Dog whistle politics

In an article written in 2000, William Greider said something that really stuck in my mind: “An enduring truth, a wise friend once explained to me, is that important social change nearly always begins in hypocrisy.”

This is very true. When we look back at the improvement in our attitudes to race and gender, at some point indulging in crude stereotypes, offensive humor, and derogatory remarks against this or that hitherto discriminated group becomes seen as unacceptable behavior and the people making them are viewed as ignorant and become ostracized, outside the bounds of decent society. As a result, we then go through a long period when people who harbor such offensive views feel forced to hide them or even say things that are opposite to what they truly feel. As Greider says “[T]he powerful are persuaded to say the appropriate words, that is, to sign a commitment to higher values and decent behavior.”

Because the views of these people may not have truly changed, they sometimes reveal their true feelings only amongst people whom they think share these views, which is why one occasionally finds situations where people say things to friends and families and members of private organizations that leak out to the wider public and caused outrage.

But this period of hypocrisy seems to be an important step is social progress for two reasons. In the short term as Greider points out, this hypocritical commitment to merely say the words serves as a lever to create actual change. “Then social activists must spend the next ten years pounding on them, trying to make them live up to their promises or persuading governments to enact laws that will compel them to do so.” In the longer term, the elimination of such statements in public means that a new generation of young people grows up which takes these statements of equal rights at face value as the true values of society and tries to abide by them.

IIn the case of women and blacks, those movements to establish their equal rights have made significant enough progress that although equality has not been reached, any politician vying for major office who now makes a derogatory remark about blacks or women would be committing political suicide. In the case of gay rights, I think we have just recently entered the era of hypocrisy, in which people who make blatant anti-gay statements are viewed negatively. This gives me confidence that within the next decade gays will gain significantly in their struggle to be accepted as equals.

But while entering the era of hypocrisy may be a necessary step in social progress, there is no denying that there still exists significant numbers of people who still cling on their outdated and bigoted views and politicians know this. And a vote by a bigot counts just as much as one by one who is more enlightened. So how does one appeal to such voters without being seen as bigoted too? Thus we see the birth of ‘dog whistle’ politics. This is where politicians use code words and phrases that seem to say the ‘right’ thing while the real goal is give a nod and a wink to those who understand what those coded words mean. For example, saying that you want to preserve ‘the sanctity of marriage’ doesn’t mean that you will ban divorce or adultery or stamp out prostitution. It is code, meant to appeal to anti-gay voters, to tell them that that you share their opposition to gays getting the same rights that heterosexual people take for granted.

When it became clear that a woman and an African American were serious contenders for the Democratic party nomination, I expected to see a major resurgence of dog-whistle politics as other candidates tried to tap the reservoir of anti-women and anti-black voters without seeming to be themselves bigoted. As this is a risky strategy, such coded signals are often assigned to surrogates who can be jettisoned if the strategy backfires.

If you have been following the news, you will have noticed that we are already seeing that happen. Ever since she fell behind in the race, it has been suspected that Hillary Clinton has been trying to use race as a divisive issue and even on occasion comparing Obama unfavorably to McCain, suggesting that he, unlike the two of them, is ‘not ready’ for the job. This is tapping into the feeling amongst some voters that black people are still somehow incompetent, that they should ‘know their place,’ that they should wait until the time is right for them. Martin Luther King was very familiar with this delaying tactic. In his famous 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail, he wrote:

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”

I am not surprised by this development. I wrote on February 20 about Hillary Clinton: “She, like her husband, is ruthless in the pursuit of power, so do not be surprised if she and her surrogates start using all manner of innuendo and dirty tricks against Obama if the race for the Democratic nomination continues to be close and she is in danger of losing.”

The latest salvo is the extraordinary assertion by Clinton’s advisor Geraldine Ferraro (a member of Clinton’s finance committee and an advisor to her campaign) that Barack Obama has an advantage because he is black! That is like saying that Helen Keller was lucky to be both blind and deaf since otherwise people would have belittled her achievements.

