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.