Dog whistle (politics)

  (Redirected from Dog-whistle politics)

In politics, a dog whistle is the use of coded or suggestive language in political messaging to garner support from a particular group without provoking opposition. The concept is named for ultrasonic dog whistles used in shepherding, which are audible to dogs but not humans. Accusations of dog whistling are, by their nature, hard to prove and may be false.

Dog whistles use language that appears normal to the majority but communicate specific things to intended audiences. They are generally used to convey messages on issues likely to provoke controversy without attracting negative attention. One example may be the use of a phrase such as family values to signal to Christians that a candidate would support policies promoting Christian values without alienating non-Christian supporters.[1] Another may be the use of the phrase "international bankers" to signal to racists that a candidate is antisemitic without alienating non-racist supporters.[2] On parties that support abortion, the phrase reproductive rights is preferred to avoid turning off any pro-Life ally.

Origin and meaningEdit

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.[3]

He speculates that campaign workers adapted the phrase from political pollsters.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

History and usageEdit


The term was first picked up in Australian politics in the mid-1990s, and was frequently applied to the political campaigning of John Howard.[6] 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".[7][8]

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,[9] while maintaining plausible deniability by avoiding overtly racist language.[10] Another example was the publicity of the Australian citizenship test in 2007.[10] 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.[11]


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.[12] 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 colour.[13]

United KingdomEdit

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.[3] In what Goodin calls "the classic case" of dog-whistling,[5] 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?"[14] focused on controversial issues like insanitary hospitals, land grabs by squatters and restraints on police behaviour.[15][16]

Labour MP Diane Abbott described the 2013 "Go Home" vans advertising campaign by the British Home Office as an example of dog-whistle politics.[17][18]

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.[19][20]

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.[21][22]

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".[23]

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of tolerating "dog-whistle" antisemitism in the party since he took the lead of the party.[24]

United StatesEdit

20th centuryEdit

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.[25] States' rights was the banner under which groups like the Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties argued in 1955 against school desegregation.[26] In 1981, former Republican Party strategist Lee Atwater, when giving an anonymous interview discussing former president Richard Nixon's Southern strategy, speculated that terms like "states' rights" were used for dog-whistling:[27][28][29]

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."[30]

Atwater was contrasting this with then-President 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.[31][32][33] 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 affected 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.[34][35]

21st centuryEdit

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.[36] 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.[3] This view is echoed in a 2004 Los Angeles Times article by Peter Wallsten.[37]

During Obama's campaign and presidency, a number of left-wing commentators described various statements about Obama as racist dog-whistles. 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.[38] A light-hearted 2008 article by Amy Chozick in The Wall Street Journal questioned whether Obama was too thin to be elected president, given the average weight of Americans; commentator Timothy Noah wrote that this was a racist dog-whistle, because "When white people are invited to think about Obama's physical appearance, the principal attribute they're likely to dwell on is his dark skin."[39] In a 2010 speech, Sarah Palin criticized Obama, saying "we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern." Harvard professor (and Obama ally) Charles Ogletree called this attack racist, because the true idea being communicated was "that he's not one of us."[40] MSNBC commentator Lawrence O'Donnell called a 2012 speech by Mitch McConnell, in which McConnell criticized Obama for playing too much golf, a racist dog-whistle because O'Donnell felt it was meant to remind listeners of black golfer Tiger Woods, who at the time was going through an infidelity scandal.[41]

In 2012, Obama's campaign ran an ad in Ohio that said Mitt Romney was "not one of us".[42] The Washington Post journalist Karen Tumulty wrote, "ironically, it echoes a slogan that has been used as a racial code over at least the past half-century."[43]

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

During the 2018 gubernatorial race in Florida, Ron DeSantis came under criticism for comments that were allegedly racist, saying, "The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That is not going to work. That's not going to be good for Florida."[49] DeSantis was accused of using the verb "monkey" as a racist dog whistle; his opponent, Andrew Gillum, was African-American. DeSantis denied that his comment was meant to be racially charged.[50]


