- This article is specifically about the use of "code words" in politics, for the concept generally, see Code word (figure of speech)
Dog-whistle politics, also known as the use of code words, is a type of political campaigning or speechmaking employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a different or more specific meaning for a targeted subgroup of the audience. The term is usually used pejoratively by those that do not approve of the tactics. According to blogger Ian Welsh,
When you speak in code(...), most of the time the only people who hear and understand what you just said are the intended group, who have an understanding of the world and a use of words that is not shared by the majority of the population.
The term is an analogy to dog whistles built in such a way that humans cannot hear them due to their high frequency, but dogs can.
Origin in Australia
The term originated in Australian politics
in the mid 1990s. One notable example was its use to describe the Howard Government's
policy to crack down on illegal immigration. The Australian Government took a strong stand against illegal immigration, which was highly popular amongst a segment of voters on both sides of the usual political divide, and which contributed to the winning of the 2001 Australian Federal Election
. In response to this political success, some commentators have argued that the stand was playing to racist segments of the community, despite the Government's avoidance of overtly
racist terminology. The Howard Government has used dog whistling as a technique to send a message of support to voters with racist leanings while avoiding criticism from those opposed to prejudice. The key to its use is to maintain the option of "plausible deniability
". An example is the publicity of the citizenship test in 2007 . It has been argued that the test may appear reasonable at face value, but is really intended to appeal to those opposing immigration from some regions.
The term was introduced to the United Kingdom
by Matthew Parris
in The Times
on October 31, 2003 in an article about Michael Howard
.. After the phrase caught on in the UK, Matthew Parris
wrote in The Spectator
on April 30, 2005 about having introduced it.
Dog-whistle politics is a separate strategy from the less nuanced approach of wedge politics
often employed in the United States
. Still, several examples of "dog whistle politics" are thought to exist in American politics.
One group of American code words is claimed to appeal to racism of the intended audience. The phrase "states' rights", although literally referring to powers of individual state governments in the United States, has been described as a code word for institutionalized segregation and racism. Other terms that some people say are used to indicate alleged veiled racism are "crime in the streets" and "welfare queens".
President George W. Bush is claimed to use coded language in his speeches to send messages to his supporters among the religious right that will be ignored by other parts of the U.S. population. Examples include his frequent use of biblical phrases and the veiled mention of the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in the 2004 Presidential debates. The latter refers to overturning Roe v. Wade, which is likened to the Dred Scott case by some of its critics.
David Gergen claimed that the McCain campaign's tactics against Barack Obama as a dog whistle campaign targeting racists, while retaining plausible deniability.