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This article is specifically about the use of "code words" in politics, for the concept generally, see Code word (figure of speech)

Dog-whistle politics, also known as the use of code words, is a term for a type of political campaigning or speechmaking which employs coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a different or more specific meaning for a targeted subgroup of the audience. The term is invariably pejorative, and is used to refer both to messages with an intentional subtext, and those where the existence or intent of a secondary meaning is disputed. According to blogger Ian Welsh,

When you speak in code(...), most of the time the only people who hear and understand what you just said are the intended group, who have an understanding of the world and a use of words that is not shared by the majority of the population.[1]

The term is an analogy to dog whistles, which are built in such a way that the high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs, but appears silent to human hearing.


Origin in Australia

The term originated in Australian politics in the mid 1990s. One notable example was its use to describe the Howard Government's policy to crack down on illegal immigration. The Australian Government took a strong stand against illegal immigration, which was highly popular among a segment of voters on both sides of the usual political divide, and which contributed to the winning of the 2001 Australian Federal Election. In response to this political success, some commentators have argued that the stand was playing to racist segments of the community, despite the Government's avoidance of overtly racist terminology. The Howard Government is accused of having used dog whistling as a technique to send a message of support to voters with racist leanings while avoiding criticism from those opposed to prejudice. The key to its use is to maintain the option of "plausible deniability".[2] An example is the publicity of the citizenship test in 2007. It has been argued that the test may appear reasonable at face value, but is really intended to appeal to those opposing immigration from some regions.[3]

United Kingdom

The term was introduced to the United Kingdom by Matthew Parris in The Times on October 31, 2003 in an article about Michael Howard.[4]. After the phrase caught on in the UK, Matthew Parris wrote in The Spectator on April 30, 2005 about having introduced it.[5]

United States

One group of alleged code words in the United States is claimed to appeal to racism of the intended audience. The phrase "states' rights", although literally referring to powers of individual state governments in the United States, has been described as a code word for institutionalized segregation and racism.[6] Other terms that some people say are used to indicate alleged veiled racism are "crime in the streets" and "welfare queens".[7]

Former president George W. Bush is alleged to have used coded language in his speeches to send messages to his supporters among the religious right that will be ignored by other parts of the U.S. population. Examples include his frequent use of biblical phrases and the veiled mention of the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in the 2004 Presidential debates. The latter refers to overturning Roe v. Wade, which is likened to the Dred Scott case by some of its critics.[8]

David Gergen claimed that John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama used dog whistle tactics targeting racists, while retaining plausible deniability though only cited one example in which a McCain ad featured Obama as "The One". David Gergen said that it was implying Obama was "uppity" and that was code for "he should stay in his place". The McCain campaign made it clear it was in reference to Obama's popularity as a god-like figure.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Just A Comma: Dog Whistle Politics | The Agonist
  2. ^
  3. ^ No question about a citizenship test - Editorial - Opinion -
  4. ^ Parris, Matthew (2003-10-31). "He is not a rotter and I wish him well (warily)". London: The Times. Retrieved 2008-02-29.  
  5. ^ Parris, Matthew (2005-04-30). "Only the Tories can cut the state down to size". The Spectator. Retrieved 2008-02-29.  
  6. ^ David Greenburg, "Dog-Whistling Dixie", Slate, Nov. 20, 2007. Accessed April 4, 2008.
  7. ^ David Hogberg, "Outsourcing Bigotries", American Spectator, April 5, 2005. Accessed April 16, 2008.
  8. ^ Timothy Noah, "Why Bush Opposes Dred Scott, Slate, Oct. 11, 2004. Accessed April 8, 2008. National Right To Life, Court Blunders on Slavery and Abortion. Accessed April 8, 2008.
  9. ^ Gergen Calls Out Racial "Signals" of McCain Ads

External links

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