Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rhetoric: "Code Words and Dog Whistle Politics"

In politics, people often accuse their opponents of using "code words" or engaging in "dog whistle politics".

That is, they claim that their opponents are using words that -- while innocent on the surface -- are code for something more sinister or even bigoted. Just like only dogs can hear a dog whistle, evil or bigoted people will recognize these code words for what they really mean.

For instance, someone supporting "state's rights" might be accused of using code for supporting racial segregation. Similarly, someone criticizing "bankers" might be accused of using code for anti-Semitism.

The problem with this kind of accusation is that people frequently use such phrases without any sinister meaning whatsoever. It's not bigotry to say that it's a matter of state's rights for New York to choose to have an income tax while Florida chooses to have none, or to say that some bankers made bad investments leading up to the financial crisis of 2007.

So, if someone is going to make the claim that code words are being used, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate the truth of that claim. They have to prove that there is a code and that people are intentionally using it. And the lower the standard of proof is for this accusation, the more likely it is that we can all be accused of using derisive code words.

It's far too easy to simply say that someone is using derisive code words and rebut their denial by noting that it wouldn't be code if they didn't deny using it.

"We believe that cooperation is better than conflict, unity is better than division, empowerment is better than resentment, and bridges are better than walls. It's a simple, but powerful idea. We believe that we are stronger together and the stakes in this election are high, and the choice is clear. Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president and commander-in-chief. And he's not just trying to build a wall between America and Mexico, he's trying to wall off Americans from each other. When he says let's make America great again, that is code for, let's take America backwards."
-- Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 7, 2016, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Much of this is platitudes: who doesn't believe that cooperation is better than conflict? The question is, how best to bring about cooperation rather than conflict? Also, Clinton is using "unify the country" rhetoric – and in parallel, accusing Trump of being divisive. Lastly, she is accusing Trump of using code words, but do people really want America to go backwards? Isn't that just demonizing? Don't they really just disagree about what's the best way to go forwards?

"Donald Trump is like the Republican's Frankenstein with orange hair. The Republican Party is reaping what it has sowed. There's all this nostalgia about Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of where three civil rights workers were killed by white supremacists. This is a party which has exploited what Trump is now exploiting. Dog-whistle racism, grievances, resentments. We need an inclusive populism, not the scapegoating populism. To speak to the real anxieties and fears and frustrations, but with hope, not demonization as Donald Trump is doing."
-- Katrina vanden Heuvel, May 8, 2016, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Vanden Heuvel is accusing Trump, Reagan, and much of the Republican party of being bigots who express their position using code words. She is also calling for a higher standard of debate in which we refrain from demonizing others, though isn't it demonizing to say Trump, Reagan, and the rest are racists?

For decades, key Republican strategists have used a dog-whistle to play on racial fears. It should come as no surprise that someone like Mr Trump would one day swap it for a megaphone.
-- Pundit Edward Luce, March 6, 2016, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: This is "code words" rhetoric.

"Donald stressed flexibility, he kept saying he’d be flexible, in fact, on the stage, he said he agreed with Marco Rubio’s decision to be flexible and negotiate the Gang of Eight amnesty bill. Flexibility is Washington code word for he’s getting ready to stick it to the voters, and break his word".
-- Republican presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), March 3, 2016, referring to Republican presidential contenders Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Comment: Cruz is accusing Trump of using code words.

TRUMP: We won the evangelicals, we won with young, we won with old, we won with highly educated, we won with poorly educated - I love the poorly educated!

O'REILLY: That was a smart statement because by saying he loves the poorly educated, Trump is slapping the elites whom many voters despise.
-- Pundit Bill O'Reilly, February 24, 2016, commenting on remarks made the previous day by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump upon winning the GOP Nevada Caucus.

Comment: O'Reilly is suggesting that Trump is using code words.

