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Dog-whistle politics

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Dog-whistle politics

A physical dog whistle is almost ultrasonic, and so silent to most humans.

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 1
  • History and usage 2
    • Australia 2.1
    • United Kingdom 2.2
    • United States 2.3
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

History and usage


The term originated in Australian politics in the mid-1990s, and was frequently applied to the political campaigning of John Howard.[4] 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".[5][6]

One notable example was the Howard government's message 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,[7] while maintaining plausible deniability by avoiding overtly racist language.[8] Another example is the publicity of the citizenship test in 2007.[8] 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.[9]

United Kingdom

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.[10] In what Goodin calls "the classic case" of dog-whistling,[11] 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?"[12] focused on hot-button issues like dirty hospitals, landgrabs by "gypsies" and restraints on police behaviour.[13][14]

United States

U.S. 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.[15][16]

Journalist 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.[17] 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.[10] This view is echoed in a 2004 Los Angeles Times article by Peter Wallsten.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

In 2012, journalist Soledad O'Brien used the phrase 'dog whistle' to describe Tea Party Express representative Amy Kremer's accusation that President Barack Obama 'does not love America'.[21]

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.[22] This was described as "a classic anti-Semitic dog whistle signaling voters that Ryan is in the thrall of the 'Israel Lobby'."[23]

Also in that election cycle, Obama's campaign ran an ad that said Mitt Romney is "not one of us."[24] 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",[25] ran in Ohio, a state that is only 0.52% Mormon.[26]

During the United States Senate Republican primary election in Mississippi, 2014, a scandal emerged where politicians were accused of playing the Race card by using such "code words" as "food stamps".[27][28][29][30] Senator Ted Cruz called for an investigation,[31] saying that "the ads they ran were racially-charged false attacks".[32]

See also


  1. ^ Safire, William (2008). Safire's political dictionary. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. p. 190.  
  2. ^ Lohrey, Amanda (2006). Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia. Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc. pp. 48–58.  
  3. ^ Goodin, Robert E. (2008). Innovating Democracy: Democratic Theory and Practice after the Deliberative Turn (Repr. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 224–228.  
  4. ^ Grant Barrett, The official dictionary of unofficial English, McGraw-Hill Professional, 2006, p. 90
  5. ^ Soutphommasane, Tim (2009). Reclaiming patriotism: nation-building for Australian progressives. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. pp. 19–20.  
  6. ^ Gelber, Katharine. Speech matters: getting free speech right (1st ed.). St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press. pp. end–notes.  
  7. ^ Garran, Robert (2004). True believer: John Howard, George Bush and the American alliance. Allen & Unwin. p. 18.  
  8. ^ a b Josh Fear, Under the Radar: Dog-whistle politics in Australia, The Australia Institute, September 2007
  9. ^ Editorial (December 13, 2006). "No question about a citizenship test". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved July 17, 2014. 
  10. ^ a b Safire, William (2008). Safire's political dictionary (Rev. ed.). New York: Oxford Univ. Press. p. 190.  
  11. ^ Goodin, Robert E. (2008). Innovating democracy: democratic theory and practice after the deliberative turn (Repr. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 226.  
  12. ^ Lees-Marshment, Jennifer (2009). Political marketing: principles and applications. London: Routledge. p. 169.  
  13. ^ McCallister, J.F.O. (3 April 2005). "Whistling In the Dark?". Time. Retrieved 9 September 2012. 
  14. ^ Seawright, David (2007). The British Conservative Party and one nation politics. London: Continuum. p. 134.  
  15. ^ López, Ian Haney (January 13, 2014). Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford University Press.  
  16. ^ Full Show: Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race, Part I. Moyers & Company, February 28, 2014.
  17. ^ 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.  
  18. ^ Wallsten, Peter (October 13, 2004). "Abortion Foes Call Bush's Dred Scott Reference Perfectly Clear". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 19, 2013. 
  19. ^ 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.  
  20. ^ Ian Haney-Lopez (2014). Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford University Press.  
  21. ^ 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. 
  22. ^ Ben Shapiro (August 14, 2012). "Obama Campaign: Ryan 'Kisses the Ring' of Jewish Megadonor Adelson". Breitbart. Retrieved July 17, 2014. 
  23. ^ Jonathan S. Tobin (August 15, 2012) "Whose Anti-Semitic Dog Whistling Now?" Commentary. Retrieved 14 December 2013
  24. ^ "Made in Ohio - Obama for America TV Ad". YouTube. 
  25. ^ "Obama’s ‘not one of us’ attack on Romney echoes racial code". Washington Post. 
  26. ^ The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints membership statistics (United States)
  27. ^ Hall, Sam (2014-08-05). "Harris denies anyone tied to Cochran involved in KKK ads". ClarionLedger.Com. Retrieved 2014-08-07. 
  28. ^ Fund, John (2014-07-25). "The Flier That Got Thad Cochran Elected?". National Review. Retrieved 2014-08-18. 
  29. ^ "The Tea Party Intends to prevent you from VOTING". 
  30. ^ "Why I’m Moving To Censure Henry Barbour In The RNC Over Race-Baiting Ads". Daily Caller. 8 August 2014. Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  31. ^ "Ted Cruz: We Need An Investigation Into the Mississippi Race". The Mark Levin Show. 7 July 2014. Retrieved 29 August 2014. 
  32. ^ Sullivan, Sean (2014-07-25). "Ted Cruz slams ‘D.C. machine’ over Mississippi runoff, wants voter-fraud investigation". Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-08-27. 

External links

  • "Just a Comma" by Ian Welsh at The Agonist, September 25, 2006
  • "'Just a Comma' Becomes Part of Iraq Debate" by Peter Baker, The Washington Post, Thursday, October 5, 2006, page A19
  • Etymology from the Double-Tongued Dictionary
  • Full Show: Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race, Part I. Moyers & Company February 28, 2014.
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