What is dog whistle politics?

I must admit, before an episode of Scandal, I had never even heard the phrase “dog whistle politics” and really had no clue what it even meant until half-way through the episode.

So, for those who are as ill informed as I am, allow me to break it down for you.

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… 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.

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”,

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

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.
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.
Also in an election cycle, Obama’s campaign ran an ad that said Mitt Romney is “not one of us.

So, back to the episode of Scandal which was named, you guessed it, Dog Whistle Politics (Season 5, Episode 4). In this episode, Olivia has just admitted to having an adulterous affair with the show’s POTUS and the media storm catches fire.

“The next time you go outside your marriage, choose yourself a girl who’s a little more palatable… Click To Tweet

In true OPA fashion, her team rallies around her and attacks the media for focusing on the fact that she was black and “Lucky, sassy, ambitious, well-spoken, shrill, calculating, urban” and pressed whether these words would be used if she was not a black woman. IE, dog whistle to mean that she should have stayed in her lane and that being smart, well-dressed, and personable were not typical characteristics of a black woman.. (For the record, I think that she got what she so richly deserved for hurting Mellie. #TeamMellie!!! Lol.) . Anywho, might be easier to comprehend if you have seen the episode. I believe that it is available on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon.

“I have at least a thousand threats of rape here, just on this one site, from guys that are mad… Click To Tweet

EW puts it in better words than I can:

…the media using coded language like describing Olivia, a black woman, as “well-spoken” or “sassy.” To white audiences, these words don’t seem to mean anything, which is how the media can get away with the implicit racism in their broadcasts. To black audiences — particularly black women like Olivia — it’s clear what the reporters are really getting at: “well-spoken… for a black woman.” Thus, the dog-whistle: An unsettling sound that only those affected can hear. (Another example: Reporting that Olivia pulled herself up by her bootstraps, when really she went to elite private schools her entire life.)

“I’ve been looking at the last 72 hours of your station’s news coverage and when you’re not… Click To Tweet

This phrase is important to know because a lot of people do it without being aware. People of all races and genders are guilty of it, even if it is subconsciously.

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Think you’re above it all. I’m not.

Have you ever had the passing thought that a white guy can dance. That is the double edged sword that white folks can’t dance and that all black folks can.

Or, maybe even that a girl has a big butt for a white girl. Reasoning being that all white girls have flat behinds and all black women be dragging that wagon.

Can you be honest and admit that you've ever been affected by dog whistle politics? Click To Tweet

However, in the realm of politics, the dog whistle has a more specific purpose:

  1. Appeal to your base with a “wink-wink”
  2. Remain less obvious so not to offend or provide deniability
  3. Move undecideds over to your side regardless if it is in there best interest or not
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The Democrats even warned that Make America Great Again was clearly just dog whistle politics. That there was an uncanny similarity between the refashioned hate views of patriotism, Christian values , and vigilantism of the Klu Klux Klan of the 1900s Whether that is true or not has yet to be proven just days into POTUS-elect Donald Trump’s term.

However, what has been proven is that there is a select niche of whites who clearly heard the dog whistle in his political stance as there has been a rash of violence in pockets of America where the slogan has been outright bastardized into Make America White Again.

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