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Dog-whistle politics

| 18 Comments

Here's a neologism that's likely to gain a lot of traction between now and 2008.

Dog-whistle politics noun
Expressing political ideas in such a way that only a specific group of voters properly understand what is being said, especially in order to conceal a controversial message.

----------

During the UK election campaigns in spring of 2005, a new phrase entered the Westminster lexicon: dog-whistle politics. A dog-whistle is used to create a special high-pitched sound which only attracts the attention of a particular dog rather than all the dogs around. The analogy then is to put across a political message in such a way that it will only be understood by potential supporters rather than voters in general...

--The Macmillan English Dictionary, 'Word of the Week' archive

Hat tip: Blog hooligan 'Alan,' at the 'Liestoppers' Board (Jan 16 2007, 08:58 PM).

18 Comments

This term is Australian in origin (so it should be pronounced something like "dag wizza palticks") and it is a favorite with the left-heads (see here) who like to believe in things like codes, conspiracies, and subtexts.

So Ian Welsh says, "It's one reason why Bush still has his hard core of support - he's constantly reassuring them, at a pitch the rest of us can't hear."

I don't know what sort of amazing information Welsh would learn if he could understand Bush's dog-whistle language. Is there some sort of evil that Welsh has not already imagined, that must be concealed at all costs? Maybe if he could see further into the electromagnetic spectrum he would find out that Bush is blue and has four arms.

The belief that people are speaking a secret language in order to fool you is a classic symptom of paranoia. Paranoia can be a serious disease, but in most cases it's just a dishonest form of self-flattery.

I don't know Glen, I always thought the President's references to Dred Scott were meant to be references to abortion. Its just that they weren't references that only his base could hear. Anybody familiar with the debates over Roe v. Wade would recognize that Dred Scott is only relevant to the current national debate as it relates to issues of judicial activism, court rulings that have been reversed, or extremely divisive court rulings.

Hmmm, thanks, Glen. I took it differently (or maybe not...).

Thinking, for example, of instances where CAIR has supported moderate imams' activities in the U.S.

Except that those same imams have unacknowledged but documented ties with salafist groups, and are on the record--in Arabic, that is--as wishing for the Crusader West to be laid low.

Thus can CAIR use the same words to reassure mainstream readers of its press releases, and to please its core supporters. With their agenda of spreading radical Islam in the dar al Harb.

In general, I am not a big fan of understanding world events through conspiracy theories. As we know, they explain everything.

So "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." But I think that some instances, such as the one I gave here, are too pedestrian to rise to that level.

PD:
I always thought the President's references to Dred Scott were meant to be references to abortion.
After Bush made a single reference to Dred Scott, there were a hundred left-head blogs claiming that this was a codeword for abortion.

Here is what Bush said in the presidential debate, 10/8/04:

Another example [of judicial activism] would be the Dred Scott case, which is where judges, years ago, said that the Constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights.

Now, in what possible context could Bush utter the words "Dred Scott" without having it taken to be a codeword for abortion? In whose minds are those two things equivalent - Bush's supporters, or his detractors? If both automatically assign that meaning, then where's the dog whistle code?

Besides, everybody has got it wrong. Dred Scott got his name because of the way he pronounced the popular phrase "Great Scott". "Great Scott" referred of course to General Winfield Scott, the victor of the Mexican War.

For decades after the Mexican War the Democratic Party was obsessed with annexing Mexico, and the Southern Democrats further proposed that Mexicans be enslaved as well. All this code-talk about Dred Scott indicates to me that the ambition is resurgent, and the Mexicans might want to consider building a wall of their own.

If people could pick up the kind of cranial frequencies that I do, they would understand this.

I'm not paranoid, but I could have sworn Dred Scott came up more than once, but I'll take your word for it rather than spend any time revisiting that campaign.

If both automatically assign that meaning, then where's the dog whistle code?

That's what I was trying to say. The Dred Scott reference, if it is an example of anything, is an example of words that have significance to special interests on both sides of the issue. They may not have much meaning to non-obsessive policy wonks.

It is too bad Bush didn't mention the Donald Scott case.

No this is not a joke. You can look it up.

I can hear some of George W. Bush's dog whistling. For example, he has used the expression, every child should be welcomed into life and protected by law. This is not only a pro-life thought, it shows that George W. Bush or whoever was writing his speech was well aware of what some Catholics were saying was the best soft way to express a pro-life stand.

