‘Dog Whistles’ Only Some Voters Hear

May 24, 2014

‘Dog Whistles’ Only Some Voters Hear
Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2014

One of the more contentious passages in former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner‘s new memoir, “Stress Test,” describes a 2011 meeting that Mr. Geithner had with White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, preparing for appearances on the Sunday talk shows.

Mr. Geithner recalls that Mr. Pfeiffer asked him to say that “Social Security didn’t contribute to the deficit.” “Pfeiffer said the line was a ‘dog whistle’ to the left, a phrase I had never heard before,” he writes. “He had to explain that the phrase was code to the Democratic base, signaling that we intended to protect Social Security.”

Given his extensive experience in Washington, it’s surprising that Mr. Geithner had never come across the expression “dog whistle.” As a term for coded language that is only understood by one’s own supporters, it has been a popular metaphor in American politics for decades.

Actual dog whistles have been around since the 19th century. The English polymathFrancis Galton is credited with inventing a high-pitched whistle for testing the auditory ranges of dogs and other animals back in 1876. Another English inventor, Archibald Low,described in 1933 how to “make a whistle that cannot be heard by human beings, but to which a dog answers readily.” And by 1940, Purina was selling ultrasonic dog whistles.

Several decades later, the “dog whistle” turned into a figure of speech for subtle messages that not everyone could discern. Lexicographer Grant Barrett traces the usage back to a 1988 article by Washington Post pollster Richard Morin, in which he described the “dog whistle effect” in opinion polling: “Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.”

After Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, Rep. Christopher Cox told the New Republic that Mr. Gingrich’s plan of action worked “like a dog whistle,” and “if you were tuned into that frequency it made a lot of sense.” But it was a few years later in Australia that the expression truly got political, with the Labor Party accusing Conservative Prime Minister John Howard of indulging in “dog-whistle politics” in his policies on immigration and other hot-button issues.

In the U.S., critics have painted right-wing rhetoric on immigration as indulging in racial code words intended for the conservative base. In his recent book “Dog Whistle Politics,”Ian Haney López, law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that Republicans have engaged in such “racial dog whistling,” especially after 9/11. While the Obama administration might have a different set of dog whistles, as Mr. Geithner learned, discreet signals to slices of the electorate continue to be sent out in carefully packaged language.

Previous post:

Next post: