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“The Death Of Dog-Whistle Politics”: Intramural Republican Party Competition And The GOP’s Inability To Learn From Its Mistakes

In today’s media environment, every message you send to your base gets heard by everyone. That’s a problem for the GOP.

If you go over to Politico right now, in the “Hot Topics” listed at the top of the page, along with Obamacare, immigration, and the Olympics, is the name Monica Lewinsky. Which might strike you as odd, given that Lewinsky has been rather quiet in the decade and a half since her affair with Bill Clinton became public and led to his impeachment. But aged though it may be, the Lewinsky scandal is back. This is a story about intramural Republican party competition, the GOP’s inability to learn from its mistakes, and the death of dog-whistle politics. The problem for the Republicans is that they don’t seem to have realized it’s dead.

The latest round of Lewinsky-mania started when the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication that defines its mission as “combat journalism” (“At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.”), went through the papers of Diane Blair, a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and found notes that described Hillary’s words and feelings as the Lewinsky scandal was going on. The material is certainly interesting from a historical perspective, but there isn’t anything there that could possibly be politically damaging to Clinton’s 2016 political fortunes, if that’s what they were looking for.

But you can’t tell some conservatives that. Rand Paul has been talking about Lewinsky, and when RNC chair Reince Priebus got asked about how Lewinsky might figure in 2016, instead of saying the logical thing—we have plenty of things to criticize Hillary Clinton about without getting into that—he instead said, “I think everything is on the table.”

It seems pretty clear what Rand Paul has to gain by putting himself at the forefront of an effort to refight the Clinton impeachment. As Peter Beinart argued, as the libertarian 2016 candidate, Paul will have to convince social conservatives that he shares their values, and this is a handy way to do it. Among those values, hatred of the Clintons ranks awfully high, exceeded, perhaps, by that delicious combination of salacious titillation and moral condemnation over anything having to do with sex.

The trouble is that if Republicans are going to talk about Monica Lewinsky, they’re going to do it in front of everybody, which will reinforce a whole raft of negative impressions people have of them: that they’re stuck in the past, they’re consumed by anger, that they’re puritanical. To be clear, I’m not saying that condemnation of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky is itself puritanical, because it isn’t. What was puritanical was their obsession with the sexual details of the affair, and their belief that Clinton’s obvious evil found no greater expression than in his sexual appetite., and that they are willing to do enormous damage to the country in order to destroy their enemies. These are the things the Lewinsky scandal represents for people who aren’t conservative Republicans. Which is why Karl Rove, who has a better grasp than most Republicans of the dangers of letting their instincts run wild, told Paul to put a sock in it.

Though a potential presidential candidate like Rand Paul might like to send a subtle message to primary voters—something along the lines of “I’m with you on the sex thing, and I think the Clintons are as monstrous as you do”—in this day and age, dog-whistle politics have become impossible. Every comment is noted, every speech is recorded, and it’s just no longer possible to send multiple messages without everybody noticing in a short space of time.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term “dog-whistle politics,” it gained wide currency during the George W. Bush administration, when liberal bloggers began noticing the way Republicans skillfully crafted appeals that were meant to only be understood by the party’s base, while the rest of the electorate took no notice (Wikipedia dates the term as far back as the 1980s, but it was in the Bush years it came into common use in this country). One prime example came during a 2004 debate, when in answering a question about what sorts of Supreme Court justices he would appoint, Bush dropped in what sounded to most viewers like a non sequitur about the 1857 Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery. To Christian conservatives, however, Bush’s meaning was clear: without ever mentioning abortion, he was telling them he would appoint justices who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. To know that, you’d have to know that anti-abortion activists often compare Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott. If you didn’t know that, the message was as inaudible as a dog whistle.

To succeed, though, the dog whistle must have two characteristics. First, only your people are supposed to understand the hidden meaning, and that’s no longer possible, since there are armies of writers and analysts ready and able to translate anything you say, then feed it back to reporters so it can get discussed again and again. Second, the surface message has to itself be pleasing, or at least innocuous, to the larger audience. And talking about Monica Lewinsky as a way to indict Hillary Clinton is anything but.

Which leads me to a final question: Why don’t Democrats have any Lewinskys? By which I mean, issues that they talk about amongst themselves, and that Democratic presidential candidates might feel moved to echo in order to reassure them of their ideological bona fides, but which are absolutely disastrous when put before the broader public. Sure, there are positions that many liberals take that might be too extreme for a general electorate. But I can’t think of anything that a liberal might stand up and say at a town meeting, whereupon a smart Democratic operative would say in an urgent whisper, “For god’s sake, don’t bring that up! Do you want to ruin everything?”

Part of that is because, as the saying has it, Democrats hate their base and Republicans fear their base. But it’s mostly because the well of extremism just runs deeper and wider on the right. Which is why a Republican member of Congress can have a woman say to him that the President of the United States “should be executed as an enemy combatant,” in part because of “the Muslims that he is shipping into our country through Iowa in commercial jets,” and the congressman will respond not by saying, Pardon me ma’am, but you’re a nutball, but by nodding his head and responding, “Look, everybody knows the lawlessness of this president,” then going on to spout off a couple of bizarre conspiracy theories of his own.