"But I want to mention one more critical area: Protecting that most fundamental of rights—the right to vote. Across our country, Republican governors and legislatures are erecting one barrier after another that make it harder for black people to vote. It’s a blast from the Jim Crow past, and we need to call it for what it is. And in the past few days the stakes got even higher. Justice Scalia’s passing means the court hangs in the balance. Now the Republicans say they’ll reject anyone President Obama nominates, no matter how qualified. Some are even saying he doesn’t have the right to nominate anyone, as if somehow he’s not the real president. That’s in keeping with what we’ve heard all along, isn’t it? Many Republicans talk in coded, racial language about takers and losers. They demonize President Obama and encourage the ugliest impulses of the paranoid fringe. This kind of hatred and bigotry has no place in our politics—or our country."
-- Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, February 16, 2016.

Comment: Clinton is demonizing Republicans, calling them bigots. Clinton is also accusing Republicans of using "code words". Would it be appropriate for Republicans to say, "Clinton's rhetoric is code for Marxism and communism, we need to call it for what it is"?

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) last month mocked Donald Trump’s “New York values,” it wasn’t entirely clear what he was implying. This week we got a clue: For Cruz, “New York” is another way of saying “Jewish.” At an event in New Hampshire, Cruz, the Republican Iowa caucuses winner, was asked about campaign money he and his wife borrowed from Goldman Sachs. Cruz, asserting that Trump had “upward of $480 million of loans from giant Wall Street banks,” said: “For him to make this attack, to use a New York term, it’s the height of chutzpah.” Cruz, pausing for laughter after the phrase “New York term,” exaggerated the guttural “ch” to more laughter and applause. But “chutzpah,” of course, is not a “New York” term. It’s a Yiddish — a Jewish — one. And using “New York” as a euphemism for “Jewish” has long been an anti-Semitic dog whistle.
-- Pundit Dana Milbank, February 5, 2016, referring to Republican presidential contender Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Comment: Milbank is accusing Cruz of using code words, and bigoted ones, at that. Is the fact that Cruz criticizes "New York values" and then later uses the word "chutzpah" really a sound argument for claiming he's anti-Semitic? Yes, "chutzpah" is a "New York" word in the sense that it's Yiddish, and New York – having a large Jewish community – was the place for a lot of Yiddish words to enter the vocabulary of the U.S. But "bodega" and "deli" are similarly "New York" terms, stemming from Puerto Rican Spanish and German, respectively: does that mean "New York" is synonymous with "Puerto Rican" or "German"? It seems like Milbank is demonizing Cruz with a flimsy argument.

"You defended New Yorkers after Senator Cruz said that you embodied New York values. You were insulted. Governor Cuomo said he was insulted. Some New York pundits, including from FOX and FOX Business Channel, said they were insulted. There are some observers out there who think that when Ted Cruz talks about New York values, he's invoking something else. He's talking about, in their view, ethnics, Jews. What do you think he means?"
-- CNN's Jake Tapper, January 15, 2016, interviewing Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Tapper is suggesting Cruz may be using code words, and bigoted ones at that.

"Look, I can see why people would support that idea on the surface. But the simple fact is how are we going to garner the international support to take out ISIS if the Kurds who are Muslims would be offended by this? The Jordanians will be offended by this. The Turks, the entire Arab world. Apart from the fact that you have the largest Muslim populations are even in the Middle East. They are India and Pakistan and Indonesia. We have to lead as a nation. The United States is not going to be a follower. We have to lead. And do this, it would be an unmitigated disaster. He knows that. This is dog whistle talk. This is to try to get people who are fearful about where we are to be latched on to him. But I think tonight was a good example of why he may not be the proper guy to be commander-in-chief."
-- Republican presidential contender former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), December 15, 2015, regarding a proposal by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump to ban Muslims from entering the country.

Comment: Bush is accusing Trump of using "code words" and of fear-mongering.

TEXT: Republicans keep saying the same thing.

RUBIO: We are at war with radical Islam.

JEB BUSH: Radical Islamic terrorism.

TEXT: Equating Islam, all Muslims, with terrorists…

TRUMP: We do have a problem radical Muslims.

CARSON: Radical Islamic jihadists.

CRUZ: Radical Islamic terrorism.

TEXT: It’s oversimplification. And it’s wrong. But don’t take our word for it.

GEORGE BUSH: We do not fight against Islam, we fight against evil.

