How to defeat dog-whistle politics, win elections and build a progressive majority: Part 1

Ian Haney López says dog-whistle politics are everywhere. But his research tells us there's also a way to beat it

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published September 29, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Whistleblower in congress (Getty Images/Salon)
Whistleblower in congress (Getty Images/Salon)

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In June of last year, I reported on an amazing public messaging research project that showed the surprising effectiveness of a suite of “race-class narratives” — political messages that call out scapegoating by greedy, wealthy special interests, and that call on people to unify across racial lines for the common good. Results from focus groups as well as national and state-level polls showed that such narratives were much more effective countering right-wing messages than traditional progressive messages that stressed economic populism on the one hand or racial justice alone on the other.

The project was a collaboration between Ian Haney López, author of “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” and communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio, author of “Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy” (my review here)  and host of the just-launched Brave New Words podcast, with the support of the public policy nonprofit Demos. 

Now López has a new book, to be published next week, “Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America.” In it, he not only explains the logic of the race-class narrative project, but also provides a sweeping historical and political explanation of why the project was necessary and why applying its results are so essential to building an America that finally lives up to its promise of liberty and justice for all.

Salon sat down to interview López about the nature and history of dog-whistle politics, how it’s about much more than just race, how it’s changed and stayed the same from George Wallace through Donald Trump, why it’s so crucial to understand, and how the race-class narrative approach works to defeat it. 

Our interview is in two parts: Part One concentrates on the history of dog-whistle politics through its latest incarnation via Donald Trump. Part Two focuses on how Trump is still engaged in dog-whistle politics, and how understanding that leads to understanding how to defeat it — not just as Trump practices it, but in any form whatever. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

I’d like you to begin by fleshing out what’s meant by dog-whistle politics and how it started out initially, even before Nixon’s "Southern strategy," when it actually began with Southern Democrats.

Dog-whistle politics is not a claim that somehow, after the civil rights movement, race for the first time enters American politics. Race has been one of the dominant themes in American politics since before the founding of the country. What happens with the civil rights movement is that it succeeds in convincing people that open endorsements of white supremacy are immoral. That makes impossible an explicit conversation about white superiority or white dominance. This is a big and positive change, but it is not the same thing as saying this marks the end of race as a driving force in American politics. Instead what it marks is the moment that race goes underground in political conversations. 

The dog-whistle transformation, which begins in the early 1960s, is a transformation of the rhetoric through which white dominance will be debated in American politics. It starts in the South with Southern Democrats who have been up until then self-avowedly representative of the "white man’s party." They had been open endorsers of white supremacy, of Jim Crow segregation, of using legal tactics and private violence to suppress black participation in politics and to oppress the African American community generally.

As the civil rights movement makes their actions deeply immoral, deeply revolting to the country as a whole, they evolve. They evolve in the direction of dog whistling,  which is to say talking about race through language that on its surface does not directly address race and allows a level of plausible deniability.  

Such as?

The quintessential example in the '60s is states’ rights.  On the surface it’s a conversation about the relative sovereignty and power of the federal government versus state government. It doesn't take much to realize that's a soporific conversation that is going to put almost all voters to sleep, if that's really what you're talking about. But in fact states’ rights in the South in the 1960s meant the right of Southern states to resist pressure from the federal government that they stop violently subjecting and humiliating African Americans through their segregation laws. That's what states’ rights meant. 

So all of a sudden you have this switch, where southern Democrats in the 1950s are saying, "We represent the white man," and in the 1960s they're saying, "We support states’ rights." Substantively, they’re saying the same thing. But the form has shifted dramatically. It’s a shift that allows the politician to deny his racism. It’s also a shift that allows people who are stirred by these messages to deny that racial resentment or anxiety or fear is animating them. People can say to themselves, "I’m a staunch defender of the Constitution. I believe in states’ rights. Race? That has nothing to do with it."

But obviously people aren’t being stirred passionately to go to the polls out of some deep and studied conviction about the appropriate relations between state and federal government systems. It’s racism, racial fear, a defense of racial status that's driving this dynamic.

So how did dog-whistle politics begin to change over time?

Dog-whistling evolved first as a way to mobilize the votes of racially anxious whites, and it's quickly adopted in that context as a strategy among Republicans for breaking the New Deal coalition, which strongly supported the role of activist government in providing routes of upward mobility and supporting unions, regulating capitalism.

That coalition was comprised of African-Americans, the white working class and white liberal elites on the coasts. That coalition involved Southern Democrats as well, and what happens is, by 1968, Richard Nixon sees that strategy of talking about continued white dominance and white resentment over civil rights and equality and integration could actually be deployed across the country. Maybe it arose in the South but it has a national resonance. So Nixon begins to wield dog-whistle politics as a way to shatter the New Deal coalition, to pull the white working class away from the Democratic Party.

