Inexorably during the last 30 years or so, someone starts doing the math, and realizes that white people make up a hefty percentage of the electorate. Politicians inevitably try to appeal to this important demographic, some by using soaring rhetoric and an appeal to better nature. Others, well, not so much. Since it is no longer acceptable to pitch things to people in blatantly racial terms, politicians in recent times have tried to craft workarounds, dog whistles if you will, to appeal to certain demographics, without having to state out loud exactly what they are trying to say. Follow me below the fold to get 5 modern examples of racial dog whistling...
1. Sister Souljah- this was a dog whistle so blatant, it has now entered the political jargon. In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton, seeking to distance himself from the perception that he was beholden to African-American interests in general, and Jesse Jackson in particular, criticized a relatively unknown supporter of Jackson’s, who had stated in response to the LA riots that “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton noted that if the terms black and white were reversed, “it could have been David Duke giving that speech. Clinton came under fire by Jackson for that speech, Clinton showed that he was not beholden to the black population, and “having a Sister Soulja moment” entered the lexicon. It's now used as general term for when a politician purports to reject the extremists in his own base. Clinton's "Sister Souljah" moment did not cause even the slightest dent in his popularity with black people, the epitome of a successful dog whistle.
2. Hands/Jesse Helms- In 1990, Jesse Helms was running for re-election in the Senate, and losing to Democrat Harvey Gantt, an African-American. The Helms campaign came up with this thirty-second spot, which showed a pair of white hands crumpling up a letter. The voice-over solemnly intones, “You needed that job, but they had to give it to a less qualified minority." After this ad aired, Helms went on to overtake Gantt in the polls, and win the election.
3. Willie Horton- This was an ad in support of George HW Bush, in 1988. This ad purported to criticize Bush’s rival, Michael Dukakis for being lax on crime. The ad features Horton, who while on furlough in Massachusetts went on a robbing, raping, and stabbing spree in Maryland. Critics noted that the ad seemed to rely on racial stereotypes and stoked white people’s fears regarding black crime. Lee Atwater, the architect behind the Horton spot, apologized on his deathbed for the cruelty and racism behind the ad.
4. Welfare queen- The phrase entered the popular imagination from a stump speech of Ronald Reagan’s in 1976. In this speech, he purported to tell the tale of a woman arrested for welfare fraud in Chicago’s South Side (a black enclave). In Reagan’s telling, this woman“… has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” The fact that this woman never existed seemed not to bother him in the least.
5. Welfare queen 2012-I will spend a little time with this, as it is still ongoing, and as you can see from the above examples, most racial dog whistles don’t get acknowledged as such until long afterwards. Romney needs 61 percent of the white vote, according to a recent analysis by the National Journal. To get to that magic number, Romney must capture an historic number of white voters, in a performance that would rival Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign. And it’s starting to show.
Romney has rolled out a recent series of attack ads targeting the Obama administration’s plans to allow states to come up with more innovative strategies to move welfare recipients from receiving aid and into work. Romney, when he was governor of Massachusetts, asked repeatedly for a waiver so that he could implement such plans. Despite this line of attack being debunked repeatedly by critics of all stripes as seriously misleading, 5 out the 12 new ads Romney has rolled out center on welfare (in contrast, introducing VP candidate Paul Ryan is only one ad, healthcare is only 4 ads, even the economy is one ad). So why such a heavy emphasis on welfare?
Political scientist Michael Tesler partnered with the YouGov online polling service to test the question on 1,000 respondents. All the participants answered a standard set of questions that researchers use to identify levels of racial resentment. Half were then shown Romney’s ad. The others weren’t. Then both groups were asked whether Obama and Romney’s policies would help or hurt the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, African Americans and white Americans.
“Among those who saw it,” reports Tesler, “racial resentment affected whether people thought Romney will help the poor, the middle class and African Americans. Moreover, seeing the ad did not activate other attitudes, such as party or ideological self-identification. It only primed racial resentment.”
This is where things get tricky. Romney’s welfare ads are not racist. But the evidence suggests that they work particularly well if the viewer is racist, or at least racially resentful. And these are the ads that are working so unexpectedly well that welfare is now the spine of Romney’s 2012 on-air message in the battleground states.
Romney is currently polling at 0% support among the African-American community(Obama is at 94%, down a percentage point from 2008).
An ending question, can a racial dog whistle be fun, rather than just a straight-up attack? This, I think, is a racial dog whistle from Obama, though it very well may just be an age dog whistle.