Although the term “dog whistle politics” originated in the Australian press during the 1990s, it has been an increasingly prominent feature of American politics for some time now. The term refers to using coded language which holds little or no meaning for the public at large but is significant for certain segments of the population. It works just like a dog whistle; some people “hear” it, but most don’t.
While the tactic may be used with a variety of topics, it tends to be associated with discussions about race relations. Probably the best explanation of dog whistle tactics (though the term had not been coined at the time) comes from an interview with Republican strategist Lee Atwater in 1981, in which he described the GOP’s “Southern Strategy.”
“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.'”
In light of this prophetic admission, it is worth noting that Atwater went on to manage the campaign of George H.W. Bush in 1988, which will forever be associated with its infamous “Willie Horton” ad. Perhaps more importantly, the “Southern Strategy,” which was designed to attract Southern whites who felt betrayed by the Democratic party and their support for Civil Rights, was largely successful.
Dog whistle tactics can perform several practical functions. The first and most typical function is to reach certain groups, sub-cultures or ideological movements with which the “whistle-blower” would rather not be openly associated with. Another function involves speaking to certain fears or beliefs which are often commonly held by one’s own base, but which they often do not express openly. In this way, the base is reassured that their leaders share and understand their concerns. Lastly, dog whistle tactics offer plausible deniability. Anyone can claim that their words were simply misinterpreted, or that people are reading into the message and finding things that simply aren’t their. Even better for the right, they can claim that “political correctness” is causing people to find all kinds of racist or sexist messages where there are none. The latter example can be a useful dog whistle tactic in itself, as we shall explore later.
In the wake of the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, the decline of the United States as a world power, and the resurrection of the radical right-wing militia movement, not only has the use of dog whistle politics become more popular, but these days some of the dog whistles are becoming more and more audible, to the point where the coded language is almost entirely disposed of, and the dog whistle becomes a blaring air-raid siren.
Yet no matter how many of us can clearly hear the message, those doing the whistling will claim they are being misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise. They will claim that they are wrongfully accused, and this will score them even more political points. Let us analyze one of the latest and most glaring examples of these tactics in action.
This month Minnesota representative and GOP presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann signed a document called “The Marriage Vow – A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family,” hereafter referred to as “the vow.” It was drawn up by an Iowa Christian conservative organization known as The Family Leader, and Republican candidates were asked to sign. It contains a variety of various conservative Christian fundamentalist ideas about “traditional marriage,” along with all the errors, logical fallacies, and historical inaccuracies which typically go hand-in-hand with such concepts. The problems with the ideas put forth in the vow, which run the gamut of inaccurate or dishonest to indescribably stupid*, are manifold and would require a series of articles to refute in detail. It was one particular part of the vow, however, which caught the attention of the media.
“Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.”
It’s not easy to point out what’s wrong with that, that is to say there are so many things so glaringly wrong about that statement that it’s almost impossible to decide where to begin. Providing a little context might help. The vow begins with two paragraphs, one short, the other longer, containing a number of unfounded assumptions and historically inaccurate statements and an assertion that the institution of marriage is in crisis, respectively. These are followed by a number of bullet points designed to show how the institution of marriage is “unmistakably” in “great crisis,” of which the above-quoted paragraph is the first. That really needs to be rephrased for effect; the group based in Iowa, a state where black Americans make up 2.9% of the population, and where 91% of the population is white, decided to include this paragraph first in its list of proof that the institution of marriage and the family is in great crisis. Not too many articles on the recent controversy have bothered to point out the paragraph’s placement in the vow, but it’s inclusion and prominence in the document are part of the dog-whistle technique at use here. Let us now dissect the claim in detail.
The obvious subtext here is that being raised in a two-parent household, which is assumed to be automatically good and superior to any other family form, is either more important or at least equal to the question of whether one is seen as a human being with rights or the private property of another person. Note that the paragraph doesn’t really condemn slavery; it accuses it of having a disastrous impact on the African-American family, but then goes on to say that the family situation under slavery in the 1860’s was better than today.
This evokes an image long propagated by neo-Confederates and other apologists for slavery, who like to portray the life of antebellum slaves as almost idyllic, characterized by singing, dancing, working and worshiping. The reality of slavery involved a nightmarish journey across the sea in chains, humiliation on the auction block, the break-up of families, repeated sexual assault on female slaves, whipping, beating, torture, back-breaking labor and death. To say “at least more of their children grew up in two-parent households” is not only false, it borders on sociopathic. It is false because marriage between slaves was not legally recognized, and it is sociopathic because slaves could be sold away from their family members, and many babies born to slave mothers were often the children of either masters or overseers.
This refutation wouldn’t be complete without addressing the issue of out-of-wedlock births in the black community, which has become so distorted in recent history that many people tend to accept as “common knowledge” a number of negative stereotypes about black Americans. In fact, the stereotype of the irresponsible black woman popping out babies from multiple, absent fathers is one of the most potent images associated with dog whistle politics. It has a name, “the welfare queen,” and it is the image the media and many politicians would like us to see any time someone mentions social welfare programs. It is also a complete myth. Anti-racist author Tim Wise dealt with this ridiculous but potent myth thusly:
“For every 1000 white women 15-44 there are 66.5 live births, while for every 1000 black women that age there are 71.7. Indeed, the fertility rate for black women has fallen by more than half in the last forty years, such that the gap between black and white fertility has been slashed by nearly 80 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The birthrate for unmarried black women is at a forty-year low and the rate of babies born to black teens hasn’t gone up one iota since 1920.”
