Dog-Whistle Politics

May 30, 2016

Or how to (almost) get away with racism and intolerance.

A few weeks ago, Sadiq Khan (45), a human rights lawyer and a Labour MP, was elected Mayor of London. With that, London-born Khan became the most powerful Muslim politician in the UK to date.

During the mayoral campaign, Khan made much of his life story and how he had grown up as the son of Pakistani immigrants working blue collar jobs, then making his advances in life because London has helped him and his family succeed, as he chose to put it. The strategy of his rival candidate from the Conservative party, on the other hand, was to make the most – and worst – of Khan being a Muslim by branding that as a threat, but often without actually using those words. Instead, conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith would call Khan words like “radical” and “dangerous” in flyers sent out to potential voters, or criticize Khan for "sharing a platform" with Muslim extremists. Critics called this manner of coded political slander "dog-whistle politics", but what is that really?

The Trick to It
In the same way that actual dog-whistles create high-pitched noises that only dogs can hear, dog-whistle messages in political speech work by delivering a message to a key audience which is inaudible to the general audience – or at least, in Goldsmith's case, deniable. The idea is that the word “radical” would pass off as acceptable political jargon with most people in the electorate (or at least not creating as much stir as simple Islamophobic terminology), but still ring the alarm bells among those concerned with radical islamism and extremism.

Dog-whistles are difficult to do well, and Goldsmith perhaps provides us a very good example of that. According to his own party senior Andrew Boff, who strongly berated Goldsmith for “divisive and racist” attacks on Khan, he had failed at the very basic construction of a dog-whistle message: “Well, I don’t think it was a dog whistle because you can’t hear a dog whistle. Everybody could hear this. It was effectively saying that people of conservative religious views are not to be trusted and you should not share a platform with them. That’s outrageous.” The thing is, most of us may never notice the dog-whistles that are perfectly crafted.

Discovering the Invisible
The term may have been coined by Washington Post opinion pollster Richard Morin in 1988, to explain that sometimes people would respond to poll questions in ways that surprised the researchers. Some people heard something very different in the phrasing of the question than what the researchers meant. Morin called this the "dog whistle effect".

In American and Australian politics, the concept of dog-whistling has been recognized for some time and is often used to identify messages that play on strong sentiments about race, religion or immigration in key voter groups without necessarily making that clear to the general audience. While Australian dog whistles have often been about race and immigration, American politicians frequently use the effect to speak about religion. But is Ted Cruz really using anti-Semitic dog-whistles when he talks about Donald Trump's “New York values”, as Dana Milibank accused him of in a Washington Post op-ed? If he did, Cruz is much better at this game than Goldsmith, because what Cruz said could also easily be dismissed as unproblematic. And therein lies the problem for those who would like to researcher this phenomenon, for how do you prove that an “invisible” message actually exists, or how common such messages are?

The “Accidental” Whistler
Dog-whistles only work as intended when the sender and the intended recipients share some mutual cultural references or contextual beliefs – in example that Muslim radicalism is a threat in the UK, or that New York is a city with a strong Jewish community. Listeners who don't know or don't think about these things will not hear the same message, which makes possible the “two audience trick” of dog-whistling. However, dog-whistles mustn't necessarily be made intentionally.

George W. Bush was sometimes accused of using religious dog whistles to communicate a persuasive message to evangelical voters, without stirring suspicion among voters who would be put off by religious politics. On the other hand, Bush made no secret of his religious convictions and often made religious appeals that were far from concealed. His speech writer Michael Gerson argued that the allusions to scripture and hymns used in Bush’s speeches were not covert codes, but “our culture”. He went on to argue that “just because some people don’t get it doesn’t mean it’s a plot or a secret”, and he may be right – but that still leaves the fact that such covert codes actually work in a particular dog-whistle-like way.

Professor Bethany L. Albertson at the University of Texas has run experiments based on a phrase Bush used in his 2002 State of the Union speech, when he said that “there’s power, wonderworking power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people’’ (quoted in Albertson’s 2015 paper). The phrase “wonder-working power” was lifted from a hymn popular among evangelicals, and therefore recognizable to them, but Albertson found that other voters did not know or recognize the reference. In her experiment, Albertson exposed an in-group of evangelicals and an out-group of heterogeneous voters to a fake political advertisement containing one of three messages; the covert wonder-working-power message, a similar but explicitly religious message, and a similar but non-religious message. She found that only the covert message had positive effects on the evangelicals, improving their impression of the candidate and making them more likely to vote for him, without developing negative attitudes among out-group voters (which happened with the explicitly religious message). In other words, it did the trick.

Not Just a Dirty Trick
As the experiment proves, dog whistles can be useful in securing voter support. Also, not all dog whistles are racist or derogatory; it is simply a communication trick that can be used to convey a variety of messages. So what is the problem? Albertson argues that it is a democratic problem when politicians can communicate their convictions or even policy commitments to an in-group in front of an oblivious out-group, who are effectively kept out of the potential debate. Measured against democratic values, communicating by the use of dog whistles perverts the political conversation and violates the norm of open deliberations.

If voters hear different things and therefore support the same candidate for different reasons, it also makes it unclear what political mandate the elected representatives actually have. Professors Robert E. Goodin and Michael Saward at the Australian National University, who are both very critical of dog whistle politics, argue that winning elections is not only about winning the mandate to rule. It usually also gives you a "policy mandate" to go ahead and realize the promises you have made your voters, but perhaps not if you promised different things to different voter groups. Although it has short-term benefits, dog whistle politics may not be an easy strategy to maintain.

Potential Pitfalls
Diana Bossio at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has suggested that the Australian public eventually stopped responding to the dog whistle politics used by their former prime minister John Howard, who failed to be re-elected in 2007 after 11 years in office. She reminds us that we are not simply passive recipients of political messages, but that many actors are able to challenge the understanding of meaning that politicians present us. Clearly put, if a politician is called out on his dog-whistle politics, as Howard was in Australia – perhaps because they fall out of tune with their political surroundings – it quickly appears as a manipulation of power which creates skepticism and resistance among voters, not support.

And perhaps that is also what happened to Zac Goldsmith's attempt to smear Sadiq Khan as a dangerous candidate for the London mayoral position based on his Muslim faith and connections. Although Khan himself called it out as dog whistle politics, Goldsmith's overt attacks on Khan lacked the finesse required to achieve a dog whistle effect. Khan predicted many of the Tory attacks and countered them quite successfully during his own campaign, in example speaking about Islamic extremism and how he had himself been at the receiving end of their attacks, before Goldsmith accused him of extremist ties. When Goldsmith later brought up Khan's repeated meetings with a controversial British imam named Suliaman Gani, and called this kind of contact “sharing platforms with extremists”, that quickly backfired as the imam turned out to be a Tory voter who had also been personally invited to Tory events.

Apparently, Khan's successful defense and popularity in the polls pushed Goldsmith towards more desperate and less concealed measures. One week before the elections, Goldsmith published an op-ed in the Mail on Sunday in which he again warned about Khan and his “extremist links”, and which the newspaper (not him, according to Goldsmith) chose to illustrate with a photo from the London bombings of 2005. Rather than scaring voters into giving him support, it seems the move lost Goldsmith trust that was already worn thin after a long and dirty campaign. The week after, Khan won the elections with the largest personal mandate of any politician in UK history.