When you sound the dog whistle, not only do you give a message to supporters, "I agree with you, even if the issue is not one I want to go hard on," but by knowing the code you show to some extent you must be in touch.

Because both George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush have had negative perceptions of being out of touch, the double effect of the dog whistle is remedial for him. It's of more benefit than it would be to someone who was always seen as in touch.

It's also of unusual benefit because pro-lifers as a group are concerned about the sincerity of those they support, not in the sense that we only need "true believers all the way" but because judges "grow in office" instead of "dancing with who brung them," and there is a major class issue. People who would rather kill than shop at low cost stores and buy extra-large jars of mayonnaise are likely to be pro-choice in their hearts and heavily represented in your upwardly mobile elected champions. So a bit of extra reassurance for those who fear they may be being left behind does not go astray.

Go here to see the National Right to Life web site compare Dred Scott with abortion. This wasn't some invention of leftist blogs.

This took me fifteen seconds with Google.

I don't know what point Glen Wishard is making, but the "I'm too stupid to use Google" point was probably not intended.

Andrew, it is not news to me that groups like National Right to Life compare Dred Scott to abortion. If you wish to believe that every utterance of "Dred Scott" should therefore be deciphered as "abortion", knock yourself out.

It is also not news to me that Bush opposes abortion, and I do not think that Bush is under the impression that he has successfully concealed this fact from the public. So it is a mystery to me what sort of secret information regarding abortion is being communicated, and what the effect of this communication is supposed to be.

Anyway, I took your advice and googled, and right at the top was this from Daily Kos: Dred Scott, Explained: It's About Abortion.

Some dog whistle. So, what was your point again, Andrew?

Actions speak louder than words, and to be believed by George W. Bush's base, you need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

(That is not universally true. William Jefferson Clinton did not have to act right to remain acceptable to feminists. But it does seem to be true with George W., Bush supporters. When he does things inconsistent with what they expect of him, or seems likely to do so, as with the nomination of Harriet Miers and the suggested possible nomination of Alberto Gonzales for places on the Supreme Court, they react unfavorably.)

But, how do you "catapult the propaganda" as George W. Bush put it? When year after year, George W. Bush shows with his actions that he is out to win not quit in Iraq, and year after year the media, many blogs and even sometimes this site suggest he's quitting or about to quit, how does he get the news past the censors and all the distortion, the news that his backers can still rely on him? The White House in the Bush years has been a fortress surrounded by lies, and it isn't Bush that's been doing most of the lying.

Expressions like "a comma" can be "snuck through the wire" and are consistent with what George W. Bush has always done and is still going, whereas the "smart insider" talk has been wildly wrong. Therefore they may convey reassurance. And since its reassurance of the plain truth, that George W. Bush is fighting to win, where's the harm?

If you want to coin a new phrase, how about one to describe the belief that one is politically marginalized not because one's ideas are bad and unpopular, but because the other side has access to special modes of communication that allow them to control what people think - a situation that could be reversed if you succeed in mastering these controls yourself?

I suggest "Air Americanism".

Glen, my point is simple. When George Bush said in debate that he wouldn't appoint judges like those who gave us Dred Scott, it was indeed a dog-whistle for the anti-abortion movement. I believe the "secret" communication is simple: Bush will indeed use a candidate's position on abortion as a litmus test. That is, there will be no pro-choice nominees at all. I don't believe that Bush has ever made such an absolute statement in plain English.

Leaving aside the moral equation of slavery and abortion, from a jurisprudential standpoint this argument makes very little sense to me. Judicial activism, 1850s style, would have been acting in favor of Dred Scott the person, as best as I can understand it.

Did John Kerry use a dog-whistle when he said:

And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as.

Was he communicating two different messages to two different groups?

David Blue, I think it could be well argued that Bush's actions demonstrate just the opposite: that he is not out to win in Iraq. His words say he is but his actions have been consistently half-hearted and mediocre. I think it could be argued that if he were out to win, he'd respond more quickly and more effectively to the problems confronting US strategy there.

To be honest, I couldn't exactly tell if you were being ironic or sarcastic. Perhaps, you were. In which case, I apologize for not getting the joke.

