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Lexicon: The Political “Dog Whistle” Is Obsolete

Merriam-Webster just added the term to its dictionary, but it’s already losing its meaning

Dogs and a dog whistle Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Merriam-Webster dictionary has developed an unexpectedly sassy online presence. The reference book brand japes at the spelling and grammar errors of the rich and powerful so frequently that BuzzFeed declared the account “shady AF.” The dictionary also chases hipness by keeping itself rigorously up to date on popular terms. It added more than 250 definitions this month, from “troll” to “alt-right.” In one of its updated entries, Merriam-Webster expanded its definition of the phrase “dog whistle” to convey the term’s secondary meaning: Just as a dog whistle emits a sound that can be heard only by canines, a dog whistle message is “an expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people.” It’s always uncomfortable when a branded account gestures aggressively at trendiness, and with “dog whistle,” Merriam-Webster shows how behind the times it is. The dictionary added this metaphorical definition of “dog whistle” right as the concept of the dog whistle has become old-fashioned in American politics.

In Merriam-Webster’s defense, adding the term was long overdue. Dog whistle politics enjoyed a long and ignominious run as a dominant mode of political messaging in United States politics—although the origins of the phrase may be international. In 2005 The Economist traced the term’s origins to the Australian press, which began using it during the 1990s to describe the way politicians use coded messages to appeal to their political bases.

Ian Haney López, a law professor at University of California–Berkeley, followed the rise of this type of shrouded messaging in his 2014 book Dog Whistle Politics. “Using a dog whistle simply means speaking in code to a target audience,” López writes. “The audiences for such dog whistles have included, at different times, civil rights protesters, members of the religious right, environmentalists, and gun rights activists.” López stresses that dog whistles can be used by politicians with messages on any part of the political spectrum, and that the basic act of targeting a specific, passionate audience within a larger speech is not inherently malevolent. The trouble with dog whistling is how it has been predominantly used in American politics since the 1950s, as a way for right-wing politicians to assure white voters that they perceive black and brown groups as threats.

López outlines how former president Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” amounted to strategic, coded racist remarks about black Americans. Nixon used phrases like “law and order” to stir fears of racial conflict without coming right out and saying it. “Race remained the indisputable, intentional subtext of the appeal,” he writes. “As Nixon exulted after watching one of his own commercials: ‘Yep, this hits it right on the nose ... it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.’”

In 1981 political operative Lee Atwater gave an anonymous interview laying out Nixon’s strategy for dog whistle politics in infamously blunt terms: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”

Atwater was attempting to contrast Nixon’s strategy with Ronald Reagan’s, but Reagan expanded on Nixon’s dog whistle tactics to create the myth of the “welfare queen.” “For the better part of 20 years, Richard Nixon’s playbook was the GOP’s playbook. When Ronald Reagan warned in 1980 of the ‘strapping young buck’ using food stamps to buy steaks, he crudely invoked images of dangerous black men gaming the system at the taxpayer’s expense,” historian Joshua Zeitz wrote in Politico last year.

While the dog whistle technique first gained traction among Republican candidates, it has also been used by prominent Democrats. “[Bill] Clinton bit down on that whistle and blew,” López writes, arguing that Clinton would plan incidents specifically to make himself appear to “stand up” to prominent black Americans like Jesse Jackson, whom Clinton publicly feuded with during his 1992 presidential campaign.

In his book, López emphasizes that dog whistle political messaging is effective because it allows recipients to hear racist appeals without forcing them to directly confront their attraction to that racism. “Terms like gangbanger and sharia law superficially reference behavior and religion. Even as these terms agitate racial fears, for many voters this thin patina suffices to obscure from them the racial nature of their attitudes,” López writes. “Dog whistle entreaties often hide racism even from those in whom it triggers strong reactions.”

President Donald Trump has been frequently accused of using dog whistle political messaging to appeal to people susceptible to strategic racial messages. When Trump tweeted an image showing Hillary Clinton’s face surrounded by a pile of money and the Star of David, with the phrase “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever,” written on the star. The campaign had reappropriated the image from a white supremacist forum. The tweet, among others, was decried as a dog whistle moment. Trump continues to use much of the coded language of Nixon; he harps on the dangers of the “inner city” and, just like his forebearers, he loves to portray himself as a “law and order” candidate. But this is not coded language anymore, not really. At some point, the electorate is responsible for figuring out the code. This tactic has been used for more than 50 years.

What’s more, Trump’s messages are often not coded at all, but are instead forthrightly racist. In calling Mexicans rapists and referring to neo-Nazis as “fine people,” Trump is not deviating from the racist strategy of his Republican predecessors, but he is stripping their rhetoric of plausible deniability. When Trump began his political climb by latching on to birtherism and arguing that then–President Barack Obama may not have been born in the United States, he was not engaging in dog whistle politics. He was engaging in a strikingly overt form of xenophobic, racist political messaging. He was saying that Obama was an interloper in America, and he was saying it plainly. “Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for The Atlantic this year. While the American Civil Liberties Union criticized Trump’s travel ban for majority-Muslim countries as a “dog whistle,” it was underestimating how clear the message was. Trump had promised to ban Muslim people from entering the United States, and he plainly attempted to deliver on that promise.

“You may be trying to dog whistle to a certain group of your people, but you understand that your message is getting through to all of us,” The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah said during a segment on Trump’s Star of David tweet. “It’s a normal whistle.” We’ve been hearing various iterations of the song Trump sings for decades; he has merely forgone euphemism for more explicit verses. It is loud enough for all to hear.