What is more ironic is that this was said by the same woman who was herself accused back in 1984 (when she was selected by Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale as his running mate) that the main reason she got the nod was because she was a woman. Furthermore, Ferraro seemed to be saying the opposite in 2006 when she said, “I think it’s more realistic for a woman [to be elected president] than it is for an African-American . . .There is a certain amount of racism that exists in the United States — whether it’s conscious or not it’s true.” She added, “Women are 51 percent of the population.”

Kevin Drum makes a good point:

Implicit in Ferraro’s statement is the idea that if Obama were a charismatic young white guy, there’s no way he’d be getting any attention. And that’s just plain crackers. Charismatic young John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. His brother, charismatic young Robert F. Kennedy, attracted huge support in 1968 and might have become president as well if he hadn’t been assassinated. Charismatic young Gary Hart nearly stole the 1984 Democratic nomination from Walter Mondale. And charismatic young Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.

Being young and charismatic has been a pretty good combination in the Democratic Party for the past 50 years. And being against the Iraq war from the start is a pretty is a pretty good credential in the Democratic Party this year.

Some wags have suggested that Ferraro was actually right when she said that “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position” because if that were the case, he would have wrapped up his party’s nomination a long time ago.

Although Clinton has apologized for Ferraro’s remarks, Ferraro herself, although she has resigned from her post as fundraiser and advisor, has refused to apologize and in fact has stoutly defended her comments. Jonathan Cohn suggests that Clinton is using Ferraro to play dog-whistle politics, to send out racial messages in code to white voters who resent affirmative action, in the hopes that this will win their votes in the Pennsylvania primary. Cohn has advice for how Obama should deal with this:

So the Obama campaign has every right to be frustrated with the Clinton campaign’s reaction. But that doesn’t mean they would be smart to keep talking about it.
. . .
Dwelling on that probably won’t help the Obama campaign in Pennsylavnia, particularly given the racial voting patterns yesterday’s Mississippi result confirmed.

A cynic–ok, maybe even a non-cynic–might suggest that’s precisely why the Clinton campaign isn’t moving more swiftly to cut ties with Ferraro. Either way, though, Obama would be well advised to change the subject. He should force Clinton to answer questions about something in her record or policies–or try and shift the focus over to McCain.

JoAnn Wypijewski describes how the Clintons operate, providing further evidence for the charge that the Clintons are ruthless political infighters, willing to sacrifice people and principles, and even hard-fought political gains for social justice, in their pursuit of power.

It is going to be a nasty election.

POST SCRIPT: The exhaustingly long election season

After a flurry of elections we now have, according to the schedule of primaries, to wait six weeks for the next primary on April 22 in Pennsylvania. After that there are a series of primaries almost every week until the final one on June 3.

It seems to me that a rational system would have started the whole primary process about three months later than it did this year, so that we would have reasonably spaced elections until the party conventions in August.


  1. kural says


    Before anything else, I don’t know any better than, any of the writers you have quoted, or you. So this is simply my incompletely informed self speaking. Democratic women voters -- black and white -- that I know have confessed that they are divided this time over the choice thrown up by their party. Hillary enjoys a great deal of support among professional women and is seen as someone who has come up the hard way and bided her time for too long. They are willing to excuse her concessions -- like giving up her maiden name many years into marriage -- as the result of a not yet ready electorate and political class. When an intraparty opposition criticises her, they see echoes of the GOP machine that has for years thrown everything it can at her. A GOP leader who calls Chelsea ugly and worse is seen to be no different than an Obama staffer who calls Hillary a monster. To some extent race and class differences matter less between women than between men. Which is why women may be this time even within the Democratic party be backing Hillary over Obama. This presidential race has thrown questions on race as well as gender and both for the first time. Would Obama not have done as well in the primaries were he white? The best answer is we don’t know, because this is a question that can’t be resolved experimentally, and thankfully I would say. Have we forgotten the rough press Edwards faced over his $400 haircuts and his million dollar homes, while everyone forgot that this man earned every cent the hard way and that it is his money to spend? How much flak did Obama face over his smoking and his fondness for executive jets?