#12 from Andrew J. Lazarus: "I believe the "secret" communication is simple: Bush will indeed use a candidate's position on abortion as a litmus test. That is, there will be no pro-choice nominees at all."

I heard no such promise or implication. Had there been one, I think I would have heard it. The message was for people in America who think like me.

-

#12 from Andrew J. Lazarus: "I don't believe that Bush has ever made such an absolute statement in plain English."

He has said the opposite: there is no litmus test.

Rather, he is looking for a conservative judge.

He does not define what kind. He does not say what has become the magic word "originalist".

Instead, he has shown repeatedly that what he wants is someone he personally has a large comfort factor with.

Had not his base pushed him hard, twice, to get what they want, that is very highly qualified and expert judges of unimpeachable character, George W. Bush would have simply appointed a crony, that is an old friend and associate, to the top job, probably twice.

-

Pro-lifers generally think Roe vs. Wade was monstrous bad judging, both technically and morally. They think it was a wild act of arbitrary will and raw judicial power. They want all aspects of it mended. They want judges who are very good and very expert. Loose cannons, crazies or cronies who would vote the right way on Roe vs. Wade, but still displaying the ineptness that characterized it, and who might bring in something else terrible - who knows what? - are not what pro-lifers want.

If you look at John Roberts, and, even more, Samuel Alito, that is what pro-lifers want: people you hope will vote the right way, sure, and first, but also judges of the highest character and qualifications.

Judges who could bring down Dredd Scott, who could do something shocking and monstrous and deeply consequential and bloody, just because, are not what pro-lifers want.

#14 from mark: "To be honest, I couldn't exactly tell if you were being ironic or sarcastic. Perhaps, you were. In which case, I apologize for not getting the joke."

No need for any apology. I wasn't being ironic or sarcastic.

I think the record shows unambiguously that George W. Bush wants to win in Iraq, rather than to cut and run.

Therefore in calling bad news from Iraq a comma, he is accurately depicting his position.

-

#14 from mark: "David Blue, I think it could be well argued that Bush's actions demonstrate just the opposite: that he is not out to win in Iraq. His words say he is but his actions have been consistently half-hearted and mediocre. I think it could be argued that if he were out to win, he'd respond more quickly and more effectively to the problems confronting US strategy there."

People who flat out deny George W. Bush is fighting to win are a problem when they filter the news and impair the president's ability to get out the word that he for one is still in it to win it.

That is a reason why he has to talk like this, to get a true message past people who discount it and who take for granted the opposite and read their message, not his, into his actions and words.

Andrew:
Judicial activism, 1850s style, would have been acting in favor of Dred Scott the person, as best as I can understand it.

If you think "judicial activism" means a preference for individual rights, you're sorely mistaken.

The Dred Scott decision declared that it was unconstitutional to abolish or limit slavery, a decision which overruled state and federal legislation, wrecked a fragile political compromise, and shoved the country to the brink of war. It asserted that congress did not have the plenary power to limit slavery in the territories, an idea that was purely invented by Justice Taney. That's judicial activism, 1850s style.

This doesn't seem that odd to me. Overturning Roe v. Wade doesn't poll well. Opposition to judicial activism polls much better. After all some people believe it would take an activist court to overturn settled precedent. But the President still wants to galvanize his base who is solidly pro-life and want some assurance that a fellow with the last name Bush can be trusted. Talking about Dred Scott would be one of the ways to discuss that issue without alarming the President's pro-choice constituents.

On the flip side, it seems to me that Kerry wanted to rally the support of a powerful anti-war group without alienating moderates. There was no way he could do this in the context of the current war, so he talked about Vietnam. Vietnam was a sort of dog whistle that would be heard differently. To some it presented the classic image of war protest. Howard Dean's people were amazed that internal polling in Iowa showed a large number of Iowans believed Kerry best exemplified opposition to the war in Iraq. OTOH, pictures of Kerry in uniform attributed to him qualities of competence and military experience that were assuring to moderates. (There was a third group who remember the Vietnam war differently and heard a different tune on the whistle)

So this all seems like classic politics. In a heterogeneous country how can you win a majority of the voters without alienating some people? In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln talked about issues of slavery and race differently before pro- and anti- abolitionist crowds. He was largely successful. Douglas was not. His words were received in the South with great hostility and Southern Democrats refused to support his subsequent Presidential bid, splitting the party.

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