What happened from there?

With Ronald Reagan, dog-whistling takes on an additional dimension. More than just a way to break the New Deal coalition, it becomes a way to attack the ideas that underlay the very idea of a New Deal, the very idea of activist government that regulated capitalism and supported working people. This is a very important transition in dog-whistling that all too many people don't hold clearly in mind. Most people think about dog-whistling in racial terms, but dog whistling is much more than a racial dynamic. It’s an attack on the idea of activist government itself.

Reagan used racial scapegoating as a way to attack the idea that government has a role in helping working people. He began to tell a story about welfare queens who could work, but preferred to live off the system. And "welfare queen" was a dog whistle in the sense that on the surface it doesn't say anything about race, but obviously just  underneath, there's this imagery of a black woman ripping off the system.

More than a story about blacks, though, what Reagan was saying is, hey, we need to resent black people, but we need to hate government. Hate them because government coddles lazy and undeserving people of color, and we need to hate government because government refuses to control dangerous minorities. It’s lax in its criminal law enforcement. So we get a war on drugs that will morph into a war on crime which at root is a war on communities of color. 

This message that whites need to fear and resent people of color and hate government then allows Reagan to say, "And if you hate government, you can trust the marketplace." So if you hate government, cut taxes, starve government — and that ends up being tax cuts for the rich. And if you hate government, think that those safety-net programs are giveaways to undeserving people of color, even if those are the programs that supported working people generally. And if you hate government, get government out of the way of the marketplace — Reagan would say "deregulation," but the reality was allowing the corporations to write their own regulations and rig the rules of the economy to help themselves.

If we want to understand why after 1980 wealth inequality in America begins to surge — wealth inequality that makes today a new era of robber barons and economic titans — we have to look at the way Reagan marshaled a racial narrative that says, "Fear and resent people of color, but hate government, and trust the marketplace instead."

So how did we get from there to America’s first black president? What role did Democrats play? 

The Democrats figured out as early as 1970 that dog-whistling was going to be a potent weapon against them. They had to decide how to respond. And their initial intuition was to say, "If we accuse Nixon, if we accuse dog-whistle politicians of manipulating people's racial resentment that's going to sound a lot like were accusing voters of being racist. That’s going to backlash. So let's stay silent." So Democrats for many years stayed silent about the dog whistling that was being used successfully against them. 

The nadir of that was when Michael Dukakis stayed silent against George Bush, who ran the Willie Horton ad. Dukakis was ahead in the polls in the presidential campaign in 1988, and then George Bush came out this Willie Horton ad which depicted a black rapist who had kidnapped a white couple, and Dukakis stayed silent on it. In the months he stayed silent, the voters switched, and all of a sudden Dukakis was down and went on to lose that election. 

That was a turning point.

That was the point where Democrats said, "We can't stay silent on this. We've got to respond." And the question then became, well, how are they going to respond? What you get with the DLC Democrats is a decision that, effectively, "If we can’t beat them, we should join them. We will ourselves imitate Republican dog-whistle politics." This is why you get Bill Clinton campaigning against "welfare as a way of life," as he put it, and campaigning to crack down on crime. 

If you step back and say, "Well whose way of life is welfare, supposedly? And who are the supposed criminals?"those are just Reagan's themes appropriated by the Democrats. One result of that is Clinton wins the presidency and wins the election. He does not win a majority of the white vote, but it's close enough that with overwhelming support from African Americans he wins the presidency. 

So Clintonesque dog-whistling ends up, in a sense, blurring the racial differences between the parties. With Clinton and then with the second George Bush, it's not so clear what the racial differences are between the parties to a lot of voters who aren’t paying careful attention.

But then came Obama, right?

The nation elected Barack Obama, and with a black president at the head of Democratic Party, it creates this new opportunity for the Republicans to bring back dog-whistle politics and racial resentment with a vengeance. You see in the Tea Party.

It's important to remember that in 2007, the Republican Party was almost entirely discredited, the whole thing was an embarrassment. George Bush had in response to 9/11 dragged the United States into what he himself described as a crusade against terrorism, but that ended up dragging us into wars with countries that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. His government seemed incredibly incompetent in terms of Hurricane Katrina, it was unable to help Americans facing a natural catastrophe. The economy entered into the second most severe recession in history of the country. The Republican Party was seen as essentially incompetent and bankrupt in terms of its ideas. 