Some have argued that it is difficult to tell whether purported dog whistles are in fact dog whistles. Robert Henderson and Elin McCready argue that plausible deniability is a key characteristic of dog whistles.[51] Mark Liberman has argued that it is common for speech and writing to convey messages that will only be picked up on by part of the audience, but that this does not usually mean that the speaker is deliberately conveying a double message.[52] Steven Pinker has argued that the concept of dog whistling allows people to "claim that anyone says anything because you can easily hear the alleged dogwhistles that aren't in the actual literal contents of what the person says."[53]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Albertson, Bethany. "Dog-Whistle Politics: Multivocal Communication and Religious Appeals". Research Gate. Retrieved June 10, 2020. ("religious appeals that signal particular faith communities may not be persuasive. Indeed, people may even develop more negative attitudes towards a politician who makes an overt religious appeal when it is clear that they are not part of the ingroup.... Given that there is religious diversity in the United States, the unique appeal of multivocal language is that it allows politicians to speak directly to like-minded others, communicating to them common ground and shared values, while those who do not share this perspective remain oblivious.")
  2. ^ Olasov, Ian (November 7, 2016). "Offensive political dog whistles: you know them when you hear them. Or do you?". Vox. Retrieved July 1, 2020. While many people might hear "international banks" quite literally... antisemites hear something very different. After all, the supposed existence of a cabal of international Jewish bankers working to undermine US democracy is a recurring theme in American antisemitism.
  3. ^ a b c d Safire, William (2008). Safire's Political Dictionary (Revised ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-19-534334-2.
  4. ^ Lohrey, Amanda (2006). Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia. Melbourne: Black Inc. pp. 48–58. ISBN 1-86395-230-6.
  5. ^ a b 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.
  6. ^ Grant Barrett, The official dictionary of unofficial English, McGraw-Hill Professional, 2006, p. 90
  7. ^ Soutphommasane, Tim (2009). Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-building for Australian Progressives. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0-521-13472-9.
  8. ^ Gelber, Katharine (2011). Speech Matters: Getting Free Speech Right. St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press. pp. end–notes. ISBN 978-0-7022-3873-4.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ a b Fear, Josh (September 2007). "Under the Radar: Dog-whistle Politics in Australia]" (PDF). The Australia Institute.
  11. ^ "No Question About a Citizenship Test". The Sydney Morning Herald. December 13, 2006. Retrieved July 17, 2014.
  12. ^ Chase, Steven (September 11, 2015). "Controversial Australian strategist to help with Tories' campaign". Retrieved May 6, 2016.
  13. ^ "Harper's 'Old-stock Canadians' Line is Part Deliberate Strategy: Pollster". CBC News. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. September 18, 2015. Retrieved May 6, 2016.
  14. ^ Lees-Marshment, Jennifer (2009). Political Marketing: Principles and Applications. London: Routledge. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-415-43128-6.
  15. ^ McCallister, J. F. O. (April 3, 2005). "Whistling in the Dark?". Time. Archived from the original on February 21, 2013. Retrieved September 9, 2012.
  16. ^ Seawright, David (2007). The British Conservative Party and One Nation Politics. London: Continuum. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-8264-8974-6.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Legge, James (October 18, 2013). "Government's 'Go Home' Vans Backed by Immigration Minister Mark Harper". The Independent. Retrieved June 7, 2018.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Cowburn, Ashley (April 22, 2016). "Boris Johnson accused of 'dog whistle racism' over controversial Barack Obama Kenya remarks". The Independent. Retrieved April 24, 2016.
  21. ^ "The Deafening Dogwhistle of Zac Goldsmith's London Mayoral Campaign Leaflets". New Statesman. March 15, 2016.
  22. ^ Bienkov, Adam (October 4, 2016). "Ethnic Minority Tories Say Zac Goldsmith's Dog-whistle Campaign Badly Damaged Party".
  23. ^ "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.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Greenberg, David (November 20, 2007). "Dog-Whistling Dixie: When Reagan said "states' rights," he was talking about race". Slate. Retrieved May 21, 2012.
  26. ^ "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.
  27. ^ Lamis, Alexander P.; et al. (1990). The Two Party South. Oxford University Press.
  28. ^ Herbert, Bob (October 6, 2005), "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant", The New York Times, retrieved February 5, 2016
  29. ^ Exclusive: Lee Atwater's Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy on YouTube
  30. ^ Craig S. Pascoe; Karen Trahan Leathem; Andy Ambrose (2005). The American South in the Twentieth Century. University of Georgia Press. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-8203-2771-6.
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ Full Show: Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race, Part I. Moyers & Company, February 28, 2014.
  33. ^ Yao, Kevin (November 9, 2015). "A Coded Political Mantra". Berkeley Political Review. University of California Berkeley. Retrieved February 5, 2016.
  34. ^ "Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race, Part I". Moyers & Company. February 28, 2014 – via
  35. ^ 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.
  36. ^ 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.
  37. ^ Wallsten, Peter (October 13, 2004). "Abortion Foes Call Bush's Dred Scott Reference Perfectly Clear". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 19, 2013.
  38. ^ 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 978-0-8147-5298-2.
  39. ^ Taranto, James (August 5, 2008). "Noah's Shark". The Wall Street Journal.
  40. ^ Taranto, James (February 11, 2010). "Hot Enough for You?". The Wall Street Journal.
  41. ^ Gillespie, Nick (August 30, 2012). "MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell: Mocking Obama's Golfing is an Attempt to Portray Him as an Oversexed Black Man". Reason.
  42. ^ Made in Ohio – Obama for America TV Ad on YouTube
  43. ^ Tumulty, Karen (October 22, 2012). "Obama's 'not one of us' attack on Romney echoes racial code". The Washington Post.
  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?". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 1, 2017.
  46. ^ Bernstein, David (March 20, 2017). "On anti-Semitism and dog whistles". The 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". The Washington Post.
  49. ^ "Gillum responds to 'monkey this up' comment: DeSantis is joining Trump 'in the swamp'". NBC News.
  50. ^ "Florida's Ron DeSantis Doubles Down on 'Monkey This Up' Comment". Roll Call. August 30, 2018.
  51. ^ Henderson, Robert; McCready, Elin (2018). "How Dogwhistles Work". New Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. 10838: 231–240. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-93794-6_16. ISBN 978-3-319-93793-9.
  52. ^ Liberman, Mark (September 26, 2006). "The comma was really a dog whistle". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved August 28, 2020.
  53. ^ Bailey, Ronald (July 10, 2020). "Steven Pinker Beats Cancel Culture Attack". Reason magazine. Retrieved September 25, 2020.


Further readingEdit