“Dog-Whistle Politics,” by Ian Haney Lopez | Quintillion Ink-Strokes

I have been trying to avoid engaging in politicization on this blog, however doing so would be highly irresponsible, since more people will just be harmed and I would be complicit in it. I just cannot ignore the elephant in the room–for lack of a better word.

Plot

The book follows the chronological telling of the implementation of the Southern Strategy from the 1960’s onward, most notably by the Republican Party in the post-Civil Rights Era. It includes the evolution of dog-whistling as it pertained to the changing demographics in the Bush II era that required more toned-down rhetoric; and the concessions Obama made during his presidency and the shift from his populist presidential run to his milquetoast centrist presidency.

Themes

A blatant part of dog-whistling involves the conceptualization of the audiences’ worst fears, that being in the case of Southern voters the welfare queens and the strapping young bucks. Later it would become the Muslims who practice a radical view of their own religion when justifying the War on Terror. This is done through unfounded stereotypes which Lopez takes the time to disprove, either with criminal blacks or welfare-cheating undocumented Latino immigrants.

Lopez talks a lot about the status of minorities in America at the time he wrote his book, which details the gaps of standard of living between whites and blacks. He further discusses the consequences that dog-whistling has had in American society since the politicians used it to their own ends. Because of this manipulation, there had been mass incarceration–more so than any other European country; and there had been gaps between the rich and the poor with the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and cuts to public assistance.

The historicization of the view of African-Americans as inherently criminal was incredibly important in understanding the effective frequency of racial dog-whistling in America in the ’60’s. This was especially highlighted after the end of slavery when a loophole in the 13th amendment guaranteed that slavery would be abolished except as indentured servitude for penal purposes. So this resulted in a lot of African-American men basically being conscripted for charges that were either minor or dubious. This allowed white sheriffs and planters to make money off this new form of slavery. As for how it applied to racial dog-whistling, it helped reinforce the idea that African-Americans are more inclined towards criminality even though there were systemic issues involved in putting them in these positions in the first place.

Time is an important component, but also place. The South in particular was at the center of the struggle to retain their votes between both Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats traditionally were successful among Southerners, though there were northern Democrats had different political aims. In the case of the Western states, usually characterized as embodying the rugged individualism typically seen in Western films, Goldwater attempted to take advantage of that image in order to become elected. As for Neshoba, which was the site were the notorious murders of the Civil Rights workers happened, Reagan began his presidential run making the distinction between black welfare-abusers and hard-working white tax-payers.

Another theme to keep in mind is that the Republicans were not the only political party who implemented dog-whistling into their own political campaigns, rather it began when George Wallace ran as an Independent and needed to use softer rhetoric to win Southern voters. It was also used by Clintonian Democrats, with Bill Clinton being the most prominent one (hence being eponymous). However, the Republican Party has been heavily involved in using subtle tactics to discuss the race issue.

Two of the most prominent Republicans Michael Steele and Ken Mehlman decried this strategy. It is especially telling upon looking at the ethos of both of these men, who were at one point the Chairmen of the Republican National Committee and would have had access to the most sensitive information about the Republican Party. There are plenty of key politicians who were responsible for implementing dog-whistling in their political campaigns. Although Barry Goldwater attempted to appeal to them with his white lilies campaign, he was not as successful as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Lopez also gives names to the plutocrats who exacerbate the dog-whistling within the conservative movement, with examples such as Joseph Coors of Coors Beer and the Koch brothers who mobilized the Tea Party movement.

As for the ideas that would have been considered ludicrous or unacceptable decades ago, they managed to retain Republican respectability. They play a role in the plutocrats’ framing of their rhetoric in order to appeal to disenfranchised whites. Although Goldwater attempted to argue against the components of the New Deal, he did not fare well with white voters who were in favor of it. The John Birch Society published radical views of the welfare system, war orchestration, and water fluoridation as being tools of the Illuminati and world government to subjugate the people; though they had become conservative talking points.

Another theme that Lopez took into account was when it pertained to racism, but more specifically its dimensions. He differentiates racism within one’s own personal life, versus racism within one’s own political life. An example of this was Bill Clinton who advocated being tough on crime, which was a dog-whistle leading to the mass incarceration for African-Americans, while also have lots of affinity towards black culture (such as jazz) in his personal life.

Author

Lopez has not talked a lot about his own involvement in the writing process behind the book, or mentioned either the researching process behind it or the people he interacted with about the Southern Strategy. Of course, the people he talked with were understandably kept anonymous. He did talk about an experience at an anti-immigrant seminar where a student who was undocumented broke down and cried because she felt demonized.

He does deplore the hypocrisy of conservatives who claim that liberals play the race card, primarily with the example of Clarence Thomas doing just that shortly before he was installed as a Supreme Court Judge due to the sexual harassment allegations levied against him.

