My comments in red. “Dog-whistle” politics, according to some prevailing definitions, 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 (says who?). The analogy (whose analogy?) is to a dog whistle, whose ultrasonic whistling sound is heard by dogs but inaudible to humans (and used to attract a dumb animal). The term can be distinguished from “code words” used in some specialist professions, in that dog-whistling is specific to the political realm. The messaging referred to as the dog-whistle has an understandable meaning for a general audience, rather than being incomprehensible
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 (which is true of most messages between two people). 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” (this term itself is meaningless).
Now let’s analyze the presuppositions in these statements. “Coded language” implies that someone created the codes, that the codes are known and understood by the group to whom they are addressed, and that there is an encryption key somewhere that can reveal what the “dog-whistler” is really saying. “Subtle changes in question wording produce different results.” Really? As Steve Martin says, “well excuuuse meee”. Isn’t that one of the most basic complications of human communication? The spoken word has even more potential for breakdown in communicating than the written word, due to the complicating factors of tone and volume of voice, facial expression and other non verbal cues. As to what the “political theorist” (could any job description be more pregnant with implications?) Robert Goodin argues, it isn’t the so-called “dog whistling” that interferes with voters having a common understanding of what the politicians are saying, it’s the very nature of human communication itself. Each person creates their own meaning of words through the filters of their individual experience, intelligence, analytical ability and neurological wiring.
My central contentions are: The use of the term “dog whistle” is meant to convey contempt for the hearers of the so-called coded messages; human communication is, by its very nature, fraught with personalized, internal meanings; therefore, attaching a pejorative label–dog whistling–to political messages is equating the intelligence of the intended audience for the message to that of animals. If I am correct, it would be instructive to look at who uses the term most frequently. I used the two most popular search engines, Google and Bing, to search “examples of dog whistle politics.” I was looking for how commonly that term is applied to a particular political party or audience. The search results were very clear: Every reference through the initial pages of both search engines were of Democrats accusing Republicans of dog whistling. I stopped searching after a few pages after I found no references of Republicans accusing Democrats of dog whistling.
You might argue, “well, that’s because Republicans do it and Democrats don’t.” I would argue, “no, it’s because Democrats harbor more contempt for their opponents and feel freer to express it than Republicans.” My argument is truer, since the term “dog whistling” itself is a pejorative label for the normal complexities of human communication. Further proof of my contention: Isn’t “racist” still the dirtiest connotation for prejudice? The majority of the time that “dog-whistle” is used to denigrate a Republican message, “racist” preceded it. Maybe voters are smarter than Democrats give them credit for. Despite all the “racist dog-whistling” that Republicans are accused of, they are gaining minority voters. For example, is the phrase “law and order” merely a dog-whistle for racism, or does it actually denote the importance of every day security? For those who live in a neighborhood overrun with drugs and gang violence, would law and order be a desired state or a racist dog-whistle?
Contempt for political opponents, expressed as equating the behavior and intelligence of their supporters to animals, physical and emotional harassment of public officials wherever they are, including their homes, screaming opprobrium from the gallery at anyone they disagree with, unsupported and flamboyant accusations as a means of opposition to legal proceedings….Need I go on. Whose tactics are these? Well, they did work for Hitler, until they didn’t. Case in point: little hitler