He goes on to cite an important fact which explains why it appears that out-of-wedlock births increased. Put simply, black married families in recent decades have had fewer children, and with the fertility of black married females decreasing, a larger percentage of black children were born to unmarried women. In Stephanie Coontz’s book The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, published earlier in 1992, we see that while black out-of-wedlock births had actually decreased by 13% between 1970 and the time of the book’s publication (compared to a 27% increase in white out-of-wedlock births), the lower fertility of married black women did indeed drop by 38%, leading to a larger proportion of black children being raised by single mothers.
Taken at face value, the passage from the vow emits a paternalistic, condescending, and altogether insincere concern for black Americans. Far more sinister is the hidden message within, which resonates with all manner of conservatives including those with which even Bachmann wouldn’t want to be directly associated. The hidden subtext is best illustrated by breaking it down into a number of points, which constitute common shared “memes” among conservatives of various stripes, and even some people who don’t consider themselves to be conservative in the slightest.
1) Here we have an oft-repeated conservative meme, namely the implication that slavery constituted some kind of blessing in disguise. The reader may have personally heard arguments which state that slavery allowed the descendants of the slaves to be born in the United States, with conditions and freedoms which don’t exist in Africa. People who espouse such arguments often become less talkative when you ask them why Africa is the way it is today, and why statistically black Americans have had to deal with so many forms of discrimination and destructive economic policies, since the end of slavery.
2) The vow cites the break down of the family, specifically their ideal two-parent family, as the cause of poverty and all the social problems which go along with it. At first glance it might seem generous that these people aren’t invoking some kind of “racial science” to explain the problems in Iowa’s large black community. What it is doing however, is saying that poor economic conditions in the black community is due to the break-down of the family, when in fact any actual break down of families, black or white, is due to poor economic conditions. Conservatives typically get this backwards, much like how they blame feminism for driving women out of the home, when the rise of feminism and women’s liberation actually followed the migration of women to the workplace.
3) If economic problems of the black community are a result of the break-down of the family, then the blame can be laid at the feet of black Americans themselves. The conservative reader, especially the one which privately holds views on race which they might not share in mixed company, can read this statement and nod in silent approval. Slavery is long gone, segregation ended decades ago. They have no one to blame but themselves now! All across the right-wing spectrum these ideas exist, and are often expressed quite openly these days. Even White supremacists who clash with mainstream conservatives over issues like Israel are happy to see GOP candidates approving such messages. It validates a key point of their worldview and signals that this candidate will at least be a “lesser of two evils” from their perspective.
To understand the ultimate potency of this dog whistle, one needs to consider the reaction of the press, and how the scandal will be viewed through conservative eyes. Bachmann’s spokesperson seems to be suggesting that she didn’t read the preamble portion of the vow, which contains the paragraph in question. The excuse of the Family Leader organization may seem pathetic to the untrained eye, but it is well-crafted and suited to its purpose. It reads as follows:
“After careful deliberation and wise insight and input from valued colleagues we deeply respect, we agree that the statement referencing children born into slavery can be misconstrued, and such misconstruction can detract from the core message of the Marriage Vow: that ALL of us must work to strengthen and support families and marriages between one woman and one man…We sincerely apologize for any negative feelings this has caused, and have removed the language from the vow.”
Pundits have pointed out that this “apology” doesn’t acknowledge the inaccuracy of the statement. It has also been pointed out that this “apology” casts the vow writers as innocent and unassuming, and at least part of the blame lies with anyone who might “misconstrue” whatever their real message was in that paragraph. Critics aren’t going to buy it, but they are missing the point. Can you hear the dog whistle there? In this case it may very well be the loudest, because what was meant to sound like a defeat can easily be turned into a victory which will only strengthen the bonds between the leaders and the base of the radical right.
You see, conservatives, particularly those who make up what is commonly known as the “religious right,” live out a day-to-day fantasy where they imagine themselves under siege from all sides, persecuted by liberals, feminists, socialists, gays, “secular humanists,” community organizers, and various types of “thugs,” from union members to gangbangers.**
Amongst the religious, the idea of the virtuous being wrongfully accused resonates deeply. What better example of persecution could there be than the innocent being wrongfully accused and “forced” to apologize before the whole public? Of course they never explicitly said that conditions under slavery were better than today, they never intended to offend anyone. And if virtuous people such as Family Leader declare that their intentions were innocent, we must take them at their word because virtuous people do not have ulterior motives.
