Over the last half-century, politicians have exploited a public discourse emphasizing fear of nonwhites. This is “dog whistle politics,” a dynamic grounded in powerful racial narratives expressed in coded terms. The code allows these racial stories to be defended as benign, even as they are intended to stir fear and anger. But stoking racial anxiety is not the main point. These narratives channel anger against nonwhites into resentment of government, thereby eroding its ability to rein in the power of concentrated wealth.
The basic formula is brutally simple: fear people of color; resent government; trust the market.
The deepest question of our time is whether we can reverse this dynamic. California was ground zero for this sort of divisive politics, as the tattered state of its public life reflects. Can California lead the way, too, in repudiating dog whistle politics and reweaving the social contract?
The Shift to Coded Racism in American Politics
Race has always been central to American politics, for instance in debates about slavery or regarding westward expansion. In the middle third of the 20th century, though, race was pushed to the background. It’s not that this era—spanning the Great Depression and the New Deal to the Great Society—had gotten past racism. On the contrary, the political structure of the country so deeply internalized racism, with Southern Democrats in particular defending white supremacy, that there was little surface debate about race. The country proceeded in a period of racial stability that reflected, not racial justice, but thorough oppression.
The civil rights movement shattered this false calm, forcing racism back into the national conversation and in turn into national politics. Yet the very success of the civil rights movement prompted a shift in how race would influence politics:
express endorsements of white interests would largely disappear, replaced by coded dog whistles that silently stoked racial resentments.
Nationally, the Republican Party early on grasped the potential of racial manipulation. Recognizing that Democrats depended upon a coalition of working- and middle-class whites, African Americans, and progressives, the GOP saw race as a potential wedge that could shatter this alignment. As the conservative journalist Robert Novak reported after attending a 1963 meeting of the Republican National Committee, “a good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party.”
It’s important to stress that this was strategy, not bigotry.
Up to that point, the Republicans along with the northern Democrats had been roughly equally committed to civil rights, while it was Southern Democrats who had fashioned themselves as the White Man’s Party. In effect, the GOP decided to offer white voters a racial bribe to cast their lot with the business interests that formed the traditional Republican constituency.
Dog Whistling Comes to California
Dog whistle politics arrived in California in 1964. Partly it did so in the person of Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president. Even more powerfully, race baiting in 1964 shaped California politics through the initiative process, in the form of Proposition 14, which aimed to roll back recently enacted civil rights laws forbidding racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. This was classic dog-whistling: the
proposition 14 never mentioned race directly, instead promising to limit the power of government to regulate to whom one could rent or sell.
Here was the basic formula in action: (1) draw attention to the threat of racial integration; (2) redirect resentment toward government as intrusive and excessively protective of minority rights; and (3) extol private market decisions as the surest way to protect white interests. Proposition 14 won in a landslide, though the US Supreme Court subsequently saw through the colorblind façade and struck it down as unconstitutional racial discrimination.
Proposition 14’s stunning electoral success made clear to politicians that the racial resentments roiling the South were national in scope, afflicting even California, which otherwise fancied itself as socially progressive and on the leading edge of modern life. Ronald Reagan was quick to sense this shifting terrain. An actor of modest success, he had most recently worked as a spokesperson for GE, though it was his speechifying for Goldwater that raised his profile among California businessmen looking for a champion. Reagan campaigned for governor in 1966 by endorsing the right of whites to racially discriminate in the housing market, and also by railing against welfare abuse and the break down in law and order in the inner cities and on college campuses. A champion of business, he used culture war politics to position himself as a populist, winning support from a significant segment of the white working and middle-class for a politics hostile to redistributive government spending and sympathetic to the interests of large corporations.
Three themes, already evident in the 1960s, came to define dog whistle politics in California: voter initiatives; California in the lead; and upward wealth redistribution.
First was the role of voter initiatives, as in Proposition 14. A progressive innovation from the early twentieth century, California politics elevates direct democracy as a mechanism to set policy and even to amend the state constitution. Inspired by the ideal of unfettered majorities taking power back from the rich few,
the initiative process nevertheless remains vulnerable to manipulation by the wealthy
insofar as they easily fund referendum campaigns. Moreover, meant to empower majorities against (wealthy) minorities, popular democracy also facilitates the majoritarian oppression of (racial) minorities. As leading race theorist Derrick Bell would lament, “ironically, because [direct democracy] enables the voters’ racial beliefs and fears to be recorded and tabulated in their pure form, the referendum has been a most effective facilitator of that bias, discrimination, and prejudice which has marred American democracy from its earliest day.”