GEORGE BUSH: The war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs. It’s a war against evil people who conduct crimes against innocent people.

GEORGE BUSH: That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.

TEXT: Inciting fear isn’t presidential.
-- Democratic Party political ad, retrieved November 24, 2015. The ad quotes Republican presidential contenders former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Donald Trump, as well as former President George W. Bush.

Comment: The ad is accusing Republicans of fear-mongering. It is also falsely accusing Republicans (perhaps via code words?) of equating Islam and Muslims with terrorism and terrorists, thereby demonizing them as bigots. Being opposed to radical Islam doesn't mean being opposed to all Muslims, any more than being opposed to corrupt police officers means being opposed to all police officers. Citing George Bush – a Republican – seems like a faulty appeal to authority, perhaps an argument ad hostes. (Plus, the ad cites George Bush selectively: he denounced Islamic radicalism.) 

AGUILAR: If there’s somebody who is a hard worker when he goes to Washington, it’s Paul Ryan. Not only works with the Republicans but Democrats. You know very well that I work on the immigration issue, trying to get Republicans to support immigration reform. Paul Ryan is somebody who has supported immigration reform, has worked with somebody like Luis Gutierrez. Luis Gutierrez is very respectful, speaks highly of Paul Ryan. This is somebody who’s trying to govern.

HARRIS-PERRY: Alfonso, I feel you, but I just want to pause on one thing because I don’t disagree with you that I actually think Mr. Ryan is a great choice for this role, but I want us to be super careful when we use the language “hard worker,” because I actually keep an image of folks working in cotton fields on my office wall, because it is a reminder about what hard work looks like. So, I feel you that he’s a hard worker. I do, but in the context of relative privilege, and I just want to point out that when you talk about work-life balance and being a hard worker, the moms who don’t have health care who are working —

AGUILAR: I understand that.

HARRIS-PERRY: But, we don’t call them hard workers. We call them failures. We call them people who are sucking off the system.

AGUILAR: No, no, no, no.

HARRIS-PERRY: No, no. Really, ya’ll do. That is really what you guys do as a party.

AGUILAR: That is very unfair. I think we cannot generalize about the Republican Party.

HARRIS-PERRY: That’s true. Not all Republicans. That is certainly true.
-- Pundits Melissa Harris-Perry and Alfonso Aguilar, October 26, 2015, discussing Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his prospects to become Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Comment: First, Harris-Perry is accusing Republicans of deriding people for leeching off the system (I assume when talking about welfare and related programs). Harris-Perry says she's not generalizing about all Republicans, but she still says that Republicans "as a party" engage in this sort of demonizing – which they don't – and as such Harris-Perry herself is demonizing Republicans. Second, Harris-Perry is pointing out an ambiguity in what counts as being a hard worker: however hard you work, there's probably someone else who works harder, and maybe even a whole segment of the population – past, present, even future – that works much harder than you. So, who are you supposed to compare yourself to in order to determine whether you're a hard worker? To slaves from the 1850s? Or to the other people working in your industry today? It's arguable, but it's unfair for Harris-Perry to suggest there is some sort of bigotry (or even code words?) at work in Aguilar's use of the term to describe Ryan. Who does Harris-Perry believe is a hard worker? Anyone in the U.S.A.? Herself?

"If you look at their policies, most of the other candidates are just Trump without the pizzaz or the hair. Yes, Mr. Trump says outrageous and hateful things about immigrants, but how many of the other candidates disagree with his platform? None of the leading candidates support a real path to citizenship. When they talk about legal status, that's code for second-class status. It's the same when it comes to women's health and women's rights: Mr. Trump's words are appalling, but so are the policies of other candidates."
-- Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, August 14, 2015.

Comment: Clinton is accusing Republicans of using "code words". It also seems like she is saying that, since the other Republican presidential candidates have the same immigration position as Trump, they are therefore guilty by association of Trump’s derisive remarks about Mexican illegal immigrants. In fact, many of the GOP candidates criticized Trump’s remarks.