  2. bob says

    With regards to Geraldine Ferraro -- if you are going to put her comments on Hillary -- then you must be willing to put the words of Jeremiah Wright -- Obama’s ‘spiritual’ advisor onto Obama. You can watch the video of his words here:

    He says that Obama will be a better president because ‘Hillary ain’t never been called a nigger!’

    Watch the video -- it really is disturbing. Watch the crowd’s response. Look at the smugness on his face. Obama and his camp on not pristine on the race issue.

    Back to Geraldine Ferraro, she is correct on a few points. While historically there may have been some ‘charasmatic’ young white men that had impact on the primary system -- not at this point in time. Obama’s race is a huge advantage against Mrs. Clinton as it divides the black vote. Mr. Clinton was hugely supported by these voters and it stands to reason that Mrs. Clinton would have enjoyed a majority of that same vote.

    Also, there are just enough Americans suffering from ‘white guilt’ to make a difference in the Obama campaign. I personally know of one person who is voting for Obama because of his race. My friend said, ‘an Obama presidency will push race relations in this country 20 years forward in just his first term.’ For my friend, the promise of improved race relations is the primary factor in his decision to vote for Obama. Here is why Obama’s race is a benefit for this election.

    With regards to your Helen Keller analogy -- if she ran for president is there any doubt she would get the blind vote?

    At the end of the day this is all really funny. We get to see how ugly the democratic party really is. They are no better than the old white guy republicans. It’s just that they talk a better game. Well, at least they did in the past.

  3. says


    The way the primaries have turned out was no surprise to me. In particular, I discussed even before the primaries began why the Villagers disliked Edwards and felt they could live with Obama. (See here and here). So one person gets rough treatment and the other doesn’t. The real reasons have nothing to do with haircuts. Once they have decided you must go, any issue, however minor, will serve to drive you out.

  4. says


    Regarding the relationship of candidates and the statements of other people, I have written about it before.

    As to the particular case of Wright, I think that a commenter at Talking Points Memo said it best:

    “What drives me crazy is how this could have been avoided so easily if Wright was the slightest bit media-savvy. Had he merely controlled his tongue and limited himself to advocating an attack on Iran to encourage massive worldwide Muslim attacks leading to a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of end-times and bringing about Armageddon and the summary slaughter of every Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and non-believer on the planet while rapturing him and his flock up to heaven, then followed it up by denouncing Catholics as cult members and blaming Hurricane Katrina on gay people, this story wouldn’t be metastasizing like this. One five minute milquetoast repudiation by Obama and it would all be behind him.

    But what does Wright do instead? He spews this vile “God damn America” bile. What a psycho.”

  5. bob says


    Nice redirection. My point in noting the Wright comments was not to highlight their anti-American nature but rather to show that the extended Obama camp is not above using the race “card.”

  6. Billiam says

    An African-American candidate having an advantage over a Caucasian candidate because of race sounds like a contradiction to current society in America.
    I remember hearing somewhere once that “important social change nearly always begins in hypocrisy.”

    It is really simple. People are fickle. Prejudice is skin deep, it is not encoded in our genes. The democrats have consitantly run on a platform based on the promise of “change”. It is very simple to understand. People are upset by the current administration. They are not well versed in politics and are easily thought for by the media. George Bush; White, Christian, Male, Conservative.
    Is it a coincidence that we have a woman and a black man running for a spot to clean up after a president with the worst approval rating of all time? Maybe people don’t want another rerun of the last administration. The first way we differentiate between different people is by their looks. Would anyone argue that the evil rich white politician is not a real stereotype. Given that, once you get down to primaries, it is really only charisma and how people perceive you that makes a difference. JFK is a good example of this. No experience, straight to the white house. The candidates are all very similar in their political stances during primaries; its a popularity contest. Evil rich white politician is not popular. You need something that sets you apart from the rest, without alienating your party and voters. Since changing your stance on an issue is the definition of alienating your voters, being black seems like the perfect suit for the gala.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *