Dog whistle

This weekend I mentioned in passing that “everyone knows the phrase States’ Rights is a dog whistle.” And one of my friends replied “I didn’t know that.”

I guess that’s the point of a dog whistle. Not everyone knows the whole story. It’s a sign only to the initiates. As an anonymous right-wing messageboard strategist explains: “Leftists will recognize dog whistles and know we’re crypto, but normies won’t listen to them.”

But I was still surprised to hear someone say they didn’t recognize that one. Look up Dog-Whistle Politics on Wikipedia: “States’ Rights” is the canonical example.

In 1980, Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, near Philadelphia Mississippi, a town famous as the site of several civil-rights-related murders in 1964. So, how did he open his campaign? Praise of states’ rights. This was as clear a signal as possible to anyone who knew anything. Newspapers condemned it. I mean, sure, liberal out of touch coastal elite newspapers, but the New York Times is still a national newspaper. This was a longstanding pro-segregation slogan, used in a major political speech, in a town known for bloody battles over segregation and civil rights.

The use of racist dog-whistles is a deliberate Republican strategy, famously described by Reagan adviser Lee Atwater:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968, you can’t say “n*****” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”

I thought people knew this. I thought it was obvious. But I think I have just been blind to how effective that dog-whistle really is. Because somehow, after all that, people think the Republican party doesn’t have anything to do with racism, even though Nixon, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Trump all swept to office on tides of racism. It was most explicit for Nixon, Reagan, and Trump, and somewhat less so for the Bush boys. But not that much less.

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