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Whistling in the Dark

Whistling in the Dark

Apprehensions of dog whistles and code words in political discourse are a desperate rearguard strategy to maintain a moral high ground.

· 6 min read

Denunciations of “dog-whistle politics” are now a familiar part of contemporary public discourse. The metaphor refers to the high-pitched sound that calls canines but cannot be heard by humans, and it is used to imply that an apparently neutral policy or argument is actually a subtle or coded appeal to the biases of a select audience. Deploying politically coded messages in this way is a serious accusation, evidenced in a sample of recent headlines: “Politicians Should Stop Using Confusion Over Trans Issues as a Dog Whistle for Intolerance” (from the Globe and Mail), “The QAnon Dog Whistle at the SCOTUS Confirmation Hearings” (from the Atlantic), “Aitchison Condemns Lewis’ Nuremberg Email as ‘Dog Whistle’ to COVID Vaccine Critics” (from CTVNews), “Haley Sounds Her Dog Whistles As She Makes a Play for the MAGA Base” (from the Washington Post), “Backlash Against ‘Dog Whistle’ Labour Tweet About Rishi Sunak” (from the Daily Telegraph), et cetera, et cetera.

The term’s origins are murky, but it made an early appearance in a 1988 remark by Washington Post pollster Richard Morin, who warned that a “dog whistle effect” should be considered in answers to the paper’s surveys when “respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.” Twelve years later, Australian journalist Tony Wright was among the first to use the term as a reproach, when he wrote about Australian Prime Minister John Howard, whose views on immigration and Aboriginal issues were supposedly playing to white nativism:

He sees his task as harvesting the largest crop of votes he can get by speaking whatever he sees as the language of the mainstream. If that means gathering the votes of those who hold racist views—well, he is a man of the people. It is a particular skill to accomplish this task without identifying directly with racially prejudicial sentiments.

The dog-whistle charge has also been applied retroactively. In his 2014 book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class, Ian Haney López wrote this about the messaging employed by Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign: “Forced busing, law and order, and security from unrest as the essential right of the majority—all of these were coded phrases that allowed Nixon to appeal to racial fears without overtly mentioning race at all.” Exposing alleged dog whistles and code words is now routinely used to attack politicians, pundits, and performers, and most of these attacks come from their targets’ left.

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