The right's dog-whistle trick: How it exploits racism to rip apart the social safety net

Conservatives use coded racial appeals to win very specific policy goals, law professor Ian Haney Lopez explains

Published January 20, 2014 12:45PM (EST)

Richard Nixon, Paul Ryan         (AP/Reuters/Matt Sullivan)
Richard Nixon, Paul Ryan (AP/Reuters/Matt Sullivan)

In his newest book, “Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney Lopez argues that politicians on the right have used coded racial appeals to tear at the fabric of the social safety net. Lopez, the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of the Fletcher Foundation's Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellowship and is a leading thinker on issues of racial justice and the legal system. (He's also a senior fellow at Demos, where I am a research intern.)

Salon spoke with Lopez about “Dog Whistle Politics,” conservatism and racial politics in the United States. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

I think the best place to start with this book and with the history of dog-whistle politics is Barry Goldwater. That’s the first time you have this melding of the plutocratic agenda with dog-whistle politics. 

I think that’s exactly right. Goldwater shows you both elements. I think people have really only paid attention to one side. People have paid attention to the fact that there is this coded racial appeal and they react by saying that race plays out only at the margins. But when you look at Goldwater and you see that these racial appeals are tied to an attack on liberalism, are tied to an attack on the activist state, then you see that this is not a minor, vestigial effect on campaigns, but  rather it's central to the ideological project of conservatism. And then you can start to see the power of dog-whistle politics.

Richard Hofstadter's essay on Goldwater [“Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics”] doesn’t focus as much on the racial aspect, he focuses on the pseudo-conservative nature and ties it into what he calls the "paranoid style" in American politics. How much of a factor is dog-whistle politics and how does it interact with these other parts of conservatism?

When you look at Goldwater you are looking at the inception of coded racial appeals. When you look at Goldwater’s national campaign, which Hofstadter does, the paranoia is focused on communism. His national campaign commercials are pitched toward national security, not race. Nationally, that’s the issue around which he presents himself. It’s the South where he is particularly aggressive in pushing a racial element in his campaign. So I wouldn’t make the statement that Goldwater launches a national racist campaign; that dishonor goes to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. When Nixon talks about “law and order” it’s both code for race and code for the civil disturbances of the antiwar movement, the protest movements. They interact in the sense that these are efforts at faux-populism. These are efforts to explore popular anxiety through appeals that stir fear in order to generate votes for policies that are going to undermine the liberal state. What’s important here is that they are operating in code, but the agenda is, the substance of the proposal is, “Let’s dismantle the New Deal state.” But rather than say, “Let’s dismantle the New Deal state,” they say, “We need to worry about minorities, we need to worry about threats to your freedom. Society is being taken over by these foreign elements.” I think that is how these interact. 

Joe McGinniss discusses in “The Selling of the President 1968" how Nixon’s campaign tailored their ads to the South, but the age of the Internet makes that more difficult. If you try to run a racially coded ad in the South, Northerners are going to notice that. How has that changed dog-whistle politics?

I think it does. It cuts both ways. On the one hand, you can do much more granular targeting of audiences. On the other hand, it’s much easier for others to find that material. The incident with the Obama-phone lady became a national incident, but it was a TV commercial run in just one state. It came to people’s attention: “Hey, look, a Tea Party group is running this as a TV commercial.” 

Martin Gilens has an essay [“How the Poor Became Black”] about how media influences racial perceptions, and he talks on the national level about how when CBS reports on the undeserving poor it’s more likely to be a black face and when it’s the working poor or hard times it’s more likely to be a white face. What effect does the national media have on dog-whistle politics? How have they been complicit in this?

The impact is tremendous. Politicians can seed the media with these frames and because these frames have a strong racial logic behind them, they end up being picked up by the media and amplified dramatically. An example would be Ronald Reagan’s warnings about undocumented immigrants and the threat of them pouring across the border. He essentially creates that issue as a sort of a media frame. When he’s first elected people don’t have a sense that this is a major social problem facing the United States, but by [Reagan] constantly talking about it, the media begins to pick up on it and report stories on it and it becomes a national hysteria. I would say he does the same thing with crime. The more he talks about crime, the more it becomes an issue, the more the media find that it’s actually easy to report on crime stories. Reporting on crime stories goes up by 200 or 300 percent while the incidence of crime doesn’t. That generates a tremendous amount of fear around these coded threats that the politicians are using to campaign on.

