Dog-whistle politics

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 analogy is to a dog whistle, whose ultrasonic tone is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans.

The term is often confused with code words used in some specialist professions, but can be distinguished in that dog-whistling is specific to the political realm, and 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".[1] He speculates that campaign workers adapted the phrase from political pollsters.[1]

In her 2006 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 politicians choosing broadly appealing words such as "family 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 was first picked up 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 Australian voters using code words such as "un-Australian", "mainstream", and "illegals".[5][6]

One notable example was the Howard government's message on refugee arrivals. His government's tough stance on immigration was popular with voters, but 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 was the publicity of the Australian 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]


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.[10] 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 leaders, including former Quebec Liberal MP Marlene Jennings, called his words racist and divisive, as they are used to exclude Canadians of Color.[11]

United Kingdom

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.[1] In what Goodin calls "the classic case" of dog-whistling,[3] 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?"[12] focused on controversial issues like insanitary hospitals, land grabs by squatters and restraints on police behaviour.[13][14]

Labour MP Diane Abbott described the 2013 "Go Home" vans advertising campaign by the British Home Office as an example of dog-whistle politics.[15][16]

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 U.S. 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.[17][18]

In the 2016 London Mayoral Election, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith was accused of running a dog-whistle campaign against Labour's Sadiq Khan, playing on Khan's Muslim faith by suggesting he would target Hindus and Sikhs with a "jewellery tax" and attempting to link him to extremists.[19][20]

Theresa May was accused of dog-whistle politics during the run up to the UK leaving the European Union, after claiming EU citizens were 'jumping the queue'.[21]

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of tolerating "dog-whistle" anti-Semitism in the party since he took the lead of the party.[22][23]

United States

The phrase "states' rights", 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.[24] States rights was the banner under which groups like the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties argued in 1955 against school desegregation.[25] In 1981, former Republican Party strategist Lee Atwater, when giving an anonymous interview discussing Nixon's Southern Strategy, said:[26][27][28]

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, 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."

Atwater was contrasting this with Ronald Reagan's campaign, which he felt "was devoid of any kind of racism, any kind of reference." However, Ian Haney López, an American law professor and author of the 2014 book Dog Whistle Politics, described 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.[29][30][31] 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.[32][33]

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.[34] 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.[1] This view is echoed in a 2004 Los Angeles Times article by Peter Wallsten.[35]

During the 2008 Democratic primaries, writer Enid Lynette Logan 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 Rev. 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.[36]

In 2012, journalist Soledad O'Brien used the phrase "dog whistle" to describe Tea Party Express representative Amy Kremer's accusation that Obama "does not love America".[37]

Also in that election cycle, Obama's campaign ran an ad in Ohio that said Mitt Romney was "not one of us".[38] 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".[39]

During the 2014 Republican senate primary in Mississippi, a scandal emerged with politicians accused of attempting to influence the public by using such code words as "food stamps".[40][41] Senator Ted Cruz called for an investigation,[42] saying that "the ads they ran were racially-charged false attacks".[43]

During the 2016 presidential election campaign and on a number of occasions throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has been accused of using racial and anti-Semitic "dog whistling" techniques by politicians and major news outlets.[44][45][46][47][48]

