Dog Whistle Politics

Dog Whistle Politics

By Ian Haney-Lopez 
Review by Clare Gearhart


Dog Whistle Politics 

If the political scene has left you baffled, even embarrassed of late, this book can help make sense not only of what is happening within the fabric of our society, but also in the political scene.  Whereas some have turned to “outsiders” for the possibility of change, others seem to support candidates who court the less affluent, and seduce them into voting against their own economic interests.

Haney-Lopez elucidated these and other conundrums of American politics deftly and clearly, without having to draw sides and vilify the sometimes unwitting perpetrators.  “How coded racial appeals have reinvented racism and wrecked the middle class,” the book’s subtitle, states his thesis, which he goes about proving with a lucid prose style, underscored by copious bibliographic notes.

A dog whistle‘s sound can only be heard by canines. In much the same way political jargon that is not overtly racist can be heard as racist by those who are predisposed to hear the subliminal message.  Frequently a term such as “states’ rights” is heard differently by a Southerner and a New Englander.

Being a liberal white child of the Sixties, I followed the civil rights movement through its twists and turns, and worked in the ghettos during the riots, to assure my social services clients would receive the attention and support they needed.  After the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision and the enforcement that came with it, I, like many others, shelved my racial concerns, accepting the notion of “color blindness” as a beneficent stance towards issues of race. In spite of an awareness of the atrocities in our systems of policing, judging and incarceration, housing, etc., my belief remained strong that racism had been dealt with, that the rest of the issues would be solved over time. 

As Haney-Lopez makes clear, racism has not gone anywhere, much less away. It is couched in new language, and racist ideas have begun to be expressed through euphemisms such as “states’ rights,” “law and order,” “home land security,” and lowering taxes on the wealthy. Obviously, those terms are two-edged swords, but when they are used to fan the fears of whites, and to support unrestricted capitalism; they become weapons to be used against both people of color and the economically disadvantaged.

The first chapter of the book may be off-putting to conservatives, but it bears reading in that it points out how the GOP began to develop as the “white man’s party,” not only because of our national unwillingness to address race as a factor, but also because of political expediency. In order to win an election one has to excite enough loyalty to get voters to the polls, and if a subliminal or overt approach to the matter works, then it is pragmatic to follow it.  The conservative movement has used this technique to such an extent that they have convinced themselves that they are not racists. They don’t pull the race card, now do they?  Yet references to welfare queens, illegal aliens and Sharia law all serve to enflame a natural paranoia in those who are susceptible.

In truth, the book is a complete challenge for those of a conservative mind- set, even though it does not challenge the basic tenets of a thoughtful, humane conservative.  Perhaps Haney-Lopez is so convincing because he does not demonize the opposition.  Instead he appeals to all readers to examine their beliefs, their behaviors and their language, in such a way that they expose their personal stance in a humane and intelligent way. 

Liberals are not let off the hook.  They too have adapted the dog whistle to serve their own needs, and have been conspicuously absent in countering its negative effects. There is a large disaffection of people of color with the liberal side, so it seems doubtful that either party will be able to claim their loyalty in the future.

The conclusion of the book is (an analysis of the current state of affairs, with the caveat) that changing demographics, and the end of a generation in which white supremacy was tolerated will not ever put an end to the evolution of dog whistle politics. A section called “What to Do” suggests clear measures to be taken at every level so that America can once again take an honest look at the issues of race in our society. If you’re searching for political understanding, Dog Whistle Politics is an important book to read!


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