The country elects Barack Obama, and almost immediately a grassroots insurgency begins that would take the form of the Tea Party. At its inception, this grassroots insurgency was in part fueled by economic reasons. There was a moment, I think, when Obama could have spoken more powerfully to that economic grievance. But when he didn't, it left even more room for the right to go back to its favorite theme, which is, don't blame the oligarchs, blame people of color. And what you see then is that many economic titans of the country, including the Koch brothers, begin to fund the Tea Party and push it away from a critique of capitalism and toward an obsession with racial threats: The racial threat supposedly posed by undocumented immigrants, supposedly posed by Muslim terrorists, supposedly posed by people of color seeking to vote when they shouldn't — all of this is embodied in, and given the face of, President Barack Obama. 

Obama then leads us to Trump. What’s most notable to clearly see what’s happening?

With the Obama presidency you get an acceleration and amplification of these dog-whistle politics, this racial threat narrative that the right have been conducting by then for four decades. But now they've got a new face, a new target, a seeming new urgency That's the milieu in which Donald Trump runs for the presidency in 2012. When he starts his campaign, he does so on the basis of trade and corruption in D.C. And his campaign absolutely fails. He’s seen as having no policies, competency, credentials or credibility whatsoever. 

Within a month or two, he revives the Tea Party claim that Barack Obama was born outside the country and was secretly a Muslim. And within a month or two of that, Trump was at the top of the Republican primary field. He dropped out, in order to continue on with one of his TV shows, but he learned a crucial lesson. He didn't need to know policy. He didn't need to be a credible politician. He didn't need to be a solid Republican, or even have the support of conservative intelligentsia. All he needed to succeed as a Republican candidate for President was to stir up the racial hysteria and resentment of the Republican base. And that’s the tactic that he pursued again in the summer of 2015 when he announced his candidacy for president with a tirade against Mexican immigrants as racist and criminal.

The majority of progressive have no trouble seeing Trump as a blatant racist. So why is what Trump's doing still dog-whistling, since it does differ from how it's been done in the past?

Let me start this way: After I published "Dog Whistle Politics" in 2014, laying out this history of the way in which race has been weaponized in America politics, I tried to place a piece with the Washington Post. They were initially enthusiastic, but ultimately rejected the piece on the grounds that they just didn't find the piece credible, that racism was such a big influence.

Now fast forward to a year ago when I tried to place a piece saying Trump is still dog-whistling, but it's evolved. And I once again met with rejection, but for a very different reason, seemingly, which was, "This isn’t dog whistling anymore. Now this is foghorn politics. It's so loud, it’s so egregious, of course it’s just racism." There's this idea that dog-whistle politics is passé. 

These two reasons — either that it's not happening or that it’s blatant — they’re actually flip sides of the same mistake. It's the basic mistake of thinking that racism takes one form, that racism involves attacks against people of color by someone who is a bigot.  When Mitt Romney spent half his advertising budget trying to falsely smear Barack Obama with claims about his support for welfare, that didn’t strike many people as racist. They didn't think it was racist because they couldn't see Mitt Romney as a bigot. So they said, no, race is not playing a role here.

Then you get to Trump, and if you say he's playing dog-whistle politics, people are like, "Oh no, he is a bigot." What you see is a lot of progressives simply bouncing back and forth: Either a person's not a bigot, and so racism has no role, or they can see the racism and conclude that he’s a bigot. That's a mistake.

Racism is a very complex phenomenon that’s been around for 400-plus years. It plays many different roles, and it takes many different forms. So when we look at Trump it's important to separate out the question of whether he's personally a bigot — I think he is — but to separate out that question from this: Is Trump strategically manipulating racial resentment in the public for his own gain? To win votes? To distract attention from his corruption? To divide the opposition? That’s what Trump is doing.

It’s incredibly important that we not get bogged down in questions of whether Trump is a bigot or not, and that we really focus on this question: Is Trump a strategic racist? Is he strategically, intentionally, purposely and with calculation manipulating racial division in the broader public? How's he doing it? To what end? How do we fight it? That's the core question. 

When we ask it that way, then it makes sense when we come up against some really startling results. Ninety percent of Republicans reject the idea that Donald Trump is a racist. Even more startling than that, when we tested dog-whistle messages that talk about terrorist countries and undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities, and all that sort of  rhetoric that commonly comes from Trump’s mouth, the majority of Democrats found those phrases those messages convincing.

A majority of African-Americans found those messages convincing. A majority of the Latinx community found those messages convincing. It's simply not true that the majority of Americans hear messages about hardworking vs. lazy, undocumented immigrants, sanctuary cities, thugs, gangs, all the dog-whistle rhetoric — it's simply not true that the majority of Americans hear that and recognize it as a blatant endorsement of white nationalism. They don’t.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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