Dog-whistle politics

Dog-whistle politics

Dog-whistle politics, also known as the use of code words, is a term for a type of political campaigning or speechmaking which employs coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a different or more specific meaning for a targeted subgroup of the audience. The term is invariably pejorative, and is used to refer both to messages with an intentional subtext, and those where the existence or intent of a secondary meaning is disputed. The term is an analogy to dog whistles, which are built in such a way that the high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs, but appears silent to human hearing.


Origin in Australia

The term originated in Australian politics in the mid 1990s.[1] One notable example was its use to describe the Howard Government's policy to crack down on illegal immigration. The Australian Government took a strong stand against illegal immigration, which was highly popular among a segment of voters on both sides of the usual political divide, and which contributed to the winning of the 2001 Australian Federal Election. In response to this political success, some commentators have argued that the stand was playing to racist segments of the community, despite the Government's avoidance of overtly racist terminology. The Howard Government is accused of having used dog whistling as a technique to send a message of support to voters with racist leanings while avoiding criticism from those opposed to prejudice.[2] The key to its use is to maintain the option of "plausible deniability".[3] An example is the publicity of the citizenship test in 2007[3]. It has been argued that the test may appear reasonable at face value, but is really intended to appeal to those opposing immigration from some regions.[4]

United Kingdom

The term was introduced to the United Kingdom by Matthew Parris in The Times on October 31, 2003 in an article about Michael Howard.[5] After the phrase caught on in the UK, Matthew Parris wrote in The Spectator on April 30, 2005 about having introduced it.[6]

United States

Journalist Craig Unger writes 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.[7]

One group of alleged code words in the United States is claimed to appeal to racism of the intended audience. The phrase "states' rights", although literally referring to powers of individual state governments in the United States, was described by David Greenberg in Slate as "code words" for institutionalized segregation and racism.[8] In 1981, former Republican Party strategist Lee Atwater gave an interview discussing the matter, quoted:

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."[9][10]

See also


  1. ^ Grant Barrett, The official dictionary of unofficial English, McGraw-Hill Professional, 2006, p90
  2. ^ Garran, Robert (2004). True believer: John Howard, George Bush and the American alliance. Allen & Unwin. p. 18. ISBN 9781741144185. 
  3. ^ a b Josh Fear, Under the Radar: Dog-whistle politics in Australia, The Australia Institute, Sept, 2007
  4. ^ "No question about a citizenship test". The Sydney Morning Herald. December 13, 2006. 
  5. ^ Parris, Matthew (2003-10-31). "He is not a rotter and I wish him well (warily)". London: The Times. Retrieved 2008-02-29. 
  6. ^ Parris, Matthew (2005-04-30). "Only the Tories can cut the state down to size". The Spectator. Retrieved 2008-02-29. 
  7. ^ 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 and Schuster. pp. 172–173. ISBN 9780743280754. 
  8. ^ David Greenburg, "Dog-Whistling Dixie", Slate, Nov. 20, 2007. Accessed April 4, 2008.
  9. ^ Lamis, Alexander P. et al. (1990) The Two Party South. Oxford University Press.
  10. ^ Herbert, Bob (October 6, 2005) "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant." New York Times.

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