But just as shocking as the decision to actually agree to such a flawed deal are the lengths to which the administration is going today to tar and feather those who dare speak out against it. By playing politics with a critical national security issue, President Obama is cementing his well-earned legacy as the Divider in Chief. In a speech at American University defending the deal Obama stooped to new lows far beneath the dignity of the office of the presidency, savaging deal opponents as warmongers and saying that “those hardliners chanting ‘Death to America’” in Iran were “making common cause with the Republican caucus.” Shockingly, his diatribe also was replete with coded innuendos employing standard anti-Semitic themes involving implied disloyalty and nefarious influences related to money and power. One can only imagine the sting of his words on members of his own Democratic party, especially those Jewish Members of Congress who have publicly stated their opposition to this deal based on its merits or lack thereof. … It is clear that the president and his team are in full campaign mode, demonstrating a steely resolve to jam through this misguided Iran deal at all costs. They are smearing those who dare to raise questions and employing a take no prisoners approach complete with bigoted dog whistles and malicious whisper campaigns that cynically divide our country.
-- Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, August 13, 2015.

Comment: Carson is accusing Obama of using “code words” to express bigotry. He is also accusing Obama of “playing politics” and “dividing the country”.

So how could we maneuver Akin into the GOP driver’s seat? Using the guidance of my campaign staff and consultants, we came up with the idea for a “dog whistle” ad, a message that was pitched in such a way that it would be heard only by a certain group of people. I told my team we needed to put Akin’s uber-conservative bona fides in an ad—and then, using reverse psychology, tell voters not to vote for him. And we needed to run the hell out of that ad.
-- Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), August 11, 2015. McCaskill is referring to her attempt to use political advertising to establish Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) as her Republican opponent in the 2012 Senate race.

Comment: McCaskill is saying that her ads used "code words".

Apparently, he thinks there’s nothing amiss in suggesting that the only thing standing between the present moment and the broad, sunlit uplands of a denuclearized Iran is the Jewish state and its warmongering Beltway lobbyists. That slur in particular was the loudest dog whistle heard in Washington since Pat Buchanan said in 1990 that the Gulf War —advocated by columnists like Abe Rosenthal and Charles Krauthammer—would be fought by “American kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales and Leroy Brown.” Then again, Mr. Buchanan wasn’t the president. It says something about the crassness of Mr. Obama’s approach that the New York Times noted that allies of the president fear he “has gone overboard in criticizing” opponents of the deal. But it also says something about the weakness of his deal.
-- Pundit Bret Stephens, August 10, 2015. Stephens' remarks refer to President Barack Obama.

Comment: Stephens is accusing Obama of using "code words". He is also arguing that, since even Obama's allies (who are Stephens' adversaries) are criticizing Obama's rhetoric, therefore the criticism is credible, which is flawed "even my opponents" reasoning.

Donald Trump is exactly what the Republican Party deserves. The Republican Party has nurtured anti-immigrant, xenophobic nastiness for years, but it has tried to do so, at least at the national level, in language that disguised it as a simple issue of law and order. Trump has blown all that to bits. … You have to see Trump’s statement for what it was: A naked attempt at Willie Horton-izing Mexican immigrants, and thereby the exploiting of the image, substantiated or not, of the brown-bodied predator destroying our country and taking the virtue of our women. It provides language for people to hide their racism and nativism inside the more honorable shell of civility and chivalry. It allows Trump to tap into anger and call it adulation.
-- Pundit Charles Blow, July 16, 2015.

Comment: Blow is accusing the Republican Party of using code words. He is also demonizing Republicans as anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and racist.

In 1956, Georgia changed its state flag to incorporate the Confederate flag. In Texas, at least, there was a fad of naming schools after Robert E. Lee, another coded message.
-- Pundit Steve Chapman, June 21, 2015.

Comment: This is "code words" rhetoric.

"It's also essential that we strengthen families and communities, and that means we have to finally, once and for all fix our immigration system. … it is at heart a family issue at heart, and if we claim we are for families, we have to pull together and resolve the outstanding issues around our broken immigration system. The American people support comprehensive immigration reform, not just because it's the right thing to do, and it is, but because they know it strengthens families, strengthens our economy, and strengthens our country. That's why we can't wait any longer. We can't wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship. Now, this is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side. Make no mistakes, today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one. When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status. … I will fight to stop partisan attacks on the executive actions that would put DREAMers, including those with us today, at risk of deportation."
-- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-NY), May 5, 2015.

