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Dog-Whistle Politics: You Talking to ME? Dog-Whistle Politics: You Talking to ME?

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Columns / GWEN'S TAKE

Dog-Whistle Politics: You Talking to ME?

Gingrich, Obama, and Cornel West practice the art of speaking in code.

photo of Gwen Ifill
May 20, 2011

The past several days have handed me a cluster of excuses to return to one of my favorite topics: what happens when politicians speak in code. Known in some circles as "dog-whistle politics" -- saying one thing intended to be heard only by those with sensitized hearing -- it’s recently been on varied display.

I first noticed it this week in the wake of an outcry over remarks made by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who kind of famously stumbled into a thicket of trouble by failing to adjust the treble of his whistle correctly.

Gingrich, donning an academician or pundit hat while appearing on “Meet the Press,” likened House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan to “right-wing social engineering.”


It’s unclear who the former House Speaker thought he was speaking to, but the dog whistle was heard by conservatives who immediately chastised him for undercutting a fellow Republican. “You’re an embarrassment,” one Iowa Republican scolded him in a widely-circulated YouTube video.

Gingrich said this was not what he meant, but in dog-whistle politics, what is heard often matters more than what is said. Days later, he apologized to Ryan.

During the same television appearance, Gingrich also said he did not mean to send a coded message on race when he told a Georgia Republican Party dinner days earlier that President Obama is “the most successful food stamp president in American history.”

Outrage ensued. Many African Americans saw racial code directed at the nation’s first black president. Gingrich called that suggestion “bizarre.”

Leave aside for a moment that in order for this to be code, the listener would have to automatically assume that most if not all food stamp recipients are black. This, as it happens, is not true, and Gingrich insisted he was making an argument about the state of the economy, not the skin color of food assistance recipients.

There may be some merit to his explanation, but it got lost in the din of the whistle, which sparked debate mostly among liberals and African Americans -- who seemed least likely to be the remark’s intended targets.

Left unexplored was that this was not the first time Gingrich had used the food stamp analogy. Last October -- long before his announced presidential run -- he was advising Republicans running in the midterm elections to label the Democratic Party as the “party of food stamps.” His reasoning? That more people are on food stamps thanks to high unemployment.

Because dog whistles live in the ear of the listener, it is impossible to know whether Gingrich’s comments were really intended to provoke racial, rather than political, animus.

But using coded language is a grand old tactic, and it extends far beyond the limits of domestic politics. President Obama, in his closely-watched speech on the Middle East this week, knew he was doing more signal-sending than policymaking.

By repeating longstanding policy that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should be based on 1967 borders and land swaps, he got a predictable rebuke from hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But he got even harsher rebuffs from Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor accused Obama -- who was merely reiterating established policy -- of having “thrown Israel under the bus.” Classic dog whistle, that.

Some dog whistles are more base and therefore more dangerous. Within hours after sensational stories of sexual misbehavior surfaced involving two powerful men -- former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- the conversation turned almost immediately to the potential culpability of the women involved.

And there is more. Princeton professor Cornel West also slashed away at Obama this week, questioning his progressive bona fides, his personal loyalty, and, ultimately, his racial authenticity. “All he has known culturally is white,” West said. “He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening.”

Outrage ensued, and an old debate was engaged. Was the first black president black enough?

Many of the fights that erupt over dog-whistle rhetoric happen around the edges, because that’s where the most sensitive listeners live.

So if you are watching these outbreaks of debate and are baffled about their provenance, just know that the message was probably never intended for you.

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