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 dog-whistle messages are frequently 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.
Origin and meaning
According to 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.
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 message on refugee arrivals. The Howard government's tough stance on refugee arrivals 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.
During the 2015 Canadian federal election the Conservative party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper was accused of communicating 'code' words in a debate to appeal to his party's base supporters. Midway through the election campaign the Conservative Party hired Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby as a political adviser when they fell to third place in the polls behind the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party. During a televised election debate Stephen Harper, while discussing the government's controversial decision to remove certain immigrants and refugee claimants from accessing Canada's health care system made reference to 'old stock Canadians' as being in support of the government's position. Opposition leader reaction was swift and scathing, calling his words racist and divisive.
Lynton Crosby, who had previously managed John Howard's four election campaigns in Australia, worked as a Conservative Party adviser during the 2005 UK 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 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.
In April 2016 Mayor of London and Conservative MP Boris Johnson was accused of "dog whistle racism" by Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Labour MP John McDonnell when Johnson suggested US President Barack Obama held a grudge against the United Kingdom due to his "ancestral dislike of the British Empire" as a result of his "part-Kenyan" heritage after Obama expressed his support for the UK to vote to remain in the European Union ahead of the UK's referendum on EU membership.
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 (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."— Lee Atwater, Republican Party strategist in an anonymous interview in 1981
U.S. law professor and author of the 2014 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. He argues that such rhetoric pushes middle-class white Americans to vote against their economic self-interest in order to punish "undeserving minorities" who, they believe, are receiving too much public assistance at their expense. According to López, conservative middle-class whites, convinced by powerful economic interests that minorities are the enemy, supported politicians who promised to curb illegal immigration and crack down on crime but inadvertently also voted for policies that favor the extremely rich, such as slashing taxes for top income brackets, giving corporations more regulatory control over industry and financial markets, union busting, cutting pensions for future public employees, reducing funding for public schools, and retrenching the social welfare state. He argues that these same voters cannot link rising inequality which has impacted their lives to the policy agendas they support, which resulted in a massive transfer of wealth to the top 1% of the population since the 1980s.
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 U.S. Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision denying the U. S. 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. 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".
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 "swagger — a rhythmic lope that says cool and confident and undeniably black," that carefully affirmed and underscored his black identity.
During the United States presidential election, 2012, conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro accused the Obama campaign of anti-Semitic dog whistling after campaign staffer Julianna Smoot said in an email that Paul Ryan was "'making a pilgrimage' to Las Vegas to 'kiss the ring'" of Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. It was described as "a classic anti-Semitic dog whistle signaling voters that Ryan is in the thrall of the 'Israel Lobby'."
Also in that election cycle, Obama's campaign ran an ad that said Mitt Romney is "not one of us." The ad, which Washington Post journalist Karen Tumulty said "echoes a slogan that has been used as a racial code over at least the past half-century," ran in Ohio, a state that is only 0.52% Mormon.
During the United States Senate Republican primary election in Mississippi, 2014, a scandal emerged with politicians accused of playing the race card by using such "code words" as "food stamps". Senator Ted Cruz called for an investigation, saying that "the ads they ran were racially-charged false attacks."
- Code word (figure of speech)
- Framing (social sciences)
- Loaded language
- Political correctness
- Southern strategy
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