Another main issue I have with Lopez’s book is with its entire purpose. Although he does focus on white American voters who might be seduced by this harmful rhetoric, they are completely different from the ones who have already fallen for the dog-whistling rhetoric. It is important to note that in a representative democracy, the people would have enough agency to choose their own leaders. So when someone is willing to fulfill their short-term animosity while simultaneously screwing entire generations in the future, then it tells me less about the politicians and more about the population. The politicians are simply following the money since Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush (early in his presidential run) could not succeed when they couldn’t use race to scare their voters enough to (let’s be real) hold them up for protection money which came in the form of the presidency.

It can be very easy to play the blame game, though Lopez would argue that since structural racism does not involve simply one group of people–rather everyone–then the system of difference-assigning has become something that everyone is a participant in. Basically, the racism can only operate within not thinly veiled cross-burnings, rather through a we-live-in-a-society after-thought.

Writing Style

Transitioning into this section, Lopez makes clear distinctions about different forms of racism, which include the blatant forms of racism practiced by organizations like the Klan–otherwise called racism-as-hate or racism-as-individual-bias–but also subtle forms such as structural racism and strategic racism. In the case of structural racism, it only requires people’s complacency and soft agreement, while strategic racism involves awakening racial attitudes in the pursuit of political supremacy.

A part of his writing that he does well is providing dimensions to the concepts that he discusses, making himself as clear as possible in order to understand that there is more to the story than applying the label “racism” on everything.

To be a participant also involves complacency with the phrase color-blindness, which sounds like an egalitarian phrase, though it was used to argue against integration since-as the segregationists argued–the law should outlaw discrimination but be apathetic towards segregation since it would have to see color in order to enact laws concerning it.

Lopez makes plenty of references to these dog-whistles through quotations, as though reminding the reader that they were actually used to have meanings contrary to their own appearances. The words state’s rights, forced integration, law and order, and centralized government have more to do with to whom those words are addressed. It also involves re-appropriating the language used by the civil rights movement with freedom being used to refer to freedom to exclude. He also makes the point that dog-whistling always has situational evolution; whereas race was always about biological differences, it would later become associated with temperament and moral character, such as identifying minorities as being lazy, greedy, and violent.

Language manipulation, Lopez notes, goes beyond dog-whistling in the 1960’s and involved the manipulation of basic abstract words to fit the agenda of the robber barons on the late 19th century in opposition to unions, such as liberty from government.

Lopez frequently uses the phrase commonsense to refer to the beliefs that many white voters tend to have about minorities that would appear to have legitimacy simply because politicians said so. The idea behind the phrase becomes the basis for the dog-whistling rhetoric implemented by both major political parties.

Real World Application

This book would not simply be an analysis about the Republican Party, rather about all political organizations who explicitly use specific types of rhetoric. It is about realizing that fascism is an ideology that can be adopted subliminally and subtly. It can creep into not just people’s political views, but also their ontological, historical, cultural, and societal views.

However, a demogogue could have a different alternative motive for reading this book, by taking full advantage of the success behind dog-whistling. Lopez made that speculation on the Majority Report about Trump’s rhetoric. I do not know if it was dry humor, but in a serious note, I can see how this might be abused. If there is to be a rebuttal to this claim, it would be that anyone who knows how dog-whistling knows all about its intentions and will not be fooled by it, with the example of Lyndon B. Johnson publicly refusing to use dog-whistles.

It would also be important for future politicians to understand that they cannot win everyone no matter how much you are willing to turn your back on your own constituency. In the case of Barack Obama, it did not matter how many concessions he had to make to NOT “play the race card” throughout his presidency, because I can clearly remember so many Republicans, either on Fox News or Infowars, make the case that not only has Obama not “done enough,” but they will go on to say that he was a Kenyan-born secret Muslim Manchurian Candidate working for the United Nations.

Lopez had discussed that becoming race-conscious when it comes to political rhetoric can lead to more understanding. However, that might apply for every other white person, though Republicans–as Lopez himself noted–could just easily brush it off as “politically correct bullshit” and accuse YOU of being the race-monger.

As for the relevance this book has to this blog, it absolutely has everything to do with not seeing entire demographics as cartoon characters, which is exactly what dog-whistling does and why that student in one of Lopez’s seminars broke down into tears.

Suggest This To…

Anyone who notices the gateway between the Republican Party and the Clintonian Democrats, and racism; but has not accurately found a word for it. Concurrently, I would recommend this to any conservatives who wonder why the rhetoric they subscribe to is considered to have racist implications. Lopez explains that association as best as he can. This was one of the books that set my mind racing like no other, so I would highly recommend this to any person on the political spectrum.

 

Lopez, Ian Haney. “Dog Whistle Politics.” Oxford University Press. 2014.

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