Thomas Frank has argued that the plutocratic agenda hasn’t melded with race, but rather with social issues. Do you see race in these social issues?

I think Thomas Frank’s analysis is terrific, but I think he’s fundamentally wrong on race. Race is one of the many social issues in which the plutocratic agenda has been enveloped, but it’s more than just one of them — it’s the primary one. This isn’t to downplay the influence of religion or guns or abortion or gay marriage or any of those other red meat issues. But it’s race that provides the most powerful dog-whistle and the paradigm around which these other coded campaigns were based. Frank is wrong because he understands racism as “hate every black person" racism.

He understands it as the commitment to white supremacy. He has this phrase in his book where he says, “America doesn’t have Trent Lott disease” and he’s referring to Trent Lott’s slip in which he extolled the Dixiecrat campaign of 1948. I agree. America doesn’t have Trent Lott disease. You don’t have widespread commitment to continued white supremacy. But that is vastly different from saying America doesn’t have a race problem. Race has evolved dramatically in the past 50 years since the civil rights movement. It evolved dramatically during the course of the civil rights movement. That doesn’t mean it has gone away, but rather that the form it has taken has changed. But its impact, its ability to shape American politics and get many people out to vote in ways that harm themselves and help the very rich, has remained and, in fact, even grown over the last 50 years.

You talk about the connection between social issues and race ...

If you think about race and religion, for example, what happens with religion is that as soon as public schools are ordered integrated in the South, many whites flee to white academies that are very often Christian academies, so you have this very tight connection between race and Christian academies as a way to avoid integration. Ronald Reagan knows this and he makes it part of his agenda to reach out to these schools and tells them that they will get his support and receive state funding. He is going to support them maintaining these segregated spaces; I think it’s a very close connection. I don’t want to overstate it and say that race underlies everything. The force of these social issues are partially autonomous from race. But there are also very strong overlaps. Gun rights and race also have strong overlaps. 

What about the George W. Bush administration? Bush is known for spending a lot on Africa and HIV/AIDS as well as working for comprehensive immigration reform. Did he rely on dog-whistle cues?

Bush is someone who in some ways appreciated that conservatism needed to moderate, that it was becoming too extreme. You see that in the slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” as well as in what he tried to do around education, and you see it in his move away from the egregious race-baiting of his father in the Willie Horton ad. Coming out of Texas and realizing the increasing political power of blacks and Latinos, Bush was initially much more careful not to engage in that sort of really aggressive race-baiting. That shifted after 9/11. It shifted first around Muslims. What you see is the Bush administration now casting itself in a role as the “defender of the homeland,” which requires an enemy, and it’s not enough that the enemy remain external, that enemy has to be internal as well.

The Bush administration begins to cast itself as involved in  a “clash of civilizations” in which there are internal enemies as well and we need to show that there are these terrorist sleeper cells, and how do we do that? We increase hysteria, we increase prosecutions and we establish these security and secrecy protocols so we can’t actually tell you about the people that we are prosecuting. But we assure you that they are incredibly dangerous. All of the rhetoric then feeds into and adds a tremendous amount of political legitimacy to the latent hysteria in the U.S. about non-whites residents of the U.S. who are perceived as irredeemably foreign, as permanently foreign, and as threatening. That really accelerates around Muslims and it very easily adds fuel to social hysteria around Latinos — and Ronald Reagan had done his part to create that fear, so it was already simmering. But now you add the narrative of “We are a nation embattled” and the rhetoric of the homeland, which has a racial cast to it.

Almost immediately, politicians begin to say that the threat is our southern border, and when we try to stop "illegal aliens," we are trying to stop terrorism. So the Bush administration ends up being a time of intense racial hysteria, now not so much about African-Americans, although that continues, but about these foreign but internal threats from brown foreigners, be they Muslim or Latino. That’s how race ends up working over the course of the Bush administration.

The Tea Party shares a lot with the Barry Goldwater style of conservatism, except now the racism has expanded to include Hispanics and Muslims.

With the Tea Party there is both a racial hysteria that is occurring on a national level and at a more regional level. On a national level, you have organizations like Fox News, which understand perfectly well that they can energize and mobilize a large portion of the white population by constantly hammering away at racial issues. That’s exactly what it does with Obama, with the notion that he is foreign, with the notion that he is Muslim, with Sarah Palin's notion that he is "palling around with terrorists." She makes that comment with respect to a white activist [Bill Ayers], but with respect to the time, terrorist codes as "Muslim." On a national level, a lot of energy is being expended by Tea Party mobilizers to motivate people in terms of race.