The Republicans can’t send a dog whistle to that woman, and they can’t hide her either. Everything is exposed. And that’s why it’s going to be really tough for them to win in 2016. And don’t forget, they despise Hillary Clinton just as much as Barack Obama. Imagine if their own hatred of her is precisely the thing that gets her elected president.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, February 11, 2014

February 12, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Winds Of Racism On The GOP Campaign Trail

Here are some things you could learn about black Americans from the recent statements and insinuations of Republican presidential candidates, Republican congressmen and Republican-friendly radio personalities:

Black people have lost the desire to perform a day’s work. Black people rely on food stamps provided to them by white taxpayers. Black people, including Barack and Michelle Obama, believe that the U.S. owes them somethingbecause they are black. Black children should work as janitors in their high schools as a way to keep them from becoming pimps. And the pathologies afflicting black Americans are caused partly by the Democratic Party, which has created in them a dependency on government not dissimilar to the forced dependency of slaves on their owners.

Judging by these claims, all of which have actually been put forward recently, here is a modest prediction: This presidential election will be one of the most race-soaked in recent history. It is already more race-soaked than the 2008 election, which, of course, marked the first time that a black man became a major-party candidate.

I don’t know why this is. Perhaps because Senator John McCain, the Republican contender in 2008, generally and admirably refused to race-bait. But the Republican candidates in today’s contest aren’t so meticulous about avoiding the temptation to dog-whistle their way to the nomination.

A Dark Art

Dog-whistling — the use of coded, ambiguous language to appeal to the prejudices of certain subsets of voters –is one of the darkest political arts. In this race, Newt Gingrich is streets ahead of his nearest competitor in its use. In addition to his comments about black children working as janitors, he has repeatedly referred to Obama as the country’s “food-stamp president.”

Food stamps have been fixed in the minds of many white voters as a government subsidy misused by blacks at leastsince 1976, when Ronald Reagan complained of “strapping young bucks” who used public assistance to buy “T-bone steaks.” (It is distressing to remember, in light of Reagan’s subsequent beatification, that he was to racial dog-whistling what Pat Buchanan has been to Jew-baiting; it was Reagan who also introduced the “welfare queen” into public discourse.)

The genius of dog-whistling is its deniability. It would be difficult for a figure such as Rush Limbaugh to run for public office, given his record of fairly straightforward race-baiting. (Limbaugh, who in the words of Harvard Law School’s Randall Kennedy is an “excellent entrepreneur of racial resentment,” has been on a tear lately. He has accused Obama — who he says “talks honky”around white people — and the first lady of abusing public funds as payback for the ill-treatment afforded their ancestors.)

But “food-stamp president” is just indirect enough that Gingrich is protected from detrimental blowback, at least during the largely white Republican primaries.

Kennedy, who studies the role of race in national elections, told me last week of a rule he uses to measure whether a candidate’s appeal to prejudice will succeed: If it takes more than two sentences for a critic to explain why a dog-whistle is a dog-whistle, the whistler wins. Gingrich seems to understand this, and so, despite criticism from blacks, has made the term “food-stamppresident” a staple of his stump speeches.

New Realization

Kennedy offers the theory that this campaign’s dog-whistling may be prompted by a realization by right-leaning provocateurs that voters have become inured to charges of racism. I suspect another phenomenon has hastened this realization: A handful of black Republicans have abetted dog-whistling by making their own bombastic statements about the degraded moral health of the black community, the putative foreignness of the Obamas and the Democratic Party’s plantation-like qualities.

The former presidential candidate Herman Cain, who last week endorsed Gingrich, told me in an interview last year that Obama was more “international” than American. He also said that, unlike Obama, he rejects the label“African-American” because he feels “more of an affinity for America than I do for Africa.”

Representative Allen West of Florida, one of two black Republican House members, recently called the Democratic Party a “21st-century plantation” and compared himself to Harriet Tubman. In August, he said, “Today in the black community, we see individuals who are either wedded to a subsistence check or an employment check. Democrat physical enslavement has now become liberal economic enslavement, which is just as horrible.”

How far in intent is West’s message from this one, recently delivered by Rick Santorum in Sioux City, Iowa: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” (Santorum laterdenied that he said the word “black,” arguing that what he actually said was “blah.” The denial is not credible.)

The writer Gary Younge has noted that in Woodbury County, which includes Sioux City, nine times more whites use food stamps than blacks do. But it doesn’t matter: Santorum wasn’t driven from the race for making such a blatant appeal to white resentment — instead, he won the Iowa caucus.

An Odd Video

Recently, I watched an educational children’s video produced by a company part-owned by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate (and current Fox News host). The video series, called “Learn Our History,” is meant as a corrective to a left-wing interpretation of the American story.