The uproar against the vow also helps to strengthen the conservative myth that “political correctness” dominates American society. The vow writers claim that they did not intend to offend anyone, and suggest that some people may have “misconstrued” the message. The implicit message, which is heard loud and clear by the conservative base, is that this is another case of wacky leftists finding racism everywhere they look. It is also in this context that the vow writers’ refusal to admit to the inaccuracy of the information becomes so important. The stereotypes about “welfare queens” and “urban thugs” are so common that many people, even those who might otherwise hold more progressive views, actually believe them to some degree. So by not admitting any historical or statistical errors, conservatives can chalk this up as another case of political correctness silencing some “uncomfortable truth” about which leftists are in perpetual denial. A common defense of conservative pundits when called to task for their racist statements is, “I’m just telling it like it is,” or words to that effect. True believers, be they respectable members of the conservative elite, fundamentalist Christians, or white supremacists, are always sympathetic to those who are cast as victims of “political correctness.”
What can be learned from this case study? As for the text of the vow, it is important to note that the only “dog whistle” here seems to be the statement about black Americans and slavery; the text contains many equally offensive statements directed mostly at gays and lesbians, but also single-parents or non-nuclear families, and no attempt is made to disguise them. This having been said, whether wholly intentional or not, the passage attacking black Americans cannot help but reinforce negative, inaccurate stereotypes, and worse still, it reassures white conservatives that black America’s problems are its own fault, that they need not feel any culpability for the problems facing black Americans, and that black Americans have no right to criticize white America until they’ve “got their own house in order” so to speak.
This is a message conservative whites, and even not-so-conservative whites, love to hear. Obviously the scandal surrounding the text was not planned, but it too provided an opportunity for the right. Family Leader could have disowned the text, passed the buck to a single writer or a few writers, and apologized profusely, admitting that the message was indeed racist and vowing to check their information and wording much more closely next time. But this is the “post-racial” age of Obama, where making statements which might have ended a career back in 2002*** now earns any ignorant loudmouth a shiny medal designating them as a crusader for “truth” against the forces of political correctness.
Thus the “apology” was merely the icing on the cake. The original passage told white conservatives that these writers and the candidates signing the vow “know how it is,” and the apology says to the same people,
“Can you believe these crazy leftists and their political correctness? We just stated a simple fact and they had to go and accuse us of being racist! We white folks just can’t get a break in country!”
Many naive individuals on the “left” may be excited at the prospect that Bachman has committed political suicide. Don’t bet on it. Bachmann may lose the GOP nomination, but it will not be due to this or any other “gaffe” like this. For many years now, conservative politicians and pundits have been pushing the envelope of offensive behavior, sending out increasingly overt messages to groups which they might have avoided like the plague just a few years ago. America’s economic decline, its staggering inability to deal with the question of racial inequality, and the apparent “mainstreaming” of right-wing ideas which were previously restricted to the fringe of politics, all suggest that the right will continue its ascent to something far more radical, even approaching fascism.
Fascism is a last ditch tactic of a ruling class which has painted itself into a corner in a futile attempt to deal with a crisis of capitalism. The politicial elite, as well as their private sector benefactors, still cannot afford to be openly associated with the brash, aggressive “blackshirt” in the street. The dog whistle is the medium through which the most radical right-wing politicians can communicate their solidarity to those elements of their base which they dare not directly address at this point in time. As the dog whistle message gets repeated more and more often, it eventually becomes “common knowledge,” and eventually mainstream. The message is no longer in code but rather broadcast “in the clear,” and the bar is raised so that the statement which might have drawn all-around shock, offense, and condemnation just a short time ago is now a regular part of the discourse. Everything is prepared to move up to the next level of reactionary ideology, and each time the gains of all America’s heroic fighters for progress and civil rights are snatched away, piece by piece.
It is advisable to grow “dog ears,” so to speak and expose these reactionary messages while they are still inaudible to most. It is not alarmist to consider what America will be like when openly and enthusiastically advocating policies such as eugenics, racial profiling, the repeal of various civil rights, or the application of Biblical law in the judicial system is widely considered to be totally acceptable. Those among us who already have dog ears, especially those who are ex-conservatives and thus speak the language of reaction fluently, have a responsibility to others who oppose that future but lack the ears to pick up on these hidden messages while they are still little more than a faint, but constant whistle. Otherwise they will one day grow into a deafening cacophony, drowning out all other voices, first with words, then in blood.
* An example of the boundless idiocy contained in the vow can be found right in the first sentence of the preamble: “Faithful monogamy is at the very heart of a designed and purposeful order – as conveyed by Jewish and Christian Scripture, by Classical Philosophers, by Natural Law, and by the American Founders…” The reader may have fun pointing out all the glaring problems with that passage, but one thing which stands out is the allusion to ‘Natural Law’, which in the context of the sentence seems to suggest that “Natural Law” has been codified and written down somewhere, possibly on a large tree.
** “Urban thug” is another typical dog whistle tactic, as is the more recently coined “community organizer,” which strikes fear into the hearts of Glenn Beck fans everywhere. If you have a dog, try saying these words in an ominous tone and note the dog’s reaction. It should become inexplicably angry and start barking in all directions for hours on end.
*** Remember Trent Lott?
Original text of the “Marriage Vow”: http://www.politico.com/static/PPM187_marriage.html
Coontz, Stephanie: The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic Books, 1992).