The history of California dog whistling can be told as a series of racially charged initiatives. The most infamous include Proposition 187, the so-called “Save Our State” referendum championed by Governor Pete Wilson in 1994 that sought to ban undocumented immigrants from schools, hospitals, and public assistance. His ad for the initiative, featuring photos of migrants running up an interstate highway while a somber voice intones “they keep coming,” powerfully exemplified coded race-baiting, casting the shadowy migrants as the enemy of people who “worked hard, pay taxes, and obey the law.” Passed by a large margin, most of Proposition 187’s provisions were struck down by a federal court for interfering with the power of the federal government to legislate in the area of immigration—only to have Congress enact many of these provisions two years later. Also infamous is Proposition 209, the cynically titled California Civil Rights Initiative successfully promoted by Ward Connerly in 1996 to end affirmative action in California in schools and universities, contracting, and state hiring.
These are only several of a multitude of “racial propositions,” to use the phrase offered by Daniel Martinez HoSang in his excellent book of the same name dissecting these initiatives. In addition to Propositions 14, 187, and 209, already discussed, others include Proposition 21 (1972), seeking to block school integration; Proposition 1 (1979), ending busing to promote school integration; Proposition 63 (1986), declaring English the official language of California; Proposition 165 (1992), seeking to slash welfare benefits, particularly to mothers; Proposition 184 (1994), adopting a three-strikes provision in criminal sentencing; Proposition 227 (1998) curtailing bilingual education; and Proposition 54 (2003), which sought to end the collection of racial data. As this timeline suggests, racial politics was central to California for decades—but may now be waning, with no recent racially charged initiatives. (Other culture wars continue to be fought by initiative, for instance Proposition 8 in 2008, which sought to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.)
California in the Lead
The second major theme involves California as a harbinger for national dynamics. The dog whistling that Reagan perfected as governor, for instance, he would take to the whole country as president. As Thomas and Mary Edsall comment, “Reagan’s years in the California governor’s mansion were a training ground in the politics of race, rights, and taxes” that would remake the country beginning in the 1980s. Likewise, the anti-immigrant laws that played well in California spread nationally, as did draconian shifts in criminal sentencing that would come to undergird federal law and would fuel mass incarceration. The state-level campaign against affirmative action also spread quickly to other jurisdictions.
California pioneered in dog whistling because the demographic changes that are only now reshaping the country swept through that state relatively early.
This may, however, also offer the possibility that California can lead the way in the recovery from dog whistle politics. Today in California, whites are no longer a majority, and not even the largest plurality, a position held since the summer of 2015 by Latinos. Reflecting this new demographic reality, while the politics of racial aggrievement may still play well in some pockets, at the state level it has all but disappeared. That said, dog whistling always involved much more than the manipulation of racial resentment, and whether California can lead in repairing the damage done by racial politics depends on whether its polity and politicians fully grasp its most important consequence, discussed next.
Upward Wealth Redistribution
Third and most importantly, from the outset racial politics in California connected race to resentment of government, thereby engendering support for policies that undercut the broad middle and transferred wealth and power to the very rich. One sees this in Proposition 14, which sought to curtail civil rights in housing and in turn spurred the political mobilization of wealthy suburban whites. As one of California’s most acute social critics, Mike Davis, observed in 1980, the “most powerful ‘social movement’ in contemporary Southern California is that of affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in the defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.” California’s racial propositions must be understood through their structural impacts. These were not simply symbolic expressions of racial resentment.
Instead, they shredded the social contract for people of color, tearing away access to decent schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and social assistance, while exposing entire communities to the shattering forces of over-policing and mass incarceration.
Moreover, the social and economic consequences of racial politics inevitably radiated out far beyond nonwhite communities. No state proposition better exemplifies the structuring power of race than one rarely seen through a racial lens but of tectonic importance to California: Proposition 13. This 1978 initiative substantially rolled back property taxes while hamstringing the legislature by imposing an almost insurmountable supermajority requirement for any new taxes. Its consequences have been profound, essentially defunding local governments while seriously undermining the state’s fiscal health. Proposition 13 continues to hammer California’s ability to fund the sorts of progressive efforts, from education to infrastructure, that are prerequisites to a broad, shared prosperity.
