2014 is finally here and the mid term election campaigns will soon be in full force. Except for us political junkies, most people look at the upcoming campaigns with much of an attitude, that it's more of a nuisance than anything else. Poll after poll proves that most of the average public doesn't really start paying attention until around two months before the election. We have all pretty much have gotten used to our TV viewing to be interrupted continuously by campaign ads and our mail boxes full of campaign mailers. Now on to the reason for this piece.
One particularly insidious form of campaign messaging is the ad that is designed as a 'dog whistle' message that targets the beliefs, fears and emotions of a target audience. Just as a 'dog whistle' is at such a high frequency that it is beyond the range of human hearing but still gets the dog's attention; 'dog whistle' messages pass above most of the public and connects with the target. Probably the clearest definition I've found comes from Wikipedia under the term “Dog Whistle – Politics”. Quoting the website directly: “Dog-whistle politics is political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. The phrase is only ever used as a pejorative, because of the inherently deceptive nature of the practice and because the dog-whistle messages are frequently themselves distasteful, for example by empathising with racist or revolutionary attitudes. It is an analogy to dog whistles, which are built in such a way that their high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs, but is inaudible to humans.
The term can be distinguished from "code words" used by hospital staff or other specialist workers, in that dog-whistling is specific to the political realm, and the messaging referred to as the dog-whistle has an understandable meaning for a general audience, rather than being incomprehensible.”
Probably one of the best known 'dog whistle' messages was from the 1988 presidential campaign and is now known as the Willie Horton Ad crafted by then Bush Campaign Adviser, Lee Atwater. Up until the ad was run, George H.W. Bush was running behind in the polls to Governor Michael Dukakis. Once the ad was released it turned around the Bush Campaign by linking Dukakis to Willie Horton, essentially claiming that Dukakis was soft on crime, allowing for convicted felons to be on the lose to commit more heinous crimes, preying on innocent white women. It's no accident that Lee Atwater introduced this tactic to the national stage. He being a southern of South Carolina, knew precisely how 'dog whistle' adds work and their effectiveness. Since the 1960s it had become an important part of the 'Southern Strategy, when it was no longer allowable to make overt racist statements. All 'dog whistle' ads have some things in common.
The message is so designed to appear to be politically correct and innocuous in its choice of language and subject. Even if the coded message is racist, sexist, anti-gay, anti-Semitic, etc; on the face of it, the message will seem acceptable to the general public. The subtle coded message is designed to raise fear, anxiety and concern within the targeted subgroup, rousing them to solidification and action. In addition, there is always a scape goat in the coded message. For example; Ronald Reagan's use of the term “Welfare Queens” was a coded racist message against black women AFDC recipients. Finally, 'dog whistle' messages divert responsibility away from the deliverer or author allowing them to claim non responsibility by focusing only on the overt message and not the coded message. Just as with racist 'dog whistle' messages, if someone challenges the deliverer about it being racist, the accused reverses and diverts the attention to the accuser and claims that they are 'playing the race card'.
The rhetoric that is contained in the coded messages is developed from a variety of sources. Focus on the Family is one source that deals with the Christian Right's pet issues such as anti-LGBT, single parent families, anti-abortion, anti-birth control, etc. Most of it is summarized in the coded message of “Traditional Family Values”. An example of a 'dog whistle' message could be something as simple as hold public employees accountable for their own retirement. To the targeted subgroup the message reads something like this: “All government employees are lazy and 'milk the system' to get as much as possible while putting out the least effort. Government employees have a vested interest in keeping a dysfunctional system that way. The pejorative statements and meanings just go on and on. Organized labor is another convenient message topic while containing a 'dog whistle' coded message. However, the left also knows how to play this game..
Favorite targets for the left include business, the wealthy usually referencing the 1%, Christian fundamentalists, Right to Life, etc. However, the left doesn't seem to be as well organized as the right with their 'dog whistle' campaigns. I am sure if the campaign style continues, we'll see the left continue to develop this style.
As the election season continues to develop, I think we'll be hearing more and more of these 'dog whistle' messages, an indication of how deeply divided the population really is. If we consistently call out those who are using this type of messaging, it may be possible to change minds listening to these toxic messages. They need to realize they are being subtly manipulated.