See also


  1. Safire, William (2008). Safire's Political Dictionary (Revised ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-19-534334-2.
  2. Lohrey, Amanda (2006). Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia. Melbourne: Black Inc. pp. 48–58. ISBN 1-86395-230-6.
  3. Goodin, Robert E. (2008). Innovating Democracy: Democratic Theory and Practice after the Deliberative Turn (Reprint ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 224–228. ISBN 978-0-19-954794-4.
  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. ISBN 978-0-521-13472-9.
  6. Gelber, Katharine. Speech Matters: Getting Free Speech Right. St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press. pp. end–notes. ISBN 0-7022-3873-2.
  7. Garran, Robert (2004). True believer: John Howard, George Bush and the American Alliance. Allen & Unwin. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-74114-418-5 via Google Books.
  8. Fear, Josh (September 2007). "Under the Radar: Dog-whistle Politics in Australia]" (PDF). The Australia Institute.
  9. "No Question About a Citizenship Test". The Sydney Morning Herald. December 13, 2006. Retrieved July 17, 2014.
  10. Chase, Steven (September 11, 2015). "Controversial Australian strategist to help with Tories' campaign". Retrieved May 6, 2016.
  11. "Harper's 'Old-stock Canadians' Line is Part Deliberate Strategy: Pollster". CBC News. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. September 18, 2015. Retrieved May 6, 2016.
  12. Lees-Marshment, Jennifer (2009). Political Marketing: Principles and Applications. London: Routledge. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-415-43128-6.
  13. McCallister, J. F. O. (April 3, 2005). "Whistling in the Dark?". Time. Retrieved September 9, 2012.
  14. Seawright, David (2007). The British Conservative Party and One Nation Politics. London: Continuum. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-8264-8974-6.
  15. Taylor, Matthew; Gidda, Mirren; Syal, Rajeev (July 26, 2013). "'Go home' Ad Campaign Targeting Illegal Immigrants Faces Court Challenge". The Guardian. Retrieved June 7, 2018.
  16. Legge, James (October 18, 2013). "Government's 'Go Home' Vans Backed by Immigration Minister Mark Harper". The Independent. Retrieved June 7, 2018.
  17. John McDonnell [@johnmcdonnellMP] (April 22, 2016). "Mask slips again. Boris part-Kenyan Obama comment is yet another example of dog whistle racism from senior Tories. He should withdraw it" (Tweet) via Twitter.
  18. Cowburn, Ashley (April 22, 2016). "Boris Johnson accused of 'dog whistle racism' over controversial Barack Obama Kenya remarks". The Independent. Retrieved April 24, 2016.
  19. "The Deafening Dogwhistle of Zac Goldsmith's London Mayoral Campaign Leaflets". New Statesman. March 15, 2016.
  20. Bienkov, Adam (October 4, 2016). "Ethnic Minority Tories Say Zac Goldsmith's Dog-whistle Campaign Badly Damaged Party".
  21. "Theresa May's Dog-whistle Rhetoric on EU Citizens Jumping the Queue – and its effect on my four-year-old". November 20, 2018. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  22. de Freytas-Tamura, Kimiko (February 21, 2019). "For U.K.'s Labour, Anti-Semitism and Corbyn Are as Divisive as Brexit". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 22, 2019.
  23. Harpin, Lee (February 21, 2019). "Senior Wavertree CLP member in 'Nazi Masters' Attack on Luciana Berger". Retrieved February 22, 2019.
  24. Greenberg, David (November 20, 2007). "Dog-Whistling Dixie. When Reagan said "states' rights," he was talking about race". Slate. Retrieved May 21, 2012.
  25. "A Plan for Virginia Presented to the People of the Commonwealth by the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties". Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties. June 8, 1955. Retrieved August 30, 2017 via Old Dominion University Libraries Digital Collections.
  26. Lamis, Alexander P.; et al. (1990). The Two Party South. Oxford University Press.
  27. Herbert, Bob (October 6, 2005), "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant", The New York Times, retrieved February 5, 2016
  28. Exclusive: Lee Atwater's Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy on YouTube
  29. Haney López, Ian (2014). Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-19-996427-7.
  30. Full Show: Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race, Part I. Moyers & Company, February 28, 2014.
  31. Yao, Kevin (November 9, 2015). "A Coded Political Mantra". Berkeley Political Review. University of California Berkeley. Retrieved February 5, 2016.
  32. "Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race, Part I". Moyers & Company. February 28, 2014 via
  33. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford University Press. 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-996427-7. Archived from the original on December 18, 2014.
  34. 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. Simon & Schuster. pp. 172–173. ISBN 978-0-7432-8075-4.
  35. Wallsten, Peter (October 13, 2004). "Abortion Foes Call Bush's Dred Scott Reference Perfectly Clear". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 19, 2013.
  36. Logan, Enid Lynette (October 2011). 'At This Defining Moment': Barack Obama's Presidential Candidacy and the New Politics of Race. New York University Press. p. 62. ISBN 0-8147-5298-5.
  37. 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.
  38. Made in Ohio – Obama for America TV Ad on YouTube
  39. Tumulty, Karen (October 22, 2012). "Obama's 'not one of us' attack on Romney echoes racial code". Washington Post.
  40. Hall, Sam (August 5, 2014). "Harris denies anyone tied to Cochran involved in KKK ads". Clarion Ledger. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
  41. Fund, John (June 25, 2014). "The Flier That Got Thad Cochran Elected?". National Review. Retrieved August 18, 2014.
  42. "Ted Cruz: We Need An Investigation Into the Mississippi Race". The Mark Levin Show. July 7, 2014. Archived from the original on September 3, 2014. Retrieved August 29, 2014 via
  43. Sullivan, Sean (July 7, 2014). "Ted Cruz slams 'D.C. machine' over Mississippi runoff, wants voter-fraud investigation". Washington Post. Retrieved August 27, 2014.
  44. Stokols, Eli (September 3, 2015). "Jeb: Trump using racial 'dog whistle'". Retrieved May 1, 2017.
  45. Greenberg, Cheryl (October 26, 2016). "Donald Trump's conspiracy theories sound anti-Semitic. Does he even realize it?". Washington Post. Retrieved May 1, 2017.
  46. Bernstein, David (March 20, 2017). "On anti-Semitism and dog whistles". Washington Post. Retrieved May 1, 2017.
  47. Memoli, Michael (November 3, 2016). "Condemning Trump's 'dog-whistle' campaign, Clinton cites endorsement in KKK newspaper". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 1, 2017.
  48. Capehart, Jonathan (July 6, 2017). "Trump's white-nationalist dog whistles in Warsaw". Washington Post.
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