Race was both nowhere and everywhere in the Proposition 13 campaign. On the surface, the issues were rapidly increasing property tax bills that reflected rising home prices in an era of high inflation, as well as a large budget surplus that voters wanted to see disgorged. But earlier efforts to repeal taxes by popular referendum had failed by large margins, even as recently as six years before. Proposition 13’s success seems instead to lie in newly pressing racial concerns that created hostility among many toward government spending priorities.
In a decade when immigration from Asia and Latin America was increasing, resentment toward government services for nonwhite immigrants spilled over into opposition to paying taxes. The conservative columnist William Safire made this abundantly clear in a New York Times essay endorsing Proposition 13 when he identified the “underlying reason” for the tax revolt as “illegals—aliens fleeing poverty in Mexico—who have been crossing the border by the hundreds of thousands.” “Whether they are derided as ‘wetbacks’ or welcomed as ‘undocumented persons,” Safire wrote, “their children born here—all United States citizens—require public schools and other services usually financed by property taxes. As one might expect, property taxpayers see themselves giving much more than they are getting, they see wage-earners, both legal and illegal, getting more in services than they pay for in taxes . . . [so] the property taxpayers have rebelled.”
In addition, and probably more fundamentally, opposition to property taxes connected directly to anxiety about integrated schools. Many perceived Proposition 13 as a bulwark against school integration and equitable school funding. By 1978, the California courts had decided two major school cases: one required busing in order to integrate Los Angeles schools; the other commanded that the state finance schools equitably, in effect redistributing resources from wealthy school districts rather than continuing to tie school funds to the local tax base. The ballot material circulated in support of Proposition 13 explicitly noted that cutting property taxes would dry up funds for busing. Simultaneously, Proposition 13 boosters repeatedly queried why voters should pay to educate someone else’s children. Within months of the proposition passing, the state abandoned its effort to level up poor school districts; instead, after Proposition 13, wealthy districts slashed their tax contributions, effectively leveling all schools down. And as to busing, that was formally ended the very next year, by Proposition 1.
One last fact about Proposition 13 bears mention, to more directly connect it to dog whistling as technique to build popular support for the interests of the plutocrats: of the seven billion dollars in immediate tax cuts enacted by Proposition 13, fully five billion went to corporate pockets. Local chambers of commerce as well as realtors’ associations had extensively promoted the proposition. Yet, it’s also true that some major corporations opposed the initiative, concerned it would bankrupt the state. It seems likely Proposition 13 came at a moment of transition. In the 1960s and 70s, politicians used dog whistling primarily to win votes. By the 1980s, though, it had become abundantly clear that racial appeals could turn voters against government, thereby engendering support for massive tax cuts and other policies that hugely favored the very rich. Proposition 13 fueled that transition, demonstrating that using racial fears to shred the social contract could be worth billions to corporations in the short run, whatever the long term damage to the state and society.
1. The power of direct democracy in California highlights a central question relevant nationally: Who are the minorities against whom the majority will act? In the progressive era, they were the financial titans who presumed to buy the legislature. In the civil rights era, the targeted minorities were people of color. For democracy to serve progressive ends, we must work vigorously to build a shared sense that “the majority” is all working people, undivided by color or immigrant status.
2. Some find hope in that California is now majority non-white with the country likely to follow suit, as if those facts alone guarantee an end to dog whistle politics. But beyond getting past pervasive appeals to racial anxiety, we must reweave the social contract. Our greatest challenge is to rebuild confidence in the power of government to help everyone and a “public” in which all participate. Having shaken off divisive racial pandering, California now must build a broadly shared prosperity. If California can lead the way here, too, then investing in California’s effort to fashion an inclusive sense of linked fate is an investment in the future of the whole country.
3. We must focus equally on race and economics. We cannot default to a class-first approach because without addressing race,
we remain vulnerable to the narrative that says government programs fostering shared prosperity should be rejected as free stuff for undeserving people of color.
For progressives, this is perhaps the deepest insight from the dog whistle politics nightmare we’ve lived for the last half-century. Whatever issue progressives care about—from those centrally connected to race, like welfare, schools, mass incarceration, and mass deportation, to those seemingly tangentially about race, such as infrastructure, repairing the environment, regulating banks, and campaign finance reform—we need government on the side of people, not corporations. Every progressive must see how race is used to create fear and division, imperiling our ability to make government responsive once again to “we the people.”
Ian Haney-López is the John H. Boalt Professor at UC Berkeley Law, the Director of the Racial Politics Project at the Haas Institute, and the author of Dog Whistle Politics.