Comment: Clinton is using "Americans want", "code words", and "partisan" rhetoric. Is it really the case that you can't support families without also supporting Clinton's immigration reform proposal? It seems like demonizing to suggest that people who disagree with her proposal are not in favor of families.

"This is going to be the equivalent of a dog whistle comment, they will say. This is going to be the equivalent of Rubio speaking in code to his racist, sexist, anti-welfare buddies. "I am humbled by the realization that America does not owe me anything." The word choices there stand out to me, anyway. He could just as easily have said, "America doesn't owe me anything. America doesn't owe any of us anything." But he didn't say that. He said he was humbled "by the realization that America doesn't owe me anything." That's a bit different than just making the blanket statement. I'll explain as the program unfolds. … For you Rubio fans, I'm just giving you a little heads up here that they're gonna zero in on all of it. I don't mean to say they're gonna leave him unscathed, but this line, "I am humbled by the realization that America doesn't owe me anything," that's gonna be used as an attack. That's gonna be viewed as code language, dog whistle to certain types of mean-spirited extremist Republicans who don't care about anybody else. It's gonna be said to be targeted at the rich and so forth. And particularly the part about, "I am humbled by the realization.""
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, April 14, 2015. Limbaugh was referring to remarks made by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in his announcement on April 13, 2015, that he is seeking the 2016 GOP nomination for president.

Comment: Limbaugh is predicting that Democrats will accuse Rubio of using coded language.

Like an abusive father who beats his children then guilts them into loving him, US President Barack Obama’s new charm offensive follows weeks of berating Israel. Lobbying for his Iran cave-in, seeking support for this deal he seemed to want more than the mullahs did, Obama told The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, “It has been personally difficult for me to hear...expressions that somehow...this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest.” While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should grab this olive leaf, even if it’s a fig leaf, such glib guilt-tripping cannot undo the harm caused by Obama’s assault and his dog-whistling, broadcasting hostility to those already primed to bash Israel. … Here’s a chance for Obama to demonstrate sincerity: confront campus anti-SemiZionism and the harsh anti-Zionist minority festering in today’s Democratic Party. Let him, along with Hollywood and student leaders, dictate a new script renewing the American-Israeli bond.
-- Pundit Gil Troy, April 7, 2015.

Comment: Troy's description of Obama's treatment of Netanyahu is violent rhetoric. Troy is also accusing Obama of using "code words" to communicate bigotry.

In last week’s Israeli elections, Netanyahu did play the role of Nixon—except that he did not go to China. Nor did he go to Ramallah. He went racist. In 1968, Nixon spoke the coded language of states’ rights and law-and-order politics in order to heighten the fears of white voters in the South, who felt diminished and disempowered by the civil-rights movement and by the Democrat in the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson. Nixon’s swampy maneuvers helped defeat the Democrat Hubert Humphrey and secure the South as an electoral safe haven for more than forty years.
-- Pundit David Remnick, retrieved March 29, 2015.

Comment: Remnick is accusing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and US President Richard Nixon) of using coded language to express bigotry.


Examples from 2014.


Examples from 2012.

There are a lot of people, when you say banker, people think Jewish. People who have prejudice, people who have, you know -- what's the best way to say -- a little prejudice about them. To some people, bankers -- code word for Jewish -- and guess who Obama's assaulting? He's assaulting bankers. He's assaulting money people. And a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish. So I wonder if there's starting to be some buyer's remorse there.
 -- Commentator Rush Limbaugh, January 20, 2010

Senator Obama says that he wants to spread the wealth, which means — you know what that means ... It means that government takes your money, (handed) out however a politician sees fit. Barack Obama calls it spreading the wealth, and Joe Biden calls higher taxes patriotic. And yet to Joe the Plumber, he said it sounded like socialism. And now is not the time to experiment with socialism.
-- Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), October 24, 2008.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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