It’s worth remembering that Roger Ailes was a person who was key in developing Nixon’s strategy and now he is head of Fox News, so it’s not entirely surprising.

Absolutely. There is a direct connection there.

The Tea Party seems to have a rift with the more “moderate” national party.

There is an autonomy as to which politicians dog-whistle and how they see their electoral prospects. So states like Arizona or Georgia, these are states in which politicians can be incredibly aggressive in the ways that they dog-whistle around Latinos and the slurs they use when they talk about illegal immigrants and the sort of harsh and punitive laws they pass. That will play well in terms of their local populations and will get them elected and reelected. Until it doesn’t. The national party looks around and sees that the political power of Latinos is increasing and we need to scale it back. But in some sense it’s not up to the national party to scale it back now. You do get these autonomous elements and politicians have their own political calculus and it might be such that it allows them to engage in much more egregious race-baiting than the national conservative movement might deem most effective. You have this process in which faux populism can escape the control of national central organizers. 

The toughest part is identifying the solution. As soon as you start talking about the Tea Party and race they turn around and say, “You are the racist for saying that we are the racists.” Can you elaborate on some solutions?

The solution is clear, although it’s not short-term. We have changed the way race operates. The rhetoric of race has changed dramatically in a way that racial justice projects have lost, but also, and more fundamentally, liberalism has lost. It’s lost because race has shifted to a coded and expressed register and on both registers the language of race is controlled by conservatives. So on the coded register, you have this constant drumbeat of insinuations that taint liberalism as a giveaway to minorities through language like “welfare” or “amnesty” or “causing terrorism.” And you don’t see liberals using a coded racial language to rebut that. Then on the express level, conservatives have made racism mean only an open reference to race itself. What that means is that whenever liberals or racial progressives say, “Hey, you know racism remains a big problem in our society,” something as innocuous as that, they immediately get slammed for playing the race card and conservatives run around saying, “Hey, we’re a post-racial society, but you just introduced race into the conversation.”

An interesting example was when Obama made the brief remark that he doesn’t look like all the other presidents on the dollar bills. He doesn’t! We ought to be able to say that, and we ought to be able to say that there has been a practice of scaring people around race. The minute he said that, he was the racist, he was the one injecting race into the conversation and poisoning the post-racial harmony that otherwise defines the U.S. as far as conservatives were concerned. We cannot restore a robust commitment to progressive government that helps everybody until we can challenge that rhetoric. And we can’t challenge that rhetoric until we once again engage with the power of race in our society. And that is a medium-term project. But it requires the commitment of lots of different actors, from politicians themselves, from foundations, from unions and from the media to really reengage with the role that race is playing and to be much more sophisticated in our understanding of how racism works and the many different forms of racisms. We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood. Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms. And until we recognize that and start talking about it we’re going to see that some of those forms of racisms are easily used to manipulate broad swaths of the American electorate.

Of course, during the Jim Crow South, a lot of the efforts used to disenfranchise black people ended up disenfranchising poor whites. You argue that the plutocratic agenda is being wielded to harm poor whites.

I would say this point is so central that I would put the point even more strongly. Dog-whistle politics is not fundamentally about race. It’s fundamentally about attacking liberal government, attacking New Deal government, which is good for the country as a whole, but bad in the perception of some of the very rich. This is fundamentally about power, it’s fundamentally about how we are going to organize a society for everybody. The core point here is that race is being used to wreck the middle class.

I want to emphasize that, because when people hear race, they think about poor minorities. And then the next thing they think is, “I don’t really get it, that’s not me, I’m pretty different, I’m going to tune out.” But the central point here is that race is being used to wreck the middle class. This has been the way conservatives have found that they can attack commitments to education, commitments to a social safety net, commitments to infrastructure, commitments to job programs, commitments to progressive taxation that taxes the most wealthy to help the rest of society. This is about all of us, and if we continue to think, “race is the way they go after poor minorities, and yeah, that’s bad, and I’ll get to that next, but I don’t have a job and my unemployment insurance has just been cut and my kids don’t have good public schools to go to and I can’t afford private schools,” we’ve missed the point, and we’ve missed the way that race has been used to destroy a society that promotes the middle class.

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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