OnWords: Dog Whistle

Nov 27, 2018

The term “dog whistle” pops up in politics with much higher frequency these days.

A literal dog whistle is a whistle that emits sounds at a pitch beyond human hearing but that can be heard by dogs and domestic cats.

Dog-whistle politics refers to ideas politicians suggest that the general population will not understand but that certain subgroups will.

When President Trump assured his supporters that he would “make America great again,” his critics accused him of dog -whistle politics. The implication, say the critics, is that America was great before women, the LGBT community, and people of color gained acceptance, equality, and power.

But dog-whistle politics are nothing new. Some writers have traced the phenomenon back to an anonymous 1981 interview with Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who noted the softening of racist language over the years, with bigoted voters understanding terms like “states rights” and “forced busing” as support for racist policies.

We should be worried. Dog whistle politics make extremist views mainstream and allow politicians to surreptitiously curry favor with unsavory, and possibly violent, groups.

It’s no coincidence that attacks on immigrants and people of color have only increased since “make America great again” has come on the scene. The literal dog whistle is used to train animals, and maybe that indicates our biggest concern with dog-whistle politics: by circumventing authentic communication and open debate, political dog whistles appeal to the fears that are most animalistic within us.