extensively discusses the subtle use of dog-whistle political rhetoric by William F. Buckley, Jr., Irving Kristol and Ronald Reagan in building the rightist "movement conservatism".
One group of alleged code words in the United States is claimed to appeal to racism of the intended audience. The phrase "states' rights", although literally referring to powers of individual state governments in the United States, was described 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 (see also Lee Atwater on the 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."
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 only able to get black votes, as anti-patriotic, a drug user, possibly a drug seller, and married to an angry, ungrateful black woman.
During the United States presidential election, 2012, Julianna Smoot accused the Obama campaign of anti-Semitic dog whistling when campaign staffer stated in an email that Ryan was "'making a pilgrimage' to the country’s sin capital to 'kiss the ring'" after a meeting between Paul Ryan and Jewish businessman Sheldon Adelson.
- Code word (figure of speech)
- Framing (social sciences)
- Loaded language
- Political correctness
- Safire, William (2008). Safire's political dictionary. New York [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press. p. 190. ISBN 0-19-534334-4.
- Lohrey, Amanda (2006). Voting for Jesus: Christianity and politics in Australia. Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc. pp. 48–58. ISBN 1-86395-230-6.
- Goodin, Robert E. (2008). Innovating democracy: democratic theory and practice after the deliberative turn (Repr. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 224–228. ISBN 0-19-954794-7.
- Grant Barrett, The official dictionary of unofficial English, McGraw-Hill Professional, 2006, p 90
- Soutphommasane, Tim (2009). Reclaiming patriotism: nation-building for Australian progressives. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 0-521-13472-2.
- Gelber, Katharine. Speech matters: getting free speech right (1st ed.). St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press. pp. end–notes. ISBN 0-7022-3873-2.
- Garran, Robert (2004). True believer: John Howard, George Bush and the American alliance. Allen & Unwin. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-74114-418-5.
- Josh Fear, Under the Radar: Dog-whistle politics in Australia, The Australia Institute, September 2007
- "No question about a citizenship test". The Sydney Morning Herald. December 13, 2006.
- Safire, William (2008). Safire's political dictionary (Rev. ed.). New York [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press. p. 190. ISBN 0-19-534334-4.
- Goodin, Robert E. (2008). Innovating democracy: democratic theory and practice after the deliberative turn (Repr. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 226. ISBN 0-19-954794-7.
- Lees-Marshment, Jennifer (2009). Political marketing: principles and applications. London: Routledge. p. 169. ISBN 0-415-43128-X.
- McCallister, J.F.O. (3 April 2005). "Whistling In the Dark?". Time magazine. Retrieved 9 September 2012.
- Seawright, David (2007). The British Conservative Party and one nation politics. London: Continuum. p. 134. ISBN 0-8264-8974-5.
- Unger, Craig (2007). "11. Dog Whistle Politics". The fall of the house of Bush: the untold story of how a band of true believers seized the executive branch, started the Iraq War, and still imperils America's future. Simon and Schuster. pp. 172–173. ISBN 978-0-7432-8075-4.
- Wallsten, Peter (October 13, 2004). "Abortion Foes Call Bush's Dred Scott Reference Perfectly Clear". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 19, 2013.
- Greenberg, David (Nov 20, 2007). "Dog-Whistling Dixie. When Reagan said "states' rights," he was talking about race". The Slate Group. Retrieved May 21, 2012.
- Lamis, Alexander P. et al. (1990) The Two Party South. Oxford University Press.
- Herbert, Bob (October 6, 2005) "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant." New York Times. Retrieved May 21, 2012.
- Logan, Enid Lynette. "At this defining moment": Barack Obama's presidential candidacy and the new politics of race. New York: New York University Press. p. 62. ISBN 0-8147-5298-5.
- Dolan, Eric W. (September 4, 2012). "CNN’s Soledad O’Brien confronts Tea Party Express spokeswoman over ‘very odd comment’". The Raw Story. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
- Jonathan S. Tobin (August 15, 2012) Whose Anti-Semitic Dog Whistling Now? Commentary. Retrieved 14 December 2013
- OBAMA CAMPAIGN: RYAN 'KISSES THE RING' OF JEWISH MEGADONOR ADELSON, breitbart.com.
- "Just a Comma" by Ian Welsh at The Agonist, September 25, 2006
- "'Just a Comma' Becomes Part of Iraq Debate" by Peter Baker, Washington Post, Thursday, October 5, 2006, page A19
- Etymology from the Double-Tongued Dictionary