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Dog whistles. Can you hear them?

Dog whistle“Dog whistle” is an old phrase. But its use to describe politicians secretly telegraphing their support for a controversial idea is relatively new. As Republican presidential candidates prepare for the 2012 primary, get ready to hear this phrase a lot.

Here are three recent uses in the media:

“In his speech, Reagan endorsed ‘state’s rights,’ which was the phrase that Barry Goldwater had used to oppose de-segregation the year the civil rights workers were murdered. As Republicans honed the ‘Southern strategy’ in presidential campaigns, Reagan’s rhetoric was an early use of the dog whistle — a shout-out, if you will, meant to be heard only by certain voters.” — Cynthia Tucker, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 4.

“This, to me, is a classic case of anti-Semitic dog-whistling.” — Jeffrey Goldberg writing about Glenn Beck for The Atlantic, Jan. 18.

“I know you think Sarah Palin is at best a self-promoting ignoramus and at worst a shameless media troll who’ll abuse any platform to deliver dog-whistle encouragement to a far right base that may include possible insurrectionists.” — Stephen Colbert, Jan. 18.

It is almost always an insult to accusing someone of dog-whistling.

There’s a difference between dog whistling and using jargon to connect with an interest group. Dog whistles, by definition, are silent.

Wikipedia traces the origins of dog whistle politics to Australia in the 1990s, the the U.K. in the early 2000s. A quick search of Google Books backs this up. The phrase has only become widely published in the U.S. in the last decade.

In politics, dog whistling is a way to say it without saying it. No mainstream political candidate could ever survive an election after saying:

  • they support a Jewish Israel because they believe it a requirement for the second coming of Christ.
  • President Obama is secretly foreign-born.
  • non-whites and foreigners are inferior to white Americans.
  • gay people are inferior to straight people.
  • poor people are inferior to rich people.

But watch for them to silently telegraph these messages between the lines of their speeches, because they need the support of fringe voters to win. It’s going to be a fascinating two years!

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language, Politics