In one episode, a group of children are transported to Washington, in the late 1970s, a time when, we are told,“people are out of work and some of their morals are just gone.” The group, walking down a cartoon version of a street from “The Wire,” is confronted by a black mugger in a tank-top emblazoned with the word “Disco.” (Yes,“Disco.”) The mugger says to the time-travelers, “Gimme yo money!”

I asked Huckabee why the video advanced this particular stereotype. We had been speaking about the rationale for the video series, and he had just finished telling me that the project was meant to encourage moral leadership. Then he told me he had nothing to do with writing the show’s scripts, but it was his impression that the mugger wasn’t meant to be black. In any case, we were talking about a cartoon, he said, and cartoons traffic in“caricature.”

This is something cartoons share with many of today’s leading Republicans.


By: Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, January 31, 2012

February 1, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, GOP Presidential Candidates, Racism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Day Of Prayer And Fasting”: Rick Perry’s Houston Dog Whistle

The definition of a political “dog whistle” is a communication (or series of communications) that convey to key members of an interest or constituency group gratifying but potentially controversial affirmations of their views without the mainstream media or the broader electorate catching on. By that standard, Rick Perry’s big “day of prayer and fasting” in Houston over the weekend was a very successful dog whistle.

Mainstream and secular-conservative media coverage of the event (dubbed “The Response,” itself a dog whistle reference to an ongoing series of dominionist events operating under the brand of “The Call” aimed at mobilizing conservative evangelicals to assume leadership of secular society) generally concluded that it was a largely “non-political” gathering–just some Christians upset about the bad economy and their own moral failings who got together to pray over it.

A few reporters who watched and listened more carefully, and had a Christian Right decoder ring on hand, had a very different take. Religion Dispatches’ Sarah Posner, who knows the ins and outs of dominionist thinking exceptionally well, and who attended the Houston event, explained its intent as an act of political mobilization:

“[C]ommand” and “obedience” were the day’s chief buzzwords for many speakers, as repentance was required on behalf of yourself, your church, and your country for having failed to commit yourself to Jesus, for having permitted abortion and “sexual immorality,” for failing to cleanse yourself of “filthiness,” and to repent for having “touched what is unclean….”

The people who gathered at Reliant Stadium are not just Rick Perry’s spiritual army, raised up, as Perry and others imagine it, in the spirit of Joel 2, to sound an alarm and prepare the people for Judgment Day. They are the ground troops the religious right set out four decades ago to create, and duplicate over generations, for the ongoing culture wars. One part of that army is people like Perry himself, supported by religious right political elites who aimed to cultivate candidates, advocates, and political strategists committed to putting God before government.

That a sitting governor would laugh off charges that his “instigation” of an exclusively Christian–and, more specifically, a certain kind of Christian–event is proof of the success of the cultural and spiritual warriors, who believe they are commanded to “take dominion” over government and other spheres of influence. Perry is their man in a high place, in this case an especially courageous one, willing to rebuff charges from the “radical secularists” that he’s crossed the line between church and state. That makes him something much more than just a political or spiritual hero; he is an exemplar.

Slate’s Dave Weigel was also in Houston, and his report debunks the talk of the event being “nonpolitical” by understanding, like Posner, the political freight of the particular strain of evangelical Christianity mostly represented there:

[According to] Pete Ortega, one of dozens of people who’s come up from San Antonio on buses from John Hagee’s church…there is nothing political about the event, he says. He just wants to praise Perry.

“If this is successful here,” he says, “I think other governors, or other politicians, will come out of the closet. Christianity is under attack, and we don’t speak out about it.”

That’s the brilliance of what Perry has done here: These ideas don’t contradict each other at all. He doesn’t need to talk about politics, or do anything besides be here and understand this event. The religion is the politics. These worshippers understand that if they can bring “the kingdom of God” to Earth, economic problems, even macroeconomic problems, will sort themselves out….

The soon-to-be Republican presidential frontrunner, who is best known among liberal voters for raising the prospect of secession and for presiding over hundreds of executions, has just presented himself as a humble messenger of obvious biblical truth. “Our heart breaks for America,” he says. “We see discord at home.

We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government.” It’s one day since S&P downgraded America’s bond rating, in part because the agency worried that conservative Republicans had proved that they would never agree to a debt-reducing bargain that included tax increases. Perry was pulling off an impressive act of transference.

Observers who don’t get any of what Posner and Weigel are talking about are in effect assisting him in the effort to execute his dog whistle appeal to activists whose world-view is entirely alien to nearly all secular Americans and most mainstream Christians. But just because much of the country can’t hear it doesn’t mean it cannot serve as a powerful inducement to political activity in a presidential nominating process where small determined groups of people can have a big impact.

By: Ed Kilgore, The Democratic Strategist, August 8, 2011

August 9, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Conservatives, Democracy, Elections, GOP, Government, Governors, Ideologues, Ideology, Journalists, Media, Politics, Press, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Increases, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Teaparty, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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