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What are Dog-Whistle Politics?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Dog-whistle politics is a form of political rhetoric in which coded language is used, thereby ensuring that a message reaches a target audience without making the general public aware of the specific content of the message. Much like a dog whistle, which is only audible to ears which can hear sounds in a certain frequency, dog-whistle politics often slides below the radar of the average citizen, allowing politicians to target certain groups of the electorate with very specific language.

This term originated in Australia in the 1990s, when immigration was a hot-button issue in elections. Several politicians were accused of using coded terms to refer to immigration issues, ensuring that they came across as hard-liners to conservatives without offending people of a more liberal bent. In 2003, the term was used in Britain, and by 2005, it had reached the United States.

One of the most common forms of dog-whistle politics in the United States is the use of religious references by members of the religious right. For Americans who are not familiar with the Bible, these references may pass by entirely unnoticed, while devout Christians pick up on these references and assume that this means the politician supports their values. Bible references have been used to promote crackdowns on illegal immigration, to support wars, and to encourage the pro-life agenda, all without alerting members of the general public.

Dog-whistling, as it is known, can also include veiled racist terms which are caught by people keeping an ear out for them, but ignored by people who are not listening attentively. Such terms may be used to enforce messages about being firm on immigration policy or social issues. Subtle turns of phrase and references to history may also be involved in dog-whistle politics, relying on the distinct cultural knowledge of different political groups to disseminate the message.

Fortunately for people who want to be aware of political issues, dog-whistle politics is often exposed by political commentators and on websites which track politics. After hearing a speech by a politician, it is usually easy to find a transcript as well as an analysis of that transcript which picks apart the use of coded phrases to illustrate the hidden meaning behind the speech. For people who are less politically aware, however, dog-whistle politics may lead them to unwittingly support candidates with views which may be a bit more complicated than they appear on the surface.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon295213 — On Oct 05, 2012

Funny thing about dog-whistle politics: sometimes the subtext is so subtle that it's impossible to tell that it exists outside of the political commentators' minds.

By JimmyT — On Sep 04, 2011

Although there have been many politician that seem to appeal to only one side of the voters they are still able to get re-elected and stay in office because they are smart politicians.

The main goal of a politician is to get re-elected and they do this by utilizing political tactics as well as doing their job effectively. As well as doing their job they must not give voters a reason to hate them. Politicians will always have voters that will not see their way, it comes with the territory, but they must not give more voters a reason to hate them and very harsh speech alienating their beliefs can cause that.

Although politicians are seen as been very sneaky sometimes they have to use tactics like dog-whistle politics in order to reach out to their base of voters, who share their beliefs, as well as not alienating the other side of voters, so they do not elect them out of office. By doing this they are able to stay in office and make sure their beliefs and viewpoints are utilized in the legislation they pass and the causes they support.

By jcraig — On Sep 03, 2011

Politicians have to appeal to their base of voters and that is how they stay in office. However, to ensure that they will stay in office they must be sure not to alienate the other side of voters. I have seen many instances where a politician alienated the voters of another political party and they banded together to vote him out of office.

Because politics always brings out high feelings in people it is very dumb for a politician to use harsh language and give the people voting against him or her a reason to band together more and convince undecided voters to join their cause to boot the incumbent out of office.

By cardsfan27 — On Sep 03, 2011

@jmc88 - I agree with you. I live in a small town that has a major state university. The university comprises about half the population of the town and those who will vote for the politicians of the area will do so with a liberal slant. Because this is a conservative area, the conservative politicians have to be weary of the liberal base of college students, who may be able to force them out of office should they completely say things that would be perceived as attacks on the liberal base.

Although the conservative politicians will not obtain a whole lot of votes from the college students they will still obtain some, while still appealing to their conservative constituency as long as they do not give all the college students a reason to vote against him or her.

By jmc88 — On Sep 02, 2011

I have always seen dog whistle politics as being a way for a politician to stay in power and keep their job. Considering that the voters are the only people that can keep a politician in office, in the United States, the politicians must appeal to their contingent of voters as well as the undecided voters.

Because I live in a conservative area all the state politicians have to do is appeal to that conservative base, which comprises the majority of voters, and they do not have to worry very much about the minority of liberals in my area. However, in areas just outside my area, such as some towns with college campuses, the conservatives have to be able to not say things to make all the college students not vote for them and try to pick up as many as they can, while still not alienating their conservative base. This can be tricky but can keep the politician in power for quite